One line of Scripture that makes Roman Catholics easy prey for fundamentalist Christians is Christ’s demand in St. Matthew’s Gospel account: “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” Catholics will hear this line read solemnly from their pulpits and then leaving church will nod to their parish priest saying, quite unselfconsciously, “Have a nice day, Father!” This common, in fact, universal granting of the title “Father” to Catholic priests is a quite ancient practice. Perhaps St. Matthew himself found the use of the title “Father” early on within his own church community a bit much. Of the Gospel accounts, only the Matthean version warn its readers to call no man father, teacher or rabbi. Possibly an early manifestation of clericalism was in evidence even among the first generation of Christians.
St. Matthew’s caution notwithstanding, it was not very long before Christian communities began to refer to their spiritual mentors as “abba” or “father.” The small desert communities of believers who had fled to the pagan world literally to save their souls usually gathered around a noted spiritual director, a spiritual father, whom they addressed as “abba”, which evolved into the English “abbot” and into the French “Monsieur L’abbe,” and into the German “abt.” Devout Christians truly appreciated that these men (and women as well: abbesses) were doing the work of their Father God in heaven. The title “Father” was not here being usurped out of pride and pomposity, as St. Matthew’s church feared. Rather “abba” or “father” was an acknowledgement that these early presiders at prayer and guides in spirituality and celebrants of the sacraments were not promoting their own agenda but truly “teaching them to observe all” that Christ had commanded. They were doing God’s work so they were accorded God’s title. As St. Paul observes in this Sunday’s second reading, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” Christians are accorded unfathomable intimacy with God through Christ. So Christians too can address God as “Abba, Father,” as Christ did. Jesus himself employed the intimate word “Abba” or “Father” in his personal prayer, most notably during his agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Later Christians, sensing the nearness of God through the preaching of their spiritual tutors, began to cry out “Abba, Father!” first of all toward God Himself (“Our Father, who art in heaven…”) but also toward those who, through prayer and teaching and example, made the Fatherhood of God real for every succeeding generation of believers.
On this Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, it is most appropriate to recall that God has chosen to reveal himself to mankind in a tender, intimate personal word like “father,” along with other personal words like “son,” and “spirit.” Metaphors for God and his work abound in the Scriptures: creator, redeemer, sanctifier, lord, shepherd, rock, king, light, etc. But these words all refer to God’s functions within salvation history. Father, Son and Spirit, on the other hand, reveal God’s inner core — God as He is in himself, not simply as He appears within creation. The Father is God by nature; the Son is God by nature; the Spirit is God by nature. This was true from all eternity, long before creation came into existence. Therefore God, in Himself, is a relationship — a communion of three Divine Persons in a shared existence. It is no wonder that St. John could say simply, “God is love.” From all eternity the Father has reached out toward the Son; and from all eternity the Son has reached out toward the Father. This loving embrace of Divine Persons is of course a perfect embrace and so it has a personhood of its own, revealed to us as the Holy Spirit. God is a true sharing, an eternal communion, a genuine exchange, among the Divine Persons. God is indeed love.
The use of personal words by God to reveal himself and the use of personal words by the Christian community to describe those who do the work of God is instructive. God’s choice of personal words to announce himself — especially the words Father, Son and Spirit – have weighty consequences in understanding revelation and profound implications for a Christian’s spiritual life. Interpersonal words like father, son, mother, daughter, brother, and sister have been most common within the Christian community. Made in the image and likeness of God, mankind can only understand himself appropriately in terms of relationships, in terms of reciprocity, in terms of love, sharing and intimacy. Man, like God, is not merely a function or a business, no matter how noble. Man, like God, is first of all a person, capable of entrusting his inner self to other persons, in community, in friendship, and in love. Three Persons in One God. Many persons in one Church and, some day, in one world.