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THE BISHOP'S VOICE: The Fatherhood of God

06/16/2017 | Comments

As we celebrate Father’s Day, we should not forget that all human fatherhood derives from the Fatherhood of God. We speak of God as our Father, and we often use our experience of our earthly fathers to understand God as Father. But always the paradigm is the Eternal Father.

There are still some Catholics who are aggravated by the attribution of the title “father” to God. More than that, there is a resistance in some quarters to use even a masculine pronoun to speak of God or to pray to him. I hear this in some of the churches of our diocese. There are always those in the congregation who insist on converting every masculine pronoun referring to God to something “neuter.”  Unfortunately, most publishers of hymns have already emasculated our hymnody, making sure that we do not sing to God as masculine.

Why do we call God “Father”? The simple answer is this: Because Jesus called God his Father, and that should be enough for us. In fact, he called God “Abba,” an affectionate term best translated as “Daddy.” No one questions the fact that Jesus addressed God as Father. But the objection is raised that this is simply an example of how Jesus was influenced by the “sexist” culture of his day. This is the same objection that is raised by those who claim that the Church should ordain women. In other words, Jesus did not ordain women because, when he walked this earth, women were not elevated to the position of priest or rabbi, and Jesus simply caved to contemporary culture.  This is a specious argument at best.

Nothing that Jesus did or said was the result of “pressure” from the culture. To claim this is to make Jesus little more than any other human being — in fact, a very weak human being who could not think for himself, and so bowed to the cultural influences of his day. Jesus is God — a human, yes — but also divine.  What Jesus did — or did not do — is nothing less than part of God’s eternal plan for the world. If Jesus called God his Father, there was a reason for it. If Jesus did not call women to the ordained ministry, there was a reason for it.

To be sure, the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, sometimes uses feminine imagery to describe God. For example, in the book of the prophet Isaiah we read:  “For thus says the Lord: I will spread prosperity over her like a river, like an overflowing torrent, the wealth of nations.  You shall nurse, carried in her arms, cradled upon her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you . . . (Is. 66: 12-13). The use of maternal qualities like mercy and tenderness to speak of God is perfectly understandable. But nowhere does the Bible speak of God as anything but Father — and never as Mother.

We know that God in himself is genderless. God is pure spirit. He does not possess human characteristics. Neither the Bible in general nor Jesus himself tells us explicitly why God is identified as masculine, but we can rather easily appreciate why such language is used. God is called Father by way of analogy.  When we address God as Father, as did his Son Jesus, we understand that God possesses certain attributes that we identify with earthly father; but we know also that God possesses these qualities in a different way.

God is Father because he is the source, the principle of all creation. Our experience of human fatherhood and motherhood in the act of procreation reveals that a father is an agent of conception in a way that differs from mothers. Both procreate, but it is the father who initiates the act and the mother who is receptive. This in no way diminishes the role of the mother. It simply points out that there is a priority to the role of the father.

In the end these kinds of explanations will not satisfy those who are convinced that the use of masculine terminology to speak of God is just a form of sexism. But we should realize that the Church will not change the words that Jesus spoke, nor the language of Trinitarian theology nor the Sign of the Cross made before prayer. These words are not the result of arbitrary choice. They represent divine revelation.

It is my prayer that every Christian father — and this includes priests — will seek to imitate Jesus, who is the perfect image of the his Father.  Jesus is the Bridegroom of his Church. Jesus is the one who so loves his bride that he laid down his life for her. Like Jesus, every authentic Christian father gives himself totally to his bride and his children. It is in and through Jesus Christ that we are plunged into the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, where God is Father of all.

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