The Father Embraces Us
issue carries an
imprimatur from the
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.
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
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
experiencethe 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
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.
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
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.
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).
meaning of Easter
faith experience and metaphor is the key to understanding
Easter. The Scriptural accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are descriptions
of a faith experience.
Jesus of Nazarethwho was truly human, like us in every way but
sinhow 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).
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
knewwith every fiber of his beingthat God was his Father and that
he was loved!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Christ gives us this Spirit of Confidencethe Spirit of Peace and Reconciliationand
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
Easter gift from the Father is the Spirit of peace and reconciliation.
After all that had been done to himcondemned, imprisoned, mocked,
assaulted, killedhe 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).
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.
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.
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).
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
fatherhoodand, 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).
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 fatherjust as an infant of English-speaking parents would
say "da da" or "daddy." Abba is not a title; it is a term of
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.
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.*
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).
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 daysphysically,
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!"
is unable to hold those he loves, but he conveys the compassion
of our all-embracing God.*
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.
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.
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.*