The lectionary readings for December 22 (Advent IV) are Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; and Matthew 1:18-25. This week I want to look at the gospel reading, and I want to talk about one of the most cherished stories in scripture, a story that nevertheless can be very problematic and even dangerous for those with certain mental disorders.
The gospel reading begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Matthew, of course, does not tell the Lukan Christmas story, with shepherds (ooh!) and glorias (aah!) and no room at the inn (ohhh). We’ll look at that next time. Matthew tells us instead about Joseph. Joseph found out his fiancée was pregnant, and he had every right to disgrace her, even have her stoned to death. But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, and therefore wanted to dismiss her quietly. He did not want to raise someone else’s child, and he did not want to live the rest of his life with the shame of a cuckold. Yet by the end of the story, he had changed his mind completely. He took Mary as his wife, and we see in chapter two that he raised Jesus himself. So what changed?
What changed Joseph was a visit from an angel. While sleeping, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him what to do. The angel informed him that the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. The angel told him what to name the child, and what wonders the child would do. The angel even quoted scripture to back up his story. And Joseph believed. What an amazing story! Joseph believed the voice of the angel, and fulfilled his role in the Holy Family, raising Jesus as his own son.
Scripture tells many stories of people hearing voices belonging to angels, or even the actual voice of God. Abraham speaks with God. Moses. Elijah. Samuel. Paul. And so on. All of these people are considered saints, prophets, apostles, because God chose to speak to them, and they listened to the voice. But they are not the only people who have heard voices claiming to be God. Many mental disorders have hallucinations as a symptom, and often these hallucinations can be in the form of voices telling them what to do. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie version of A Beautiful Mind, the story of Dr. John Nash, a mathematical genius who lived with schizophrenia. In that movie, there are several characters who are not real except to Nash. These characters appear as real as any other, but the things they tell Nash help feed a sense of paranoia and grandiosity. This is not uncommon for people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The hallucinations they experience are often not friendly and pleasant, but instead convince them that they have a special role to play in the world. If the person happens to be religious, then the hallucinations can take the form of religious figures, who tell the person that they have a special role in the salvation story. A role perhaps not unlike that of Joseph, caretaker and stepfather of the Messiah. Some people have suggested that Joan of Arc may have suffered from schizophrenia or another mental illness, which led to her own visions of God.
This is the danger of stories like this. We praise Joseph, and Mary, and all the others for listening and obeying God’s voice. Yet if anyone claims to hear God’s voice today, we diagnose them instead, and we praise them if they are able to silence that voice. We say things like, “God doesn’t speak to us in those ways anymore.” And that’s probably right. I’m confident that most people who hear such voices today are not really hearing the voice of God. But that’s little comfort to someone who does hear them. Perhaps the best thing to do is to be clear on what the God we find in scripture is like. What does God tell people to do? What is God’s overall mission? To cause pain or harm? Or to provide hope and light? And then to train people to “test the spirits,” to test whether a message someone hears is from God or not by setting it up next to what we know of God. If it goes against God’s message in scripture, then we can be confident it is not God’s voice. But if it lines up, if it provides a message of hope and commitment and peace, then how can we say it isn’t the voice of God, even if it is provided to someone who is diagnosable? Perhaps God occasionally uses diseases like schizophrenia to speak to us today. Perhaps Joseph himself would be diagnosed today. It is so hard to tell.
Humility is so important. The humility of Joseph, and of Jesus himself, might be a good guide for us.
Note: I will be publishing an extra post on Tuesday to prepare for Christmas Eve and “Blue Christmas”.
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