22 December 2019

Dreaming dreams and
being brave enough
to do the right thing

The betrothal of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary … a stained glass window from the Harry Clarke studios in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 22 December 2019

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Advent IV)

11 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (united group service)

The Readings: Isaiah 7: 10-16; Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-25. There is a link to the readings HERE.

The betrothal of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary … a panel in the Saint Joseph Window by the Harry Clarke studios in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Kilmallock, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and this is also the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. This evening also marks the beginning of the Jewish festival, Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה), also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorating the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt, bringing light and purity in dark times back into the place where God was worshipped.

Are you looking forward to light coming into your life and into the life of your home, your family, this parish, and this church?

Christmas is upon us, and this morning we light the last of the purple candles on the Advent Wreath, the one representing the Virgin Mary.

Our readings this morning are about choices, about obedience to God’s plans, and about the fulfilment of God’s plans for all nations. The fourth Advent candle is a reminder of the Virgin Mary and her obedience, her choice, her ‘Yes.’

But the Gospel reading also reminds us that Saint Joseph says ‘Yes’ too, even if he says it silently. He has no scripted lines, he has no dramatic parts or roles; indeed, he is mute. But he is obedient. And, like Joseph, his namesake in the Old Testament who is named in our psalm (Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19), he too is the dreamer of dreams and the doer of deeds.

Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary are engaged, but the marriage contract has not yet been signed, she has not yet entered into his house.

If the Mosaic law had been fully observed by Joseph, Mary could have faced ‘public disgrace,’ even stoned to death.

Joseph is righteous and observes the Law. But he is also compassionate and plans to send her away quietly, without public shame.

The angel of the Lord tells Joseph of his role: through him, God’s promises will be fulfilled in the child to be born. And Joseph names the child Jesus.

The fear of sneers, of judgmental remarks and wagging fingers, must have been running through Joseph’s mind like a nightmare. Yet the angel in Joseph’s dream promises: ‘He will save his people from their sins.’

It is not a promise of immediate reward. Saint Joseph is not offered the promise that if he behaves like this he is going to earn some Brownie points towards the forgiveness of his own sins; that God will see him as a nice guy; or even that if he lives long enough, this child may grow up, be apprenticed to him, take over the family business, and act as a future pension plan.

Instead, the promised pay-off is for others as yet unknown. The forgiveness here is spoken of in apocalyptic terms. It is more than the self-acceptance offered in psychotherapy. Instead, it is the declaration of a new future. To be forgiven is to receive a future. Forgiveness breaks the simple link between cause and effect, action and reaction, failure and disaster, rebellion and recrimination.

This hope of all the ages, the beginning of the end of all the old tyrannies, the restoration of everything that is and will be, was always meant to take place in a virgin’s womb, in the manger, on the cross.

That is Advent. It is a time of expectation, repentance and forgiveness. It is a time of preparation, anticipation and hope. It is a time for dreaming dreams, and putting behind us all our nightmares.

The dream in our Gospel reading is the dream of Saint Joseph, not the Virgin Mary’s dream. The Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary only in Saint Luke’s Gospel. Saint Mark and Saint John, for their part, give us no account of the birth of Christ, they have no Christmas narrative.

The Very Revd Samuel G Candler, Dean of Saint Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia, suggested in a sermon on this Sunday many years ago: ‘We need sleep because we need to dream.’

Saint Joseph dreamed something wonderful. God would enter the world; God would be born to his new, young wife, Mary. But to believe this, Saint Joseph had to trust not only his dream, but to trust Mary, to trust the future child, to trust God.

Do you love the people you trust and trust the people you love?

To trust the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph must have truly loved her. But trust in this predicament must have gone beyond trust. Joseph must have truly glimpsed what it is to trust God, to have hope in God, to love God, to have faith in God.

Saint Joseph dreams a dream not of his own salvation, but of the salvation of the world.

Do you trust that God is working through the people you love? Do you trust that God is working through people you find it difficult not to love but merely to like … working through God’s people for their salvation?

Saint Joseph has no speaking part; he just has a walk-on part in the Gospel story. But his actions, his obedience to God’s call, speak louder than words.

Yes, God appears over and over again, to men, women, to ‘all sorts and conditions of people.’

But do we trust them?

Can you have faith in someone else?

Can you believe their dreams?

Can you believe the dreams of those you love?

And dream their dreams too?

As Dean Candler urges in that sermon: ‘Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and Jesus will be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear. Amen.’

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ … the Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge … the depiction of Saint Joseph was typical for centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 1: 18-25 (NRSVA):

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Joseph looks after the Child (Image: Englewood Review of Books)

Liturgical resources:

The liturgical provisions suggest that the Gloria may be omitted during Advent, and it is traditional in Anglicanism to omit the Gloria at the end of canticles and psalms during Advent.

Liturgical Colour: Violet (Purple)

The Collect of the Day:

God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Advent Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and ever.

This collect is said after the Collect of the day until Christmas Eve

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)


Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.


Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child … a mosaic in the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, Co Westmeath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)


160, Hark! the herald angels sing (CD 9)

133, Long ago, prophets knew (CD 8)

135, O come, O come Emmanuel (CD 8)

‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ (Hymn 135) … candles light up the chapter and choir stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The hymn suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000).

The Angel speaks to Saint Joseph in his dream … a mosaic in the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, Co Westmeath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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