Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
“And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
Today we come upon one of those passages in the New Testament that sounds as if we are overhearing someone else’s conversation, in other words, without much context to understand it. The passage from Galatians explains that, with the coming of Christ into the world, our relationship with God the Father has changed. Describing that shift from the Old Covenant to the New, it speaks of how we were once hapless minors, wards in the custody of a righteous yet very stern custodian or guardian…but now, we are children of a Father who – out of love, not law – has made us heirs of His kingdom. The relationship, you might say, has shifted from distant to intimate – to the point where it’s comfortable to call the Almighty “Abba,” the rough equivalent in Aramaic to “Dad.”
Of course, to contemporary ears, two problems arise immediately. In our age, we don’t all automatically presume any sort of personal relationship with God – or even that such a relationship is possible or desirable. Those of us inclined to accept the notion still have a tough argument to make to our non-believing friends that in a world where Newtown can happen, there can be a God good enough to impel us to call Him “Father.”
The other problem is the word itself. Calling God “Father” can shape our thinking in very narrow ways. We can fall into the trap of thinking that the term is limiting, not mainly descriptive. We can lose sight of the fact that saints and sages speak of God as “Mother” just as authentically. And, of course, the term “Father,” even when preceded by “heavenly,” inevitably evokes comparisons with our earthly fathers – good, bad, and indifferent. We all know, whether personally or vicariously, that fathers can be the best and the worst – sometimes inspiring and comforting us and at other times disappointing and, frankly, even terrifying us. Sometimes a father can be both best and worst – as was the case with my Dad. In his younger, angry years, I didn’t want to be anywhere near him; in this later, calmer years, I wanted to be like him.
Yet, despite this tall thicket of problems, I want to go where this passage takes us today because I do believe that it offers a major lesson for our spiritual growth. So this morning, amidst a season that resonates rightly and beautifully with references to Mary and motherhood, I ask you to join me in a reflection on fatherhood.
To begin with the personal, as a child, it was clear to me who my Dad was and what he was like. There was no ambiguity. He was the authority figure in our household, the local Law-Giver. His decisions did not always seem fair or even reasonable but they were certainly definite. Do what he said or risk the consequences. If the paternal reaction seemed to be out of proportion to the filial action, Mom sometimes intervened…but you couldn’t count on it.
Meanwhile, in Sunday School, which I attended faithfully as a child, we were taught that God was the great Father of us all. His knowledge was all-encompassing and his commands were always final. He was the ultimate authority figure and, not unlike my Dad in his favorite chair, He sat on some great throne in heaven. There was no hiding from Him and there was no bargaining with Him. My Roman Catholic friends did go to Mary, the Mother of God, sometimes to try to cut a deal but I was never quite sure how that worked out for them.
Well, I eventually grew older (not up, just older) and, in my young adulthood, it became clear to me all that my Dad was not. I grew past him, it seemed to me at the time, and his influence on me diminished. In fact, while Theo (that was his name) would always be my Dad, obviously, the very relevance of that fact seemed to wane as I presumed to take charge of my own life – living where I wanted to live and doing what I wanted to do. A distance came between us – not just geographical but emotional and practical too. And while I did not trumpet this as good news, I didn’t think of it as bad news either. It was just the way it was.
Ironically, this was the time in my life when I was preparing for the priesthood, and the attitude I held toward my Dad became the one I also held toward that One whom I had known as my heavenly Father. That’s what three years of divinity school can do for you…By the time I graduated; God had actually receded into realm of the abstract. He was far more remote and far less personal. It seemed rational to understand God as a First Mover, as the Source of Being, as the Creator, to use traditional language…but not so much as One to whom we were “related” in any meaningful way. How could anyone who knew just how big and varied and pluralistic and desperate the world was honestly think that?
Now I am well past being what anyone could call a young adult, although I still don’t claim to have grown up fully either, and a favorite quote from Mark Twain sums up my perspective. The years are quite different but the point is the same. To paraphrase, he said, “When I was sixteen, I was aghast at how little my father knew; by the time, I was twenty-one, I was amazed at how much he had learned.”
My Dad has now been deceased eight years. Yet as the years have continued to add up for me, I recognize more and more that I am my father’s son…and that that is a good thing. He taught me more than I ever appreciated at the time. He did more for my brothers and me than I ever recognized in the moment. He supported and encouraged me in ways I only saw after the fact. Just to name a few examples, I love animals and see them as creatures just as deserving of respect as other living beings – because he did. I love the woods and learn from them – just like he did. I am excited by seeing new lands and tasting new food and expanding my horizons – like he did.
Oddly, despite his death, I feel closer to him now than I did in my twenties when he was as close as a three-minute long-distance phone call I hardly ever made.
In the manner of Mark Twain’s anecdote, God has changed in my view too. That Father who seemed so distant for a while has come closer again. (Or, is it the other way around?) There is the option of a personal relationship after all, one that allows me to grow and mature. I wouldn’t presume to call myself wise but I do know that I am wiser because nowadays I welcome and seek a Wisdom that is at once within me and beyond me – a Wisdom that is best described, perhaps, simply as holy.
Importantly, recognizing God as a Father has some stunning implications for how one views the rest of one’s family. A person begins to understand – at the level of the heart and not just the head – that, by God, we really are all brothers and sisters. Whether or not we treat each other that way is an entirely different question, of course…but the potential for family lies in everyone we meet.
All of this leads us back to Galatians, where we started. In that passage, we hear about how our relationship with God has changed. The description of how it has changed may sound anachronistic or out of context to our ears…but maybe the real lesson for is deeper than the particulars. Maybe the real lesson is that our heavenly Father is not some remote and impersonal force. We can and do have a personal relationship with God and it is one that can grow and deepen and mature, if only we will let it. God makes us the persons we are and – if we are willing –the persons we become.
So, despite no mention of mothers or infants or families per se, what could possibly be more fitting of this season of Christmas than to realize this truth: that just as the baby Jesus grows up to be the One to whom the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” we too can grow in the knowledge and love of a Father who is pleased with us and who will be all the more pleased with us as we seek Him and know Him and love Him more and more. Amen.
The Rev. Canon David Norgard
30 December 2012
St. Paul’s Cathedral San Diego, CA