There was a full moon last week, and I would have known that even if I hadn’t looked at the night sky. Churches and Emergency Rooms see a spike in activity when the moon is full; it defies explanation. On every full moon I receive phone calls from people who have spoken to Jesus or the Blessed Virgin. Every once in a while I meet someone who was conceived immaculately, without the stain of original sin. The people who have these experiences are fully convinced of their validity; I’m not so easy to convince.
Coincidentally, this Sunday’s Gospel relates the story of Joseph receiving guidance from God in a dream. At the time that Joseph and Mary lived, dreams were considered to be a common way that God communicated with people. If Joseph had told his friends that God spoke to him in a dream, his friends would not only have believed him, but probably would have been happy for him that God chose him for some special task.
It is common to find stories in the Scriptures about God communicating with people through dreams and visions. The ubiquity of such events in the Scriptures is a reflection of the tacitly held beliefs of people at the time; visions such as the apostles’ experience at the Transfiguration were considered to be the normal stuff of religious experience.
Attitudes about religious experience have changed, at least in the western world. Scientific and technological advances have made us very skeptical of ecstatic experiences, visions, apparitions and the like. When I have a dream that is strange or startling or unusually vivid it’s because of something I ate the night before. If God was going to speak to me, it wouldn’t be in a dream.
God was smart enough to communicate with Joseph in a way that Joseph could understand, and Joseph was smart enough to pay attention. We should expect the same from God today: that God will communicate with us in ways that we can understand. That, of course, puts the obligation on us to pay attention to God, and to follow God’s will.
Has it ever occurred to you that communication from God is a routine matter? Perhaps you haven’t thought about this because of skepticism that such things are possible or doubt about God’s attentiveness to your prayers. It isn’t really unusual for God speak, and hearing God’s voice is not such a difficult thing to accomplish. As it was in Joseph’s life, the only thing required of us is to pay attention to the normal ways that we can expect to hear such communication from God.
There’s an old joke about a man who lived in an area along the Gulf Coast that was prone to flooding. One year, during hurricane season, a storm developed; the National Weather Service predicted that the storm would come ashore in the area where the man lived. As the area was prone to flooding, everyone was advised to evacuate before the storm arrived. The man thought to himself, “I trust in God. God will protect me from the storm.”
When the storm moved closer to land, the tides began to rise, and in a last minute effort to save the local residents, the Fire Department went through every neighborhood to warn people that their houses would soon be flooded. The man said again, “I trust in God. God will protect me from the flood.”
Finally, the storm came ashore, pushing a huge storm surge of flood water into the man’s neighborhood. The man had to climb onto the roof of his house in order to avoid the flood waters. During a break in the storm the National Guard flew rescue helicopters through the neighborhood to look for survivors. The guardsmen called from the helicopter for the man to get into the rescue harness but he answered, “No, I’ll stay here on the roof. I trust that God will protect me.”
Inevitably, the flood waters rose, and covered the house. The man drowned. When he found himself in Heaven, he complained to God, “Lord, I trusted you! I trusted that you would rescue me from the storm, but here I am dead because I trusted!” God answered, “I sent you a warning from the National Weather Service. Then, I sent the Fire Department to move you to a shelter. I even sent the National Guard to rescue you from the flood. What more do you want?”
What are the normal ways that God communicates with us? God communicates through the Scriptures, through our prayer, and often, through other people. Many years ago, a friend of mine sent me a Christmas card that had been circulated through his office; he thought I might get a laugh from it. The front of the card had a drawing of a risen Christ figure; the drawing had a caption that read, “Jesus loves you.” The inside of the card read, “Everyone else thinks you’re a jerk.”
If you read numerous passages in the Scriptures that refer to repentance, it might be a message from God about the need for change in your life. If your prayer is filled with worries and distractions, it might be a message from God about your priorities. If all your acquaintances complain about you, it might be a message from God about the sad state of your relationships.
Communication from God is no less common today than it was in Joseph’s lifetime. God continues to speak to, and guide, God’s faithful people. God is smart enough to communicate with us in ways that we can easily perceive and understand: through the Scriptures, Church teaching, prayer, our friends and relatives. We have to be smart enough to listen, and courageous enough to act on God’s Word.