Why do we Christians call God “Our Father”? The answer is pretty simple really, but it’s surprising how even people who go to Church struggle with this, as they also struggle with – Why do we go to Mass? And in each case the answer is….. “Because Jesus told us to.” But there is a bit more to it than that, because when Jesus called God “Father”, he was actually expressing out loud the most important and personal thing in his life. Remember how he said “I and the Father are one” and “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.” (See John 10:27-38) And then, remember how when he was praying in agony and fear at Gethsemane, Jesus calls out in the midst of his tears “My Father”, and then again “My Father”. (Matt 26:36-42) So when we are asked to call God our Father, we are not just being asked to address God in a personal way, but are being drawn by Jesus deep into the heart of God’s love, of the love that is what God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Some people do tend to think however, that speaking of God as a loving Father is something Jesus taught, in contrast to the fierce God of the Jewish Old Testament. But this is not so. Jesus fulfils the old thinking, he does not cancel it. He teaches us how to interpret the Old Testament by selecting those passages that are most important. Indeed not only are there passages there which express the love of God, as a Father, “Oh praise the greatness of our God….Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you? (Deut 32:3-6), (or as in our 1st Reading today Isaiah 25:6-10) but there are even passages that speak of God as being like a mother “This is what the Lord says:. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”
But, of course in the Old Testament, these images of God as a Father are mainly about God as the first origin, the first cause, of all other things. This is very important in its own right, because it makes clear the link between religion and science; which by the way, I was glad to see Brian Cox affirming the other day even though he is not religious himself! He said “So if you want to think there’s an eternal presence that causes things to happen, that’s not illogical” (Radio Times 4-10 Oct) As a physicist, he disagrees with Dawkins, and his stupid idea that religion and science are incompatible; unless of course you think everything in the Bible is literally true and the earth was made in 6 days! Not a teaching of the Catholic Church!
However on its own, as I said last week, this image can make us think of God simply as, yes the first cause – an immense power underlying the Universe – but still remote, and way beyond any personal relationship with us humans. So, many people can say, “Yes, there must be something there, behind all this”, and assume that somehow this gives us life after death. But this doesn’t really make any difference to their lives. Maybe they try to be good, just as the Pharisees did whom Jesus so often condemned, but they do not see that this is not really enough.
It is Jesus then, who shocks the Pharisees and many others around him, by taking the more personal passages from the Old Testament, and making them even more personal. It is in the process of sharing with us his own personal relationship with God, that he teaches us to pray to God as “Our Father”. We take this for granted, don’t we? We say the “Our Father” without realising that every time we do so, we are being drawn into the love of God. This is one of the reasons why it is such a powerful prayer, and therefore why, at Mass, we are asked to use this prayer to speak to God in this most intimate of ways, just before people receive Holy Communion. Indeed those of you who do not receive Holy Communion for one reason or another should aim to use the prayer like this, as you make what the Church calls your “spiritual communion”.
But the other thing we should notice is that calling God “Father” also draws us into union with one another. We do not call God “My Father” as Jesus does, but “Our Father”, and it becomes even more strange as the prayer goes on, because each of us does not pray “May my sins be forgiven” but “Forgive us our trespasses”. So we are praying for one another to God. You are praying for me that my sins may be forgiven, and you are also praying for all the different people around you, even maybe for those who you find most difficult to forgive! Thus significantly the prayer goes on, “As we forgive those who trespass against us” – which is surely the most challenging part.
In the end, it is this personal and communal friendship with Jesus, and thus with God our Father and Creator, that we Christians believe supports and sustains us; especially when we face the hardest things that life can throw at us – most of all sickness, pain, fear and death. Hear again what St Paul can say from prison – because that is where he is in the passage I am about to quote! He can say, as a man who knows how weak and sinful he can be, and who has faced all kinds of hardships. He can say (2nd Reading Phil 4:12-14) “I know how to be poor and I know how to be rich too…. I am ready for anything anywhere.. There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength”. And then, in a prayer that is clearly deeply personal to him, and also ought to be for us too, then he says, “Glory to God the Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”
And Amen means for Paul, and should mean for us every time we say it, “It is true. I really mean this. It is not just words. It comes from my heart.”
“Glory to God the Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”