The Word Embodied
In the Name of the Father
“Grace, love, and fellowship.” (2 Corinthians 13:11)
June is traditionally the month to honor the Holy Trinity. It is also, in the United States, the month when fathers are honored. That’s an opportune, if delicate, congruence.
I have friends, some men but especially women, who have found it difficult to pray to God as father. The reasons range from the psychological burden of a tyrannical parent to the theological reservation that fatherhood excludes the feminine-maternal in God and suggests the possibility that God is some one-sided initiator, a non-needer who started it all and then exited, indifferent to the drama.
To be sure, there is maternity in God. John Paul I, in his short papacy reminded us that God is not only a father to us, but a mother as well. No doubt he was inspired by passages from the prophets and psalms or feminine references to the Spirit and Wisdom.
But what can be learned, no matter what our culture or history, from the fact that Jesus called God “Father” and that Christians have for centuries praised God in hymn and creed as Father, Son, and Spirit in Trinity?
Despite what the word “God” has meant to various times and cultures—remote creator, unfeeling authority, arbitrary ruler, or a clan of super-beings—in Christianity God is a community of persons.
Mutuality is the source of life. Relationship grounds being. There is otherness from the start.
The doctrine of the Trinity affirms God as loving and knowing, giving and receiving. We profess that God could not be God without the “other” (the Son) and the eternal bond of their relationship (the Spirit).
While some may think that the doctrine of the Trinity is negotiable, it is actually central to our faith. If we lose it, we lose all we are. Moses’ personal God, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, rich in kindness and fidelity,” emerges in St. Paul as the interpersonal Trinity that models true human relationship. Thus Paul prays: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Spirit be with you all.”
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only son to save the world.” Our God, in love for us, offers the dearest—the Son—to be one with us, as one in Trinity. Jesus reveals something not only about God, but about fatherhood. It is an intimate, self-giving relationship.
I wonder if the “Father” of the Trinity is more strategic for humanity than it is for the Trinity? Our problem may not lie so much in what we assign to God as in what many people associate with failed fatherhood.
In our own time we hear of uncaring and abusing fathers, “dead-beat, absent dads,” and “fatherless kids.” The lost father is lost relationship, broken promise, torn covenant, lost Trinity. The disappearance of fatherhood is the disappearance of intimacy.
But Jesus’ Father, nurturing and abiding, comforting and faithful, is radically different, and it would be most unfortunate if we were to ignore his revelation. We desperately need this father, strangely so like a mother.
When parenthood is true, its grace is as deep as it is divine. We are held in being with the other—spouse, father, and mother. How like the Trinity our covenants can be.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University