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The Father Embraces Us
by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

In prison one day after Mass, one of the men said to me: "I am always amazed how the Gospel continually takes on new meanings as my life changes!"

I think this man expressed a deep truth. The Gospels are not simply a record of what Jesus said and did. They are the written account of a faith experience—the faith experience of the early disciples of Jesus. As our own experience of God deepens so does our insight into God's word, because it is the same Holy Spirit who is both our communion with the divine nature and the inspiration of the Scriptures. The more our own faith experience deepens, the greater the possibility of our being able to understand the faith experience recorded in the Gospels.

Finding the words

And because it is the record of a faith experience, the Bible is not always easy reading. It is not easy to put a faith experience into words. Actually, it is not easy to put any deeply personal experience into words. While it may be easy enough to describe the externals ("what happened"), the experience itself ("what it feels like" and "what it means") never fits neatly into a sentence.

For example, think of someone you love very much. How would you put that love into words? You might be able to describe the person, to tell how you met, to list the things you enjoy doing together, but the experience of loving this person—"what it feels like"—is somehow more than words can express.

"My love is like a red, red rose..." Often, when words fail, we use comparisons or metaphors to describe our experiences. The same is true of religious experiences. Think, for example, of Baptism: The Bible uses metaphors to describe our experience of Christian initiation. It is like being born again. It is like dying with Christ. It is like a light going on, helping us to see things in a new way. It is like putting on Christ. It is like being adopted into a new family.

When we try to describe our experience of God, we speak in metaphors because "human words always fall short of the mystery of God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #42). But this does not mean that it is impossible to talk about our experience of God. "[W]e can name God by taking his creatures' perfections as our starting point, 'for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator'" (CCC, #41, quoting Wisdom 13:5).

The meaning of Easter

Understanding faith experience and metaphor is the key to understanding Easter. The Scriptural accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are descriptions of a faith experience.

How did Jesus of Nazareth—who was truly human, like us in every way but sin—how did Jesus experience God? No doubt Jesus first came to know God through the faith of his parents. Many of us are first gifted with faith through our parents. This has been my own experience: The faith of my parents, their love for me, the way that they mothered and fathered me, shaped and rooted my early experience of God. This gift of God, given to Jesus through Mary and Joseph, grew as Jesus did. "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him" (Luke 2:40).

As Jesus matures and enters his public ministry, his understanding of God is described in the accounts of his baptism: God is like a father. "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11). Jesus knew—with every fiber of his being—that God was his Father and that he was loved!

The metaphor of God as "Father" takes on new and unique meaning in Jesus. This assurance of love and protection, this childlike confidence in parental love, characterized Jesus' life, his preaching, his prayer and even his death and resurrection. The resurrection was the ultimate experience of Jesus. Being raised from the dead affirmed Jesus' conviction that God is his Father and that he is loved. It confirmed Jesus' preaching: Everything is the gift of the Father's love; the Father is eternally concerned for the poor; God can be trusted; the Father is ever faithful.

This experience of God forms the core of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Through story and parable Jesus announced his Father's kingdom: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field; is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour; is like a treasure buried in a field; is like a merchant searching for fine pearls.

Fatherly gifts

We see Jesus' experience of God as Father reflected in his preaching: "A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.' So the father divided the property between them." And we all know the familiar story. "After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation" (see Luke 15:11-32). In Jesus' story the father never stops loving the younger son. Jesus knew that the father's love is unconditional; it is not dependent on the good works of the younger son.

In Jesus' story, the father has two sons. Not only is the father waiting to embrace the younger son, but the father also wants the same embrace to enfold the elder son. Our Father God loves all his children: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists; children of every color, nation and race; of every political party, of every social class, of every sexual orientation. Jesus teaches that the Father wants all creation banqueting together at the kingdom's table.

"But that will never happen!" some are all too ready to say. "The hatreds run too deep; there will never be peace between ______ and ______ !" and they fill in the blanks in the various ways that are all too familiar to us. But Jesus knew it will happen. This was the conviction of his youth, of his baptism, of his ministry. This was his experience at the resurrection. The Father's kingdom will come! God's will will be done! Greed and prejudice won't win in the end. Even death is not victorious over the Father's embrace.

The risen Christ gives us this Spirit of Confidence—the Spirit of Peace and Reconciliation—and instructs us to live with that same faith and trust and love. "On the evening of that first day of the week [the day of his Resurrection]...Jesus came...and said to them...'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained'" (John 20:19-23).

Jesus' Easter gift from the Father is the Spirit of peace and reconciliation. After all that had been done to him—condemned, imprisoned, mocked, assaulted, killed—he comes with words of forgiveness and reconciliation! Easter reminds us that reconciliation is not just a sacrament that the Church celebrates on a Saturday afternoon, or during Lent and Advent. Reconciliation is a sign and sacrament of the very mission of the Church itself. St. Paul says: "And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Metaphors: concealing, revealing

Whenever we use a metaphor, we only use a part of the qualities of the things compared. For example, when I say that my love is like a red rose, I use the "part" of the rose that is beautiful, precious, fragrant, etc. I do not use other "parts" of the comparison. I do not mean, for example, that my love has one long, green leg with thorns on it.

The metaphors we use for God both reveal and conceal. For example, the Scriptures frequently call God a rock. "The Lord lives! Blessed be my rock!" (Psalm 18:47). The aspects of "rock" that the psalmist draws on are its sturdiness, its strength, its everlasting presence, etc. The psalmist does not mean to imply that God is unthinking, insensible, a stumbling block, "dumb as a stone," etc.

Similarly, when we call God "Father" we indicate that God is the origin of all that exists and that God loves us as a Father loves his children. There is also part of the metaphor we do not use. By calling God Father we do not imply that God is masculine. Nor do we attribute to God cultural stereotypes: authoritarian, dominant, possessive, macho. Nor do we mean that God is "father" as opposed to being "mother." "God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood....The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God" (CCC, #239).

A metaphor is only effective if we have some knowledge and experience of the things compared. For example, if a person has never seen a rose, "My love is like a rose" wouldn't communicate the same thing that it does to someone who loves roses. Similarly, when we call God "Father," the metaphor communicates in relation to our personal experience of fatherhood—and, sadly, that experience is not always positive. Friends who have had a very negative experience of human fatherhood have told me how difficult it is for them to call God Father. "But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: He is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: No one is father as God is Father" (CCC, #239).

Exercise in contemplation

For one who has had a positive experience of motherhood or fatherhood, that experience can be a door to enter into Jesus' experience of God. Jesus told the disciples, "When you pray, say Abba, Father, hallowed be your name..." (Luke 11:2). In the Aramaic language, which Jesus spoke as a child, Abba is the first name that a small child calls its father—just as an infant of English-speaking parents would say "da da" or "daddy." Abba is not a title; it is a term of affection.

Picture a mother or father holding a little baby...[paint in the details in your mind, maybe think of your own parents]. Next, picture yourself as that baby being held in the arms of God...[paint in the details, feel the warmth, the strength of your dad's (or mom's) arms, the protection, security, unconditional love]. Next, look up at God's face and say abba, or da da or Father. Repeat the word several times. Then, don't do anything; just enjoy.

This is the God who is waiting to embrace us at the end of our journey. This is the Easter experience of Jesus. This is the Love that empowers us to enter the new millennium as ambassadors of reconciliation.*

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institut Catholique of Paris. He teaches courses on the sacraments at Saint Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology. He is the author of The Sacraments: How Catholics Pray (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

 

 


 

Steven McDonald

 

Steven McDonald has never experienced the joy of hugging his son Conor. But the former New York City policeman is embracing the world with his message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is a message he brings to audiences, often youthful ones, several times each week. It is a message he delivers from a wheelchair. Mr. McDonald, now 42, had been two years on the New York force in 1986 when he was shot several times in the head and spine by a young teenager during a robbery. The bullets left Mr. McDonald a quadriplegic, but they deepened his faith.

It was several months later that Conor was born. At the infant's Baptism, conducted by New York's Cardinal John O'Connor in Mr. McDonald's hospital room, the proud new father used the occasion to put into practice one of the most basic tenets of his faith. He publicly forgave the young man whose impulsive act of violence in Central Park had left the police officer paralyzed from the neck down. "It was a way of liberating myself from the difficult days—physically, spiritually, emotionally," Mr. McDonald recalled in a recent conversation with Millennium Monthly. "It was my way of moving on. I couldn't do that if I was consumed with anger," he said in a soft, gentle voice.

Over the past dozen years Mr. McDonald has shared his faith and his story with thousands of people, and invites his young listeners in particular to sign a pledge of nonviolence. Before each presentation he recites the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, along with other prayers. They are offered in the hope that he will do justice to his message that forgiveness and faith are the appropriate responses to violence. Last autumn, Mr. McDonald, accompanied by his wife Patty Ann and his young son, brought that same message to Northern Ireland.

"Only with prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist can I do this," says Mr. McDonald, now a New York City detective. His life is "filled with good days and bad days," and physical pain can overwhelm him. But he feels blessed to have his family and friends. "Life is difficult, but I believe God is using us to help others. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are working through us. I don't take any credit. I'm surrounded by beautiful people!"

Steven McDonald is unable to hold those he loves, but he conveys the compassion of our all-embracing God.*

—by Judy Ball

 



 
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Passion Play 2000

 

The world-famous Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, will emerge from behind the curtains with a new face in the heart of the Jubilee Year. Performances begin May 22, 2000. Work is now under way to give the play a major facelift, including a reworking of the text and music. Jesus will be portrayed differently, with more focus on the centrality of the Jewish culture in his life and on his role as an influential Jewish teacher.

For decades, many steps have been taken to eliminate or rewrite passages that various Jewish groups have deemed anti-Semitic. With the upcoming millennial production, efforts are being made to remove any remaining anti-Jewish allusions. During the past year the play's directors have made regular progress reports about Passion Play 2000 to community leaders in Oberammergau, located at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.

The Passion Play goes back to 17th-century Europe, when a devastating plague from the continent reached the town, killing more than 80 people. In 1634, the people of the community staged the first performance of the "Play of the Suffering and Death of Our Lord," and vowed to repeat performances each decade.*



 
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