Studies suggest that dreaming is a universal experience, common to all. It is thought most people dream between 4 and 6 times each night. However, most of us are not particularly good at remembering our dreams. Those we do remember, are full of emotional and vivid experiences that leave us baffled or amused or uncertain or scared. They are often quickly forgotten.
For many people, dreams are unimportant and irrelevant. They may hold a passing interest, due to the bizarre nature of the storyline, but little else. There is no expectation that our dreams might have something helpful to say to us.
It may come as a surprise, but dreams, (and visions), occupy a central place in the Christmas Story. Their purpose is to reveal God’s plan, including His protection and direction.
When Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy, he must have thought that she had been unfaithful to him. Mary was in a precarious position. If Joseph abandoned her, she would face a difficult and uncertain future. Joseph obviously cared for Mary and did not want to publicly disgrace her. He planned to ‘divorce’ her in private to avoid a scandal.
Joseph has a dream which not only resolves the tension he is feeling but provides clarity and purpose. An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and instructs him to change his mind about Mary. The encounter is transformative. Joseph’s confidence in the message and the messenger makes him more open, loving, and trusting.
Joseph’s experience illustrates how a dream can alter our perspective and change our behaviour. It is a reminder of God’s commitment to our wellbeing and those we are responsible for.
After the birth of the baby, Joseph has a second dream. An angel of the Lord instructs him to take his newborn child and Mary to Egypt to escape an angry and vindictive King Herod. Joseph acknowledges the danger and submits to the plan, ensuring the safety and protection of his young family.
Following the death of King Herod Joseph receives two further dreams in which he is told to return to Israel but to settle in the small, remote city of Nazareth. Nazareth would offer a quiet, out of the way home for Mary and Joseph to raise their family. Its small size and lack of notoriety would keep their young family out of the eyes of anyone who might be looking for the young Jesus.
The dreams provide an interesting template for people of faith, for people who love God and desire to please Him.
1. We are not the author of our dreams
It might seem obvious, but we do not determine the subject matter of our dreams. Our dreams are a gift. What we do with them is entirely up to us. If you choose to ignore them, so be it. But if God is the author of our dreams, then we need to take them seriously. They may reveal a different path for our life or save us from harm.
2. We provide the context for our dreams
Our dreams speak to what is happening in our lives. When we have a nightmare or ‘bad dream’, there are many possible causes including stress, conflict, fear, trauma, emotional problems, medication, drug use or illness.
It is clear what issues Joseph was grappling with: What does Mary’s pregnancy mean for our relationship? How much danger are we in? How long should we stay in Egypt? Where should we live when we return to Israel? Joseph’s dreams address each of these issues. They also underline an important principle.
‘The reason behind your dream is unique to you.’
3. Making sense of our dreams requires patience, perseverance, and a willingness to learn.
Dreams are for our benefit or those we care for. It is for us to discover their meaning and significance. To do so, we will need to learn the language of dreams.
Most dreams rely on symbols. Experts say not to rely on books or ‘dream dictionaries,’ which give a specific meaning for a specific dream image or symbol.
It is also accepted that there is no single interpretation of any symbol that would hold true for every dream. We, the dreamer, are in the best position to understand what a symbol might mean.
Following the death of our son, my wife had a dream. The thing that captured her attention was the ‘blue’ in Adam’s jumper, like the deep blue in a Lapis Lazuli gemstone. The rich colour remains the symbol of royalty. In our sadness and sorrow this ‘hidden’ message provided encouragement.
‘In the eyes of God, all His children are royalty, even if they choose to resolve their inner pain and conflict by taking their lives.’
However, Joseph’s dreams were characterised by ‘plain speaking.’ The urgency of the matters before him required clear and concise messaging.
Some weeks before our son died, I had a dream in which I saw Adam in his ‘resurrected body.’ It was clear that the dream was about death and the afterlife. I felt an urgency to pray for Adam’s protection and that he might receive the help that he required.
April next year will be the tenth anniversary of Adam’s death. In hindsight, I can see how the dream also prepared me for the trauma that awaited. It provided a backdrop for the emotional and psychological challenges that I would face.
The three wise men also had a dream which could be best described as a ‘collective’ dream in that they each had the same dream. They were warned not to follow King Herod’s orders and reveal the location of the child, as he was plotting the child’s destruction. The dream reveals Herod as a hard-hearted, violent, and deceptive man who is only interested in retaining power whatever the cost.
It is a helpful dream in that it highlights some of the reasons we need to take our dreams seriously.
1. Dreams help us monitor our relationships
Not all our relationships are positive. Some are prejudicial to our standing and wellbeing. Dreams can be devastatingly accurate, uncovering falsehood, highlighting inconsistencies, and exposing deception. They inform us, showing us where we need to exercise caution.
The wise men could have been seduced by Herod’s position and power. They could have felt an obligation to comply with his wishes. They could have rationalised their actions, denying they had a choice in the matter. What they did do was to heed the warning, to act responsibility, and to find another way home.
2. Dreams reveal what is hidden
Most of us put a lot of effort into camouflaging our thoughts and feelings. We can be quite selective in what we reveal about ourselves. Dreams have a way of crashing through this façade. They reveal the secrets of the heart. They pinpoint our blind spots, those things about ourselves that we do not see.
Herod was clearly a schemer, a manipulator, someone who was prepared to falsify his intentions to win an advantage. The wise men were told he could not be trusted, that his ambitions allowed for no rival.
Our dreams may depict a scene with a single message or a sequence of events that tell a story whose meaning might be multi-faceted. All dreams do not have equal significance: some may even defy interpretation.
We may be tempted to think that the more complex a dream, the more important it is. Herman Riffel was a Christian leader who traveled to many countries helping people unlock their dreams. In his book, ‘Your Dreams: God’s Neglected Gift,’ he says,
As we celebrate Christmas with our family and friends let us reflect on the central place dreams occupy in the Christmas Story. Let us also consider how dreams might shape our lives. It is important to remember,