It was 1992. I found myself in a suffocating, noisy crowd of Hasidic Jews with no seats available. I was exhausted. El Al security was ruthless – three interrogations with trick questions; then a body search from head to toe; then meticulously poring over every millimeter of my baggage. Standard fare for a lone traveler on El Al who doesn’t speak Hebrew and, I suppose, for one wearing a Franciscan habit. Having made it through security with only 10 minutes before boarding, I decided to sit on the floor against the wall to recuperate and pray for a few minutes. My flight was heading to the Holy Land out of JFK airport. As I sat there marveling at the whole scene, something very beautiful happened… A little Jewish boy – a chip off the old block with his little suit, hat and even phylacteries – tugged on his father’s suit coat and his words penetrated deep into my heart: “Abba, Abba…” he said. “Daddy, Daddy…” Abba is the word that the little Hebrew children use to this day for “daddy.” That moment is engraved in my heart. It spoke to me about what my relationship with God is supposed to look like, even sound like.
That same year a startling, unprecedented event took place. Olympic runner Derek Redmond fell injured during the 400 meter run. After a moment of agony he got up and began hobbling towards the distant finish line. Out of nowhere a man rushed to his side to help him finish the race. But the man that came to his side wasn’t just any man, it was his father; he had run through the stands, jumped into the field and passed his way through the security guards to help his son finish the race. It is perhaps one of the most stirring father-son moments captured on film and a parable of what God the Father wants to do for us. Please take 4 minutes to watch the video below, then continue reading.
[Due to Olympic copyrights the video can only be watched on Youtube HERE]
The father-son crisis
We live in an age when, more than ever, sons have been let down, wounded or even abandoned by their fathers. According to the U.S. Census 43% of children in the United States live without their father and the consequences, even just on a sociological level, are devastating. The following story [cited from this blog post] is very indicative:
A few years ago, author Gordon Dalbey led one of our men’s retreats and he told us a story about a Catholic nun who worked in a men’s prison. One day, she said, a prisoner asked her to buy him a Mother’s Day card for his mother.
She did, and the word got out to other prisoners, and pretty soon this nun was deluged with requests, so she put in a call to Hallmark Cards, who donated to the prison several large boxes of Mother’s Day cards. The warden arranged for each inmate to draw a number, and they lined up through the cellblocks to get their cards.
Weeks later, the nun was looking ahead on her calendar, and decided to call Hallmark again and ask for Father’s Day cards, in order to avoid another rush. As Father’s Day approached, the warden announced free cards were again available at the chapel. To the nun’s surprise, not a single prisoner ever asked her for a Father’s Day card.
Coincidence? Not by a long shot. When children are not loved, protected and guided well by their fathers they receive a fatal blow to their hearts [John Eldredge calls this “the wound” and this 40 minute video with him and his “Band of Brothers” on their wound is both heart-wrenching and inspiring]. And, let’s face it, even if our fathers were good fathers, saintly fathers, they were nonetheless imperfect fathers. It is no secret that each and every one of our fathers is a son of Adam, viz. born with a fallen human nature. Fathers are so important, but even the best of them falls short – oftentimes because their fathers fell short. Where does that leave us? Is there any hope?
Ευαγγελιον – Good News: we are children of God our heavenly Father – filii in Filio – sons in the Son. Our earthly fathers, while they were meant to have a key role in initiating us into life and into our relationship with God, they are not the ultimate reason we exist nor should their imperfections, failures or absence stop us from living the life that God has given to us in Christ Jesus and living this to the full. And what is that supernatural life found in souls in sanctifying grace if not life as children of God? St. John the Beloved Apostle is at pains to communicate this to us: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are… Beloved, now we are the children of God…” (1 Jn 3:1,2). And in the Prologue to his Gospel he tells us two striking truths, that Christ came to reveal to us the Father: “No one has at any time seen God. The Only-Begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has revealed Him” (Jn 1:18), and that He came to make us children of the Father: “But to as many as received Him He gave the power of becoming sons of God” (Jn 1:12).
It is noteworthy that In the Gospel of St. Luke the first and last words of Christ speak of His Father. When St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary found Jesus in the Temple we hear the first recorded words roll off our Savior’s lips: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk 2:49). At the end of His life, hanging on the Cross and gasping for air as His Precious Blood flowed to the ground in atonement for our sins, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.’ And having said this, He expired” (Lk 23:46). The entire life of Jesus Christ on earth can be summed up in this: a life of communion with the Father. Our Lord’s life, from beginning to end, was characterized by His love for the Father who sent Him.
We must never, ever lose sight of the fact that God Himself is CHARITY (1 Jn 4:8,16). Everything He does is an act of divine love, and this means that He “loved” us into existence; He freely chose to include us in a gripping story of love and war – God the Father’s immense love for us in Christ and the raging battle against our souls by His infernal enemy the devil, who, “like a roaring lion, goes about seeking someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8) and wages “war with the rest of her [Mary’s] offspring, who keep the commandments of God, and hold fast to the testimony of Jesus” (Apoc 12:17). God will later say to the Beloved Apostle, “he who overcomes shall possess these things, and I will be His God and he shall be my son” (Apoc 21:7).
In a most telling episode, St. Luke describes a scene where Jesus was wrapt in prayer. His disciples did not dare disturb Him in His profound, intimate communion with the Father. But “when He ceased, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’ And He said to them, ‘When you pray say: Father, hallowed by Thy Name…'” (Lk 11:1-2; cf. Mt 6:9). This is the longing of every boy and girl – to have the strongest, most loving father who thinks the world of him or her. God made us with this built in desire. And as the deer longing for water does so because water exists, because that deer was made to drink from flowing streams, so we too pine away within to be children who are loved – tenderly loved – protected and provided for by a father and that Father does exist: the Lord Jesus Himself tells us that His Father is our Father (cf. Jn 20:17) and that He would not leave us orphaned, but would give us the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 14:18), the Spirit of the Father (cf. Mt 10:20; Rom 8:11; 2 Cor 1:21-22; Eph 3:14-16; etc.).
Predestined to be children of God
The Apostle Paul was determined to drive home the truth of our divine filiation in Christ – and home is where the heart is, where this truth needs to sink in. This doctrine needs to travel that extremely long distance from our head down into our heart, into the very fabric of our being, because it defines who we are and what we are called to do. He tells us that all relationships find their origin in the Father-Son relationship of the Most Holy Trinity: “For this reason I bend the knee to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all fatherhood in Heaven and on earth receives its name…” (Eph 3:14-15).
God’s eternal plan in creating the universe was that He might say of the Incarnate Word and of each of us who are baptized into Him, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17, 17:5; 2 Pt 2:17; etc.). This is why we exist. God created us to be His children in Christ. God, by creating us, is saying to each one of us ‘Thou art my beloved son.’ Listen to Paul’s uncontainable praise of this reality: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing on high in Christ. Even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish in His sight in love. He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ as His sons, according to the purpose of His will, unto the praise of the glory of His grace, with which He has favored us in His beloved Son.” (Eph 1:3-6).
Elsewhere, when speaking of our predestination in Christ, viz. “to be predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rm 8:29), the Apostle Paul explains that “whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. Now you have not received a spirit of bondage so as to be again in fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons, by virtue of which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit Himself giving testimony to our spirit that we are sons of God. But if we are sons, we are heirs also: heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided, however, we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him” (Rm 8:14-17). This is so central to St. Paul that he speaks of it again emphasizing that the reason that God sent His son “in the fullness of time… born of a woman” (Gal 4:4) was that through His redemptive work “we might receive the adoption of sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father.’ So that he is no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, an heir through God” (Gal 4:6-7).
Notice that the Holy Spirit is sent by God into our hearts to say Abba – that word that little Hebrew boys use to this day to get their father’s attention. While God is indeed “Our Father who art in Heaven,” we must not lose sight of what Paul, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5) is saying when he uses the word Abba. God the Father, in His Son, by the working of the Holy Spirit is calling us into an intimate, loving, conversational relationship with Him as His very dear children. If Christ prayed from His Sacred Heart to His Father (cf. Jn 17), then we too must enter into His Heart, into His prayer, into His relationship with God our most loving Father.
Returning to God our Father
How do we do this? Christ lived among us, but the Father seems so distant, so inapproachable. We must pray to the Holy Spirit given to us at Baptism and Confirmation and meditate deeply on John 14-17. I think all of us, at times, feel like St. Philip and cry out to Jesus from the depths of our heart: “Lord, show us the Father and it is enough!” (Jn 14:8). In the Cenacle, before His bitter Passion, the Savior Himself gave us His most intimate teaching; He gave us His Heart. He tells us that He goes to the Father to prepare a place for us and that it is God’s will that where He is (“in the bosom of the Father” Jn 1:18) we also shall be (cf. Jn 14:1-4). And the path? “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn 14:6; cf. Mt 11:25-27). To see Christ is to see the Father: “He who sees Me sees also the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in Me” (Jn 14:9-11). Indeed to know Christ is to know the Father: “If you had known Me, you would also have known the Father. And henceforth you do know Him, and you have seen Him” (Jn 14:7; cf. 16:3 and 1 Jn 2:22-25).
Jesus forever dwells “in the bosom of the Father” (Jn 1:12). This bestows a whole new depth to the scene where John and Andrew followed Christ after He was proclaimed by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God. Christ turned to them and asked, “What is it you seek?”, they responded “Rabbi, where dwellest Thou?” Our Lord’s response to them is an invitation to us: “Come and see” (Jn 1:38-39). We must follow Him there, where He dwells, in sinu Patris – in the bosom of the Father – “Dost thou not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me?… Abide in Me… Abide in My love… Abide in His love” (Jn 14:10/11; 15:4; 15:9-10).
If we have been away from our “Abba Father” through sin or have experienced any obstacle in that relationship due to past hurts from the father figures in our lives, now is the time to come home; now is the acceptable time to let Him meet us along the way and clothe us anew with the dignity of being His children; now is the time to let Him place a ring on our finger and shoes on our feet, to kill the fatted calf and make merry with all of the heavenly court (cf. Lk 15:11-32). He is the prodigal Father who wants to bestow endless, ineffable blessings upon us in Christ. He created us so that we might eternally say, Abba, Abba… and might hear His voice announcing to all that we indeed are His beloved children in whom He finds His delight.