Barren Woman, Barren Dreams

Sarah has always intrigued me.

Most of us know her story: in the twilight of her life, her youth long faded, her biological clock long wound down to a halt, Sarah suddenly becomes the recipient of a dream beyond the imaginable. To think that she would be able to have a child at her station in life was rightly ridiculous, and so she laughed. And we know the story–God laughs last, and that blessed incredulity lived on in Sarah’s son Yitzhak. Genesis is rife with people given puns as names: Yitzhak, of course, doesn’t just mean “laughter,” it is laughter. Tzachacha! You can hear Sarah’s bemused chuckle as she feels Isaac’s tiny limbs fluttering in her womb.

I bring up Sarah because the apt juxtaposition of readings in today’s Daily Office has me thinking about the ability of dreams to give shape to our experience of God’s grace. In the passage from his letter to the Galatians St. Paul is expositing the allegory of Hagar and Sarah–instead of quoting from Genesis as the reader expects, Paul quotes a wonderful passage from the prophet Isaiah:

Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.
Enlarge the site of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left,
and your descendants will possess the nations
and will settle the desolate towns. (Isaiah 54.1-3, NRSV)

The irony here is that the prophecy from Isaiah was taken down indeterminable centuries after Sarah’s childbearing gave flesh and bone to her dream, bringing it out of barren supposition into kicking, screaming, laughing, pooping reality. A reality that gives shape and life to the crazy dreams her husband constantly tells her about, that three strangers promised, that sent Hagar into the desert with a dream of her own. It seems as though our dreams come to life in the lives of others, particularly when those others erupt into our lives unannounced and unexpected.

The prophet Isaiah, then, in speaking of these dreams, is not speaking to Sarah (though Paul draws an a propos connection between the two). Isaiah is speaking to a captive people: a people who have all but forgotten to dream, who have all but forgotten the promises made to them. The prophet’s holy task is to rekindle the dream, to reignite the imagination of his audience to begin to conceive a new future: one in which the barren is made fertile and the fortunes of a people fold over on themselves in such abundance that a broken world cannot withstand them anymore. One in which wars cease, bloodshed ends, and the dead are raised. This is the task of the prophet–to call people to imagine, and drive them towards making the things imagined reality.

Is it any shock that our calling as Christians is the same? We are people of a promise, one which has been made good on through the resurrection of Christ. We are raised with Christ, led in the victory procession from the bowels of Hell to the heights of the Kingdom of God. And our response then is not to simply rest on our laurels; as people living in with one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom, we are called to be prophets to a people walking in darkness. Does this mean we’re to convert them to our way of thinking, to our doctrinal strictures, to our political allegiances? God, no. We are to proclaim the dream of a people united in Christ, a people free from warfare, a people freed from the rule of evil and death. Death be damned, the promise is ours, and it yet has flesh and blood.

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