“We are such stuff as dreams are made on / and our little life is rounded by a sleep.”
Familiar words of Prospero to his future son-in-law, from Act IV of Shakespeare’s entrancing and slightly mystifying play The Tempest.
Dreams and sleep play their part in the Passion narrative in particularly fascinating ways.
I will take forward thoughts about this in relation to the Passion in a moment, but I would begin with a simple acknowledgement of the dream we all share, I am sure for peace in our world, and not least in Ukraine. The visit of Lord Williams to Kyiv this week, as a simple witness with other faith leaders, from the RC Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and several other faiths represented in the UK was a brave statement of connection, and I hope and pray it was able to speak louder than words.
My eldest is reading English, but has found herself in her final year becoming rather taken with a range of literature, and not least Biblical writing. A study she made of dreams in the Bible, and particularly women’s dreams, caused me to look again at two narratives, which owe a great deal to her close reading of them. if there are any feminist readers of the Scriptures present, you might be intrigued by her findings. I was.
The first of the dreams comes from the Song of Songs, which has strong connections with St John’s account of the Resurrection; and the second is just one little verse in Matthew’s Passion narrative (not John’s which we have just heard), which we don’t often hear preached on because it is sung on Palm Sunday without a sermon normally.
The Song of Songs is an arresting read. It’s only eight short chapters. It’s x-rated material, beware. It’s clearly a conversation between lovers. King Solomon, its author, we see as the first. According to I Kings 11: 3 had 700 wives and 300 concubines. One assumes he knew something about love. From his father, King David, he inherited the gift of poetry. The book is a to and fro between the lover and his belove; which one of the 1000 women in his life is not clear. As with modern novels, not only are there no speech marks, there is no clear indication which of the protagonists is speaking at any one time. Literary scholars love this deliberate enigmatic style.
In 5: 2 we read “I slept but my heart waketh.” And then, “Hark my beloved is knocking.” The beloved is the male lover knocking at the door, his damsel is sleeping but her heart waketh.
The text is a long, mystical poem, elusive and delirious with metaphors such as “a garden inclosed is my sister, […] a spring shut up.” It evokes the idea of trapped love and desire, unable to be found or opened, and the male lover cannot touch this Rapunzel. The female speaker, who sounds as though she is in a trance, opens this book with “let him kiss me with” “kisses” as his love is “better than wine”. This analogy of desire is heightened by the similarity in Hebrew of the verbs to kiss, and to drink: yishshaqeni and yashqeni. This romantic poetry cannot be the language of one who is awake, as it is drunk and disconnected from reality, lost in a world of desire.
While this is fitting, as the images are so palpable, the reader does not quite have access to them, as the images flit too quickly and nothing is ever certain. This is perhaps the beauty of the text, as the dream never remains one clear image.
One Theologian Valentine draws on, Andrew Bishop, puts forward the fascinating idea that certain sorts of sleep in the Bible, equate to a spiritual state: he coins the term Theosomnia – godly or hallowed sleep. What is distinctive about Theosomnia, as opposed to normal sleep and normal reverie, is that the subject finds its deepest longings met in the experience. From the profound sleep of Adam in Genesis, as bone of his bone, his wife is taken from his side, through the dreams of Jacob and Joseph, the great patriarchs of old meet God. Here in the Song though, uniquely in the Old Testament, it is woman whose heart is awakened in sleep, and the significance of this is profound: she is equal to her beloved. There is a symmetry reminiscent of Eden’s primordial equality. While sleeping HER heart waketh.
This sets the scene for the encounter of Mary Magdalene with Our Lord in garden on Easter morning, where of course we find ourselves back in Eden.
That is to jump ahead though.
There is another dream, another woman’s dream, which is easily missed, we barely notice it, it passes in a trice in one verse of the Gospel of Matthew.
Setting aside our Lord, Pontius Pilate is the only human being named in the creed. He is there, because he is historical; he is named by Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, Tacitus, all four Gospel writers, and there are archaeological fragments attesting to him and his time in office between 26-36 AD, in the reign of Tiberias.
It’s arguable how choice a posting Judaea may have been for a Roman official. At a corner of the Empire known for flare-ups and trouble, Judaea was not one of the fancier provinces in Gaul. But Pilate may not have been one of the first division civil servants, and so this may have been as much as a former soldier might have hoped for to line his pockets and establish himself in gracious retirement in Rome.
The reason for this background is because our second dreamer, was Pilate’s wife. By tradition named Claudia Procula – there are no contemporary independent sources to prove either her name or presence in Pilate’s household during his governorship. Tantalisingly there was a tomb uncovered in Beirut, some think it possibly of the second half of the first century. How she ended up there, we cannot know.
Matthew alone of the Gospel writers tells us that during the interrogation of Christ before the governor, his wife sent him a message “Have nothing to do with this righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream because of him.” There is no record of Pilate’s immediate reaction to her intervention; we hear directly of the stoking of the crowd against Jesus, baying for the release, in his stead, of Barabbas, apparently an annual Passover sop to the crowds. Mark tells us Barabbas was a murderer, while John tells us he was a robber. Matthew spares us those details, but Pilate does something he does not do in the other accounts, and this may have been one of the results of his wife’s Theosomnia. He publicly washes his hands. The Roman judge and authority wishes no part in Jesus’s death. For the most Jewish of the Gospels, it is particularly striking that Jesus’s own nation is targeted as having been solely responsible for it. Matthew remembers Procula’s dream and its dramatic consequence is Pilate’s, therefore Rome’s, recusal from the death sentence.
From a literary point of view, critics would say that Matthew uses Procula’s dream as plot driver and a cliff-hanger. But it might be seen as a moment of Theosomnia as well. Procula’s heart is awakened, her sleep is hallowed and she dreams the most striking prophecy of them all, in the context of the Passion. For a woman in antiquity to have clear sight and judgement when all around seemed to be losing their own, Matthew is underlining the travesty of the justice to which Jesus is subject.
A Roman pagan and his wife see what the Jewish authorities and those that follow them will not, that the one being condemned is in fact the only true judge. To extirpate his guilt, the Governor may wash his hands, and seem to distance himself from his part in this distortion of justice. Procula is held as a saint in some of the Eastern Churches, and Origen, one of the early Fathers says of her that her insight makes her a prototype of what and who the Church is. A significant accolade indeed, for one whose part is so fleeting in the Gospel. I cannot say how grateful I was to sit at my daughter’s feet in revisiting the Passion this year.
The Gospel in today’s liturgy has the evangelist quoting the prophet Zechariah, in cadences which are almost shrill, declaring ‘“They shall look on him whom they have pierced.”’ This describes exactly our task as we gaze upon the figure of our Lord upon the cross. We are not looking in horror or fear, but wonder and joy and hope. Procula’s waking sleep revealed correctly “that this just man” was indeed both innocent and just. Like Mark’s centurion at the foot of the cross, Procula sees Jesus for who he is. He is of such stuff as a her dreams are made on. Dreams of restoration and the return to Eden, as in the Song, and John’s account of Easter morning.
The prophet Isaiah had foreseen this in the suffering of the Servant of his songs:
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.