BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER OF OUR LORD, JESUS CHRIST, THE FATHER OF MERCIES AND THE GOD OF ALL CONSOLATION (2Cor.1:3). With these words of blessing St. Paul begins one of his most difficult pastoral letters. This letter was challenging for him to write because of the painful, tension-filled relations obtaining with the community of Corinth. In its present form it is also difficult for the reader to interpret. Certain of its abrupt transitions admit of various explanations, and references it contains to concrete circumstances that Paul was confronting as he wrote are obscure for us today. At the same time, it contains some of the most elevated thought and expressions found in the Bible. This brief blessing in which recognition and praise is rendered to God as Fa ther of Christ Jesus and of all of us who receive his mercy and consolation is one of most exalted things he wrote. God is Father who exercises his Fatherhood less by authority and power than by showing mercy repeatedly and consoling with spiritual gifts those in need of consolation. If Paul speaks here with his own recent experiences in mind, he also seeks to address himself to each of his readers so that we too might learn by experience what it is to have God as our Father.
This teaching was not lost upon the Church. Jesus himself had already given such prominence to prayer to Our Father in Heaven that his apostles saw to it that this form of ad dress was frequently on the lips of believers. They succeeded largely. From earliest times the public and private prayer of the faithful have both addressed God chiefly as Father. What this title conveys concerning the nature of God and his way of dealing with us is a large topic that requires and deserves our attentive and repeated reflection and study. The fuller and more accurate our conception of what Scripture and tradition tell us it means to have God as our Father the more spiritual profit we can derive from hold ing this article of faith and living by it.
If this study has always held a particular importance for Christians, this year it is brought to our attention in a more formal way. Pope John Paul II has proclaimed this year of our Lord, 1999, the final year of the second millennium, as the Year of God the Father. The purpose of this declaration is to increase our faith in God the Father as the source of all our good and the end of our striving. Jesus himself defined his life's work as the revela tion of the Father in view of leading us all to enter into His presence as members of His Kingdom. I speak what I have seen in the presence of my Father (John 8:37). His own person is so united with the Father that he can say to Philip:He who sees me sees the Father. And how do you say show us the Father ? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you, I do not speak from myself; the Father who abides in me himself performs the works (John 14: 9, 10).
The doctrine that God is Father was already believed by the Jews, though it was far from being a central or even prominent feature of their faith. The references to this title of God are rare in fact, though significant. In the Torah it is found only seldom, and even then by indirection in the first instance. In Exodus, Israel is called God's first-born son (4:22), thus implying that God is his Father. However, the name Father is not affirmed of God in this passage. Deuteronomy 32:6, on the other hand, explicitly calls God Father in a memorable sentence. Is not He your Father, your Possessor? He made you and established you. There are but a few passages in the prophets that designate God by this term: in Jeremiah, Malachi and a couple of times in second Isaiah. On at least one occasion in Proverbs and a few times at leastin the Psalms as well, without actually naming God Father, the authors compare him to a human father. Ben Sirach has three passages that ascribe the same title to God (23: 1, 4; 51:10). All three associate it with the added title, Lord , in a way that displays the Jewish tendency to associate the concept of authority with that of father: Lord, Father and Ruler of my life Ruling power is one of the major attributes of God in the Hebrew Bible and here that idea is pretty much what father stands for in this passage. Other aspects of fatherhood also figure in Israel's use of this title. God is the Father of Israel because He is their creator and the giver of the covenant. He chose them as a people, and cares for them. Other functions of a father ascribed to God are correction and deeds of mercy. When one considers the Hebrew Bible as a whole, it becomes evident that only relatively few scattered texts witness to this view of God as Father in Jewish thought and piety. Much more common are the titles King, the God of our fathers, the Eternal, the Mighty One, the Holy One, the Lord. Jewish piety was far more familiar with these appellations and employed them freely in their liturgies and prayers, as can be seen by perusing the Jewish Daily Prayer book. There I found one reference to God, the merciful Father, and many to God as King, Lord, Holy One.
In the New Testament the case is far different both in terms of the frequency of use and in regard to the function and attitude of the Father. The fuller implications of the fact that God is Father were revealed only through the Incarnation of his only begotten Son, the Word made flesh. In John's Gospel alone the word Fatheras applied to God occurs some 115 times. It is frequent as well in the Synoptics and other NT writings. In a certain manner the very purpose of Jesus' birth among us and of his teaching and suffering and death can be summed up by saying that he came to reveal the Father. His role was to demonstrate by word and example what it means when we say that God is Father. St. Matthew's Gospel in the great Sermon on the Mount, includes a number of passages that reflect Jesus' concern to interpret the fact that God is the Father in heaven. The most decisive feature of the Father's nature and dealings with human beings is not easy for our race to grasp and put into practice. Jesus is very explicit and insistent in preaching this point of revelation. God is not only lawgiver and creator, He is also the Provider and cares for all his creatures. Accordingly, the Lord declares that his followers are to imitate the Father in his mercy and love for all. In this way they will attain to perfection.
I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who speak ill of you that you might be sons of your Father who is in heaven and who makes His sun rise on the good and the evil....Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5: 44, 45, 48).
St. Luke also singles out this feature of God's way of relating to us as having a particular importance for our behavior. He cites the same characteristic of the Father but instead of speaking of our imitating His perfection, he urges us to model ourselves after his mercy. In effect, he makes mercy the defining feature of the Father's perfection.
But love your enemies, do good and lend to those from whom you expect no return, and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind both to the ungrateful and the evil. And so be merciful as your Father is merciful ( Luke 6:35, 36).
Other Gospel texts inculcate this same lesson concerning God's mercy. One of the best known is St. Luke's Gospel account of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Our Lord depicts God in this story as a wronged Father who is so concerned for his wayward son that he overlooks his own rights and dignity and anxiously awaits the return of one he loves tenderly. His forgiveness is spontaneous and generous. There is no mention made of guilt, no reproaches cast upon the sinner, only a joyous welcome back home. This Father loves with a tenderness usually associated with mother-love.
St. James also depicts the Father as a generous and willing giver of the best of gifts.
Every best gift and every perfect present is from above, descending from the Father of lights, in whom there is no change, no shadow of alteration. He willingly gave us birth by the word of truth that we might be as it were the first fruits of his creatures (1:17, 18).
Here again the Father's love approaches the maternal. His readiness to give flows from his very nature which is spotlessly pure. There is no mention in either of these texts of the Father's power or authority, though obviously He possesses both infinitely. These are at the service of merciful love that is quick to forgive and ready to bestow favors in abundance.
Jesus understood his whole mission on earth to be a response to the Father which he gave in a continuous communion with Him in the course of carrying out the commission he had been given. St. Luke strikingly affirms such a union exists between Jesus and his Father in heaven. All things are handed over to me by my Father. And no one knows who the son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the son and those to whom the son reveals Him (10:22). The fourth Gospel affirms the same truth no less pointedly. I am not alone but I and the Father who sent me.... I am the one who gives testimony of myself and the Father who sent me gives testimony of me (John 8: 16, 18). Later on in his life, Jesus went further and disclosed how fully he was identified with the Father. He replied to Philip in surprising language which will always confront us with a transcendent mystery.
He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say "Show us the Father"? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak of my own; the Father who remains in me Himself does the works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me (John 14: 9-11).
Most important in the way of example is the fact that Jesus was obedient to the Father in all things, even unto the death of the cross. His passion and crucifixion and his descent into death were accepted by him with a willing surrender because he understood them to be the cup which his Father wished him to drink for the salvation of the world.
Basing themselves on such texts as these the Church Fathers were able to arrive at profound insights into the relations between the Father and Son and their Holy Spirit and to define them in terms of the equality their persons and the unity of their nature.
Gregory of Nanzianzan in the course of the Christological and Trinitarian debates of the fourth century associates God's royal dignity and power with his Fatherhood in one of his hymns. He presents God's purpose in creating as the desire that all creation would sing his praises. Gregory then adds: Above all others, let the creature who reasons celebrate him always as the great King and good Father (Cf. P.G. 37: 511 cited by Pope John Paul II, Incarnationis Mysterium, §3, Origins, 28: no. 26, p. 452)
The habit of praise is an attitude and way of acting which was prominent in our Lord's life. The Gospels are at pains to preserve instances where Jesus gave ardent expression to his love for the Father in prayer of praise and blessing. His confession of praise in St. Luke is one of the most striking examples. I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and of earth that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to children. Yes, O Father, for this has been your good pleasure (Luke 10: 21).
Praising God is not only a privilege and a high duty of all his children, it is also an activity that contributes to the fuller development of the mind, heart and spirit. Praise is a fruit of a well-ordered love that gives God his due, as far as that is possible to a creature. Monks employ a great deal of their lives in singing the praises of God. The collection of Psalms that provides the main elements of the public prayer of the Church is designated in English The Psalter, in Hebrew is known as the Book of Praises (Sepher Tehillim).
The prayer of praise, to be sure, is incumbent upon all Christians and is a never-failing source of grace and of blessing for the Church and the whole world. The Holy Father has stated that it is one of the purposes of the Holy Year of 2000 AD to stimulate this form of prayer in the Church. The holy year must therefore be one unceasing hymn of praise to the Trinity, the most high God....May this hymn to the Trinity for the incarnation of the Son rise with one voice from all who have been baptized and share the same faith in the Lord Jesus (op. cit., §3, 4, pp. 447, 448). Union of mind and heart in the one faith is one of the fruits of such praise. It does not flow automatically, however, from such prayer, but must be cultivated by strenuous efforts that are stimulated by our awareness that the God of all perfections, the God of mercy is the one Father of us all. We cannot glorify Him except in union with his Son, Jesus, and with one another and all those who are his members. May we make of our lives the praise of his glory by our prayer and by fashioning a community united in praise and mutual service.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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