Father and Son – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
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Today’s Gospel is in many ways Matthew’s ‘annunciation.’ When we speak of the annunciation we think of course of the Gospel of Luke and his account of the angel appearing to Mary. But for Matthew the angel appears to Joseph – in a dream. “Joseph, take Mary as your wife. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus. And he did as the angel commanded him.” But he did a lot more than this. This remarkable man became a true father to Jesus.
And this is enormously important because as Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and in years’ he slowly came to understand God as Father. In the Old Covenant God was ‘Lord’, ‘Creator’, ‘Governor’. But for Jesus God was above all ‘Father’. And he came to understand his mission as opening the way for us to have the sort of relationship with God which is nearest to that of a father and a son. But for Jesus to have come to understand and use this analogy he must have had a wonderfully good and close relationship with Joseph.
I think though that pastorally, this poses a problem. The word ‘father’ arouses feelings which in everyone’s life are necessarily colored by personal experience. Martin Luther for example had a father who would beat him for the smallest offence. He once told a friend that whenever he said the Lord’s Prayer he would think of his own father, who was hard, unyielding and relentless. ‘I cannot help but think of God that way.’
Pastorally I think, for us who minister to others, perhaps in spiritual direction, to help those who have had a bad relationship with their father, to understand what Jesus understood by ‘father’. Jesus’ experience of father was Joseph. This man must have modelled goodness, strength, faithfulness, loving kindness, and the other attributes which Jesus recognized in his heavenly Father. I think one of the most revealing questions to ask someone whom one is helping in their faith journey, is ‘What is your image of God? How do you picture God?’ I spoken to people who have lived with the most awful images of God as father-usually to do with judging, demanding, condemning.
Throughout the history of the Church, there have been fierce arguments about the dangers of images in churches; statues, icons stained glass windows and such like. And there have been periods, such as the Reformation, when images have been smashed and destroyed. But it seems to me that the most dangerous images of God are to be found inside our imaginations. That is where the real iconoclasm should happen. For our images of God are always inadequate, imperfect, provisional. For God is a living God -God is always more.
So maybe it is a question we should ask ourselves. ‘What is my image of God?’ Maybe this Advent something needs to be smashed, so that at Christmas God may be born in us anew.
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Bless you, Rebecca! And bless other instantiations of motherly love, such as those insisting that daughters be respected and given full access to life’s joys, as men typically expect. The history of the church and its spread, when read deeply and with the kind of unconditional love you embody, shows us how we as humans fall short — and the importance of motherly and womanly love and presence in the church’s history. A fine read on this is the 7-book series on “hinges of history” written by historian Thomas Cahill. I love especially the first volume, How the Irish Saved Civilization, but the volume on The Mysteries of the Middle Ages has the fullest treatment of the role of women in the church in making the Renaissance even possible.
The New Zealand Prayer Book used by the Anglican church has this beginning to an alternate version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven”
It’s certainly broader than “Our Father, who art in heaven”
Looking back I can see how my life experience has shaped my ever-evolving image of God. Br. Tristram’s reflection on how – because God is a living God – God is always more than my current, provisional image prompts me to reflect on how this evolution might not only be expected, but perhaps also invited. My prayer is that, as I submit to the Spirit’s guidance, I’ll be able to see when it might be time to make room for a new image of God, one that arises from new experiences gleaned from a commitment to live a faithful and fruitful life.
Our priest refers to god as “the father and mother of us all”. Each Sunday. This resonates with me and my picture of god.
Oh, I really like this. Why not God as mother and father. I have tried to think of God as mother before I have never conceded of the idea of God as mother and father. I will be thinking about this. Thank you.
Hello Brother Tristram and Rebecca…I am grateful for this reflection and resonate due to my own conflicted relationship with my father. Further, I really appreciate Rebecca’s notion of God as Mother. Thoughts?
Hi, Brother Tristram. Thank you for this reflection. It really spoke to me. I wonder if I could ask about the notion of God as Mother. Having become a mother myself last year, nothing has taught me as much about unconditional and absolute love as feeding a hungry baby or cuddling my sleeping son in the middle of the night or reading his favorite book for the hundredth time or the hundred other little sacrifices of time and body that go into motherhood. When I pray, can I see God as our Mother too?
Rebecca, your question is timely, and – who knew? – has a wonderful answer from the 14th century, and the first. Julian of Norwich calls Jesus our mother, because his death gives birth to the church. It’s pretty clear that she is thinking of actual childbirth, so vividly suggested by John’s crucifixion story, where blood and water flow from Jesus’s spear-wound. He is our mother, she says, because he loves us as tenderly as you love your own little one, and gives birth to himself in us by calling ‘all to himself’ as he dies. Yes, you’re allowed to call God your mother. Of course you are. Better minds and hearts than yours and mine have done it before us! Merry Christmas.