For the past few weeks, my adult education group and I have been doing a study of Dr Scott Hahn's "Understanding the Our Father". Not only the book, but the pursuant discussion and reflections (many coming from our applying a lectio divina style of reading and praying about the text) have been wonderful. I believe that sharing those insights on this blog can spread the wealth of those discussions. For all of us who have been in this group, the reaction has been the same: we realize for as many times as we have said the Our Father, we never really realized the full depth of what we were praying for and are coming a deeper appreciation of why Jesus gave us this prayer as the prototype of all prayer and the perfect summation of all prayer. I hope my readers will find these reflections as useful and good for the deepening of our faith as we have. As I begin, a thank you to Dr. Scott Hahn for writing this wonderful book and a big thank you to by 20 or so parishioners who have shown up over the course of these adult education classes.
To the reader: when I do adult education (including RCIA) I view it as I would dating. This might seem an odd analogy. When I dated, as a young man, I used that time to get to know the young lady. I wanted to know things about her: what was she like, what was her background, what did she like and dislike, what gave her joy, what hurt her, what were hopes, her aspirations, and dreams. I did this, especially as I got older, because I was looking for someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life loving. When we do theology, we delve into the truths of our faiths, we do so not so that we might merely learn data, but because that data tells us something about God and the relationship He wants withr us. We learn about God so as to deepen the relationship we are called to have with God. God reveals himself to us because He wants an eternal relationship with us. This is so central to the prayer that Jesus, Himself, gave us.
From the openings words of the prayer, we are immersed in the verbiage of relationship. First, Jesus instructs to call God, the 1st Person of the Trinity, Abba. We translate it as 'Father', which is a bit stuffy of a translation, but it is not as informal as 'daddy' either. It is the word a child would call their dad. It connotes the kind of deep relationship that a dad has for their child and vice-versa. This term, dad, has become problematic in our time. Fatherhood has been under assault for many centuries and has been extraordinarily harsh in our own time. So much of our population does not know who their dad is, have dads who do not live in the home, or have had abusive dads. So many times, those images get transferred to God. The sobering fact is that men in this country need to be transferring the image of God as Father into how they are dads. Any word we use to talk about God is going to be limited, for no word can fully capture the totality of who God is. 'Abba', though, is picked for a specific reason. All that we would hope the perfect dad would be can be found in God the Father. If we were to pick the traits we would want from the perfect dad, I am sure we would pick words like provider, protector, loving, fair, compassionate, and such. We are given a glimpse of what type of father God is in the powerful parable of 'The Prodigal Son'. In this parable we see a father who gives his ingrate son not only what is not rightfully his, but affords the young man freedom to do as he wishes with that property knowing full well he might well squander it. We then see a heart-broken father, who does not hold anger toward his wayward son, but a deep longing to be re-united with him. We get the image of a father who scans the horizon everyday waiting for his son's silhouette to break that horizon. He does not force the son to come home, but desperately wants it. This is an image of what type of father we have in God. In essence, we have a Father who desperately wants what is good for us, now and for all eternity, but allows us to freely choose to be His son. He does not force the familial bond upon us; he wants us to freely choose it. Calling God 'Father', as Jesus directs us, gives us insight into what God wants for us.
When I taught grade school, I repeatedly had to remind students that pronouns matter. Jesus doesn't merely tell us to begin this prayer with 'Father', He places the 1st person plural possessive pronoun to modify the word 'Father'; He places the word 'our' in front of it. The word is not 'my' but 'our'; there is another relationship dynamic that comes into play just into the first two words of this prayer. The 'our' implies a familial bond not just with God, but with each other as well. If I refer to God as Father and you refer to God as Father and he or she refer to God as Father then there is the rational understanding that we are brothers and sisters. In the discussion, a lady (perhaps the last person in the group I would have expected this from) broke into the chorus of "We are Family" and smiled. My answer, after shaking off the initial amusement, was "Well, actually, yes". The 'our' and the fact we are addressing God as 'Father' does imply just that. It certainly flows from our ecclesiology ( the study of the church) and is well within the constant barrage of familial terms scattered throughout the New Testament when referencing the followers of Christ. As in the use of father, we must lay aside the often dysfunctional vision of the family that exists in today's society. Ideally, the family is were one finds those most concerned about your welfare, those quickest to offer support, those who are willing to correct with kindness, those who are willing to endure sacrifice for you, and those for whom you can show the same care and reveal the fullness of who you are. We know where a family shows that kind of mutual support, mutual care, mutual mercy, and mutual concern for the path one travels, it is there we find the strongest of families. It is this type that we as a church are called to be. Think of just what is being prayed in those two words and the explosive dynamic present in those two words! If we really mean those two words when we pray them, then how we live, how we view and treat others, how we live as a child of God all are radically transformed!
Thus we use these two words to come to know something of who God is and what He created us to be. It is all wrapped up in a real and eternal relationship. To pray those two words is a profession of faith of how we wish to live. For me as a priest, that means I must model how I am a 'father' to my parish on the fatherhood of God. To those who are biological fathers, your responsibility does not begin and end with ejaculation and impregnation: your responsibilities from that point on are to be modeled after the fatherhood of God. It is for this reason that there is much to the saying :Any idiot can impregnate a girl, it takes a man to be a dad. It also has a incredible point to make about how we approach one another, especially within the Body of Christ. While we do not and can not harbor wrong teaching, neither can we approach those who are purveyors of it with anything less than the same compassion of the prodigal son's father. All the more, that means we cannot break into little tribes attached to a particular ideology within the Church and view each other as the competition, the other side, or worse yet, as the enemy. The Roman Catholic Church cannot look like the 1968 DNC Convention! Remember the prayer of Jesus Christ on the night before he died: Father, may they be one, as you and I are one. It is seeking union, not domination, that we answer this prayer and cooperate with the grace of God to actually make this prayer so. It is doing this, that when we say 'our', we can actually mean it.
These few paragraphs are not an exhaustive exegesis of these two words. I invite others to share what reflections they might have in the comments. I will try to respond so that comments are not left up in the air as to say every view point is a valid viewpoint. But, I do believe the greater our appreciation and understanding of just these two words become, the more dynamic the faith we live and thus the fuller the relationship we live with God our Father and consequently with each other.