Our Father, who art in Heaven.
So begins the prayer that teaches us to pray. My actual father is in heaven too, which feels quite far and unreal at times. And yet the primary way Jesus talks about God is as Father.
Which leads one to consider Joseph, Jesus' model of fatherhood. Besides the story of Jesus' birth, he only gets passing reference as people try to figure out the upstart rural teacher and miracle-worker, saying . . . isn't this Joseph's son? Joseph is a subtle part of the story, but bedrock enough to be the cultural identity of the surprising carpenter when he goes public with his preaching.
Most of us will never be a father. Since half of us are biologically XX genomes, and the XY's don't all reproduce. But all of us have a father. And all of us are capable of relating to God on some level. And most of us end up in a parental role with someone younger. So looking at Jesus' father this Advent season seems an appropriate way to embrace the story.
Matthew tells the story from Joseph's perspective, Luke from Mary's, and John from a more poetic metaphysical point of view. In Matthew we learn that while Mary and Joseph were slated for marriage, the communal formalisation or acknowledgement of their partnership had not yet occurred, and they did not yet live together. Their lack of prior sexual history means that when Joseph learns of Mary's growing belly, he has no doubt that he is not the father of the child. Today we looked at that passage in the first chapter in our hospital Bible study--so relatable in any culture really, the sense of confusion and betrayal finding out one's future partner has been apparently unfaithful. The pregnancy itself would not be a huge deal in the majority tribe here as proven fertility is a desirable commodity, but for a man to accept (without shaming her) his wife's pregnancy as not his own and to take responsibility for the child. . . well, that would be shocking. Ancestors and decedents are the name of the game. Proceeding with marriage to a young woman who in the entire history of the world would be clearly lying as she claims a holy-Spirit conception . . that is a real plot twist. Yet, his first-respsonse thought is about how to make things easier for HER.
So the first remarkable thing about Joseph: he subverts his rights to do what is helpful for Mary and her baby.
As soon as he starts to think about how to be gracious to her, God sends dreams and angels four times to make the path clear. Marry her. Go to Egypt. Return to Israel. Settle in Galilee. And he acts on every one. Presumably he had a business, a carpentry shop, tools, gardens, family, obligations, land. It can't have been convenient to move regions and countries.
So the second characteristic of Joseph--he's tuned into the supernatural, he's willing to take risks, basically he's a man of faith.
Much of the fragment of the story we get contains movement and discomfort. 160 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the powers-that-be decided on a census, requiring the entire country to re-sort itself into ancestral groupings. That's a long walk. The chaos of the time time means normal inns are full. There has to be some improvisation with a manger. The young child attracts the peculiar visit of magi (scholars with a touch of royalty) which sets off an international incident and security crisis. Once again Joseph has to uproot, at night, on short notice, danger at his heels, into the unknown.
So the third thing we learn is that this father was characteristically protective and proactive.
The last time we hear about Joseph are the Temple stories. When Jesus is 8 days old, his parents take him for circumcision, and when he's 40 days old they return with alternative sacrifices for poor people (turtledoves being cheaper than lambs). Then after the Egypt refugee time, they move back to Nazareth, but continue annual Jerusalem treks to the Temple for Passover. When he is 12, Jesus hangs back at the Temple listening, questioning, learning in the atmosphere of religious debate while his Nazareth group starts the return journey. His parents miss him when the first day's journey is over and anxiously back-track to find him exasperatingly oblivious to their concerns. Jesus seems to be dawning with awareness that he has a Father in addition to a father, and the two claims sometimes compete. an issue his family will continue to struggle with. But Joseph does not seem as upset at Mary from the few sentences we get.
So the fourth thing about Joseph: he respects the traditions, but he doesn't cling to them to ensure his own power. He's on a journey too, one that involves circumcision and sacrifice as signs of the covenant. but one that is about to take shocking new directions with his son. And he ponders, and changes.
Jesus' father-figure on earth: a man of self-emptying kindness, a man of risk-taking faith, a man of alert and reliable protection, and a man with a spirit that both participated in traditions but sought for new meaning, allowing his son to move out and on.
So when Jesus teaches us to pray Our Father . . these are some of the things he must have had in mind. Our Father in Heaven operates on the basis of love--what is best for the church his bride, what is best for the children his family, what is best for creation? That is a bedrock to prayer. We are asking the kind of God who doesn't punish a mystery-pregnancy with shame and isolation, who instead pays whatever cost is necessary to help the apparent transgressor (us) survive and thrive. Our Father in Heaven operates in the realm of the supernatural, the realm of faith, the realm where 5 loaves and 2 fish are enough to feed hundreds, the realm where generosity is the default, the realm where we can confidently take what seem to be risks with faith that all shall be well. Our Father in Heaven has our backs, protecting us, proactively anticipating harm and moving us into better paths. And Our Father in Heaven enjoys tradition but pours out the Spirit to blow away the dust, to shake the room, to make all things new.
It is no small miracle to have grown up with a father who had Joseph-character. My own "dear old dad" (as he signed a rare note) would gladly pay a cost for our good (reference coming to my dorm room at Hopkins once at night to kill an inner-city rat that was not compatible with good sleep and study). He was willing to take risks based on faith I think (like moving from West Virginia to the growing DC suburbs of rural Virginia to start a construction company that employed men whose job options were quite limited). He was certainly protective (reference everyone my sister and I dated, with the possible eventual exception of our husbands, even buying a car in high school for me to drive when he wasn't too happy with my usual ride). And he was loyally traditional while also letting go (reference driving almost every weekend over twisty narrow curves back to West Virginia to be with family but not guilt-tripping a daughter who moved across the globe).
I have now lived almost twice as long with Scott as with my father. So the observations of fatherhood for me are also heavily influenced by him. And like Joseph, like God the Father, like my Dad . . . he has those same qualities of absolute love, such as scouring the you tube to learn how to fix something for a kid; he's the king of dirty jobs, doing hard and messy things for his family that involve plumbing and dead animals and other grossness. He's not a risk-taker by personality, but he is one by faith, and is one of the few people I know who has actually been called upon to save his family's lives in a war and in epidemics, who has consistently walked into harm's way for others. He's protective and proactive, looking ahead for potential harm and creating buffers. And while he likes our traditions, he's always up for learning new things that his children are interested in, so he can participate with them, most notably changing from American football to become a soccer fan, learning the rules of Rugby, embracing bike riding or bread baking or gardening that they enjoy.
These are the men you want with you when you're giving birth in less than hygienic circumstances (believe me I know), running from massacres (know that one too), moving across international borders with kids (check), and keeping grounded in a religious organisational culture while remaining open to the Spirit (trying). Serge has entered a year of prayer based upon the Lord's Prayer. This Christmas, I'm wondering where I trust God, our Father in Heaven, and how that trust would make my prayers more bold. 2020 has been a long series of lowered expectations. Asking for bread, I half-expect stones. And given the good men around me I have no excuse. Praying to lean on God like a pregnant Mary on Joseph, when you're hitting that wall of unable to go on, and you just need a strong shoulder and an encouraging voice.