In 1902, a sociologist named Charles Cooley developed a theory called the “Looking Glass Self.” According to Cooley, the way we think about ourselves is formed in large part by what we think the most important people in our lives think about us.
In other words: “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”
Cooley’s theory may or may not be the most accurate, but it does give us a good way to look at our heavenly Father and the effect his love can have on our lives. And though we tend to focus on the baby Jesus during Advent, this is also one of the best times for us to focus on the Father. After all, he is the one who sent his Son into the world on Christmas. And he is the one we will finally see when Jesus comes again and welcomes us into heaven. So let’s take a spiritual angle at Dr. Cooley’s theory: If we are what we think God thinks that we are, then it’s valuable to know what our heavenly Father really does think of us.
Flawed Images. Let’s begin by examining the different ways we may look at God. Then we can compare these perceptions with what Jesus tells us our Father is like.
Some of us tend to see God as a distant, emotionless being who looks on us through the lens of clear, rational logic. In this view, he is not very different from the character Mr. Spock in the television show Star Trek. But it’s very hard to have a meaningful relationship with a God like this. It’s very hard to share much with a being who is pure logic devoid of any love, passion, or compassion.
Some see God as not much more than an extension of their own human father. Now this isn’t so bad if we had a father who was just, loving, kind, and wise. But if our father disappointed us or hurt us in any way, that could make it harder for us to trust God or to believe that he is out for our good. And even if our father was a good and upright person, he still had his own flaws and limitations—and these could color the way we think about God.
Some think that God is a harsh judge, a sheriff in the sky ready and even eager to punish us every time we violate his commands. Rather than use our sins and mistakes to teach us and help form us, this kind of God only burdens us with guilt and lack of self-respect. But who needs a God like that—a judge who burdens me with guilt, when what I really need is a way to get free from these burdens?
Misguided perceptions of God like these can cause us to form negative opinions of ourselves. We can feel guilty or ashamed, like failures who simply cannot measure up.
Now compare these images of God with this description from Pope Benedict XVI: “God is not a relentless sovereign who condemns the guilty but a loving Father whom we must love, not for fear of punishment, but for his kindness, his quickness to forgive.”
Then there is also the description of God that comes from Jesus himself. He spoke of a God who forgives and welcomes the sinner back (Luke 15:11-32). He spoke of a Father who is so intimately involved in our lives that he has counted every hair on our heads (12:5-7). He spoke of a Father who rewards even the most secret of good deeds and acts of generosity (Matthew 6:1-4).
The truth is, our heavenly Father treasures each and every one of us. As St. Augustine once said: “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us to love.”
Abba! Father! In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked his Father to take away the cup of death that awaited him. Here, in his darkest hour, he prayed: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. . . . But not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36). “Abba” is an Aramaic word that means “Dad,” “Daddy,” or “Papa.”
Blessed Pope John Paul II described it this way: “The word Abba is taken from the vocabulary of family life and speaks of the personal communion between father and son. . . . When Jesus used this word to speak of God, his hearers must have wondered and even been scandalized. An Israelite would not have used it even in prayer. Only one who regarded himself as Son of God in the proper sense of the word could have spoken thus of him” (General Audience, July 1, 1987)
Now here is something beautiful. If we move forward a couple of decades, we see that St. Paul used the same word to express our relationship to God as Jesus used. Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit, who lives in us, moves us to call God “Abba.” The Spirit actually convinces us that we are God’s children and that he is our Father (Romans 8:15-16). He tells us that nothing can ever separate us from God’s Fatherly love, not even death itself (8:38-39).
So at the center of our Christmas celebration stands a Father who loves us so much that he sent his own Son to set us free from sin. He sent his Son to us so that we might become his own children. Jesus made it possible for us to call God “Our Father,” to address his Abba as our own Abba. So if you ever had questions about how your heavenly Father looks upon you, let the baby in the manger show you that your Dad, your Abba, loves you and treasures you very deeply.
The Promise of Restoration. Most of us look at this baby in the manger and see, as Simeon did, the Christ, who would save us from our sins. Simeon held the baby Jesus and praised God, saying: “my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). And like the prophetess Anna, we see the baby Jesus as the “redemption of Jerusalem” and the redemption of all humanity (2:38). But there is more to Jesus’ coming into the world than redemption and salvation. He came not just to take away our sin but to bring us into a relationship with his Father.
Throughout the Old Testament, we find prophets speaking about the restoration of Israel. Often, though not always, this restoration is linked to the restoration of the people’s relationship with God. For instance, the prophet Hosea promised that God would restore Israel “that we may live in his presence” (Hosea 6:2). Through Jeremiah, God promised: “they will no longer teach their friends and relatives, ‘Know the Lord!’ Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin” (Jeremiah 31:34). And this is exactly what Jesus did for us: he has restored our relationship with our Father. He is the reason why we can feel free to call almighty God “Abba!”
God doesn’t want us to see ourselves as workers or employees in his kingdom. He wants us to see ourselves as his beloved sons and daughters, his ambassadors in this world. He wants us to display his love and compassion to everyone we meet. He wants to restore us to him so that our lives show other people who he is and how wonderful he is. This can happen as we come to believe that Jesus really has restored us to the Father.
A Heavenly Embrace. Every day during this Advent season, let’s remind ourselves that our Father loves us very much. Let’s picture him always reaching out to us. To use the words of St. Hildegard of Bingen, he wants to hug us close to his heart and tell us: “You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”
Your heavenly Father will never stop caring for you or doing good for you. He is constantly showering you with his compassion, his kindness, and his mercy. He wants to open your eyes to his mysteries, to reveal to you the wonders of his love, truths that are beyond the reach of your natural knowledge.
Pope Benedict XVI tells us: “God does not hide behind clouds of impenetrable mystery. . . . He has shown himself, he talks to us and is with us; he lives with us and guides us in our lives.”
So as we meditate on the baby in the manger this Advent, let’s ask this child to point us to our heavenly Father. Let’s ask Jesus to show us the Father, so that we can see him&mdasmdash;and ourselves—in a new and glorious light.
May you all have a holy and blessed Christmas!