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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