Images of the love of God

by
28 December 2011

Jane Williams considers God’s emphasis on learning through love

The whole of Jesus’s life, from birth to death and resurrection, is the revelation of the nature of God. The God who comes to live with us in Jesus is so different from most stereotypes of “god” that it is hard to believe what we see in Jesus — hard to follow the logic of God’s action.

If wealth, position, and security are not necessary precautions, as far as God is concerned, to ensure the safety of Jesus, what exactly does God provide for his Son? The answer is: a family.

First, there is Mary, of course. Mary’s motherly love for her son has been depicted by painters throughout history and throughout the world. Some choose to depict Mary as a queen, gorgeously robed and crowned, to emphasise the importance of what she is doing.

Other artists concentrate on the ordinariness of the bond between mother and child — this could be any mother, any child, and that is part of the power of it. In Edith Phelps’s Wayside Madonna, this is a relationship that anyone can understand, repeated daily throughout the world. Only the blue of Mary’s robe alerts us to the names of this young woman and her child.

If wealth, position, and security are not necessary precautions, as far as God is concerned, to ensure the safety of Jesus, what exactly does God provide for his Son? The answer is: a family.

First, there is Mary, of course. Mary’s motherly love for her son has been depicted by painters throughout history and throughout the world. Some choose to depict Mary as a queen, gorgeously robed and crowned, to emphasise the importance of what she is doing.

Other artists concentrate on the ordinariness of the bond between mother and child — this could be any mother, any child, and that is part of the power of it. In Edith Phelps’s Wayside Madonna, this is a relationship that anyone can understand, repeated daily throughout the world. Only the blue of Mary’s robe alerts us to the names of this young woman and her child.

This is what God chooses for his Son: nothing spectacular or devised for this purpose and no other, just the bond that nurtures all healthy human life. We begin to understand that our ordinary human relationships are shot through with the nature of God.

God’s maternal care for us, God’s emphasis on learning through love, through relationship, through commitment: all of this shines out through the mother and child, who are Mary and Jesus, any mother and any child, but also God and each one of us.

This is what God chooses for his Son: nothing spectacular or devised for this purpose and no other, just the bond that nurtures all healthy human life. We begin to understand that our ordinary human relationships are shot through with the nature of God.

God’s maternal care for us, God’s emphasis on learning through love, through relationship, through commitment: all of this shines out through the mother and child, who are Mary and Jesus, any mother and any child, but also God and each one of us.

But, although most Christian imagination has focused on the mother and child, God also provides for his Son an earthly father-figure. Joseph is not an afterthought, but a vital part of how Jesus is to grow up in God’s world. Joseph protects Mary against accusations of immorality; he gives a home to the mother and child; he rescues them from Herod’s murderous rage.

Joseph’s self-denying love is another image of the love of God. There is nothing in it for Joseph at all: he does what he does out of sheer goodness and grace.

The Gospel-writers do not tell us much about Jesus’s childhood, but we do know that later in life Jesus was known as “the carpenter’s son”, and that his characteristic name for God was “Father”. Whatever Joseph did, it enabled Jesus to see fatherhood as a divine quality.

So God chose well in his provision for Jesus. He chose the relationships that are at the heart of all ordinary human flourishing — relationships that bear witness to God’s own nature.

The one glimpse we have of Jesus growing up is as a strong, independent, intelligent child. He goes to the Temple with his parents to take part in a festival, and he stays to interrogate the learned men about the God who is already calling him on. He soon finds that no amount of learning can give these men what he possesses instinctively: the full wisdom of God.

This is the last of four edited extracts from Faces of Christ by Jane Williams (Lion, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-7459-5522-3).

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