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In the prayer Jesus teaches us, he addresses the Creator of all that is as Father. He invites us into his relationship with God and into the mission God has sent him into our world to do. In addressing God as Father Jesus gives us permission to clothe God in our experience of our own fathers and grandfathers’ tender, nurturing, and secure presence. If we bring positive experiences to the image of God as Father, our Creator God draws close, invites our company, delights in our gifts, and hears our words.
Father is not Jesus’ only image of God. He also compares God to a determined woman who sweeps her house until she finds a lost coin and to a mother hen who wants her chicks safe beneath her wings. In fact, Jesus calls God Father only four times in Mark’s gospel, the first gospel to be written, about 70 AD. Matthew’s gospel, written about 10 years after Mark’s, increases the number of times Jesus refers to God as Father from four to forty. John’s gospel, written near the end of the first century and seventy years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, shows Jesus referring to God as Father nearly 120 times. Since we have no video of Jesus actually teaching, the increase in the number of times the stories about him have him calling God his Father, have come from the prayer and reflection of the first Christian communities.
This image of God as father is basic to our faith and worship, but it can also limit us. Many people who recognize that God is not really a mighty fortress, as in the hymn, or a rock, as in the Psalms, still insist that God is our Father literally, that Jesus revealed God is father and male. In reality, Jesus’ prayer reveals that God intimately cares for us, not that God is male. Father is only an analogy, a valuable one.
The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of mankind are visions of our human purpose. But when we express them in sexist, excluding language, they include only half the human race. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cautions God is not male and female as we humans are. God is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the differences between the sexes. But the respective perfections of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband (#370).
Christians who address God as “Our Father-Mother” jar us into remembering that these images only hint at the Mystery that holds us in being. Our experience of our mothers and grandmothers is an important as fathers and grandfathers for describing God and discovering God present in our lives. If the language of our faith and worship draws only on male imagery to describe God, then many men and many women must disregard how their experiences reveal the holy.
Our language for describing God mirrors our experiences. We need analogies to open and reflect on the mystery in which we live. We can’t help constructing images of God that are personal, cultural, and time bound. These images need correcting and expanding as we grow and our world changes.
Important as the image of God as Father is to faith and worship, we limit God if we take this image too literally and open no other doors to divine mystery. In addition, we dismiss the experience of half the human race and the rest of the cosmos as no help to disclosing the holy and to imaging God. For an important image such as Father to live, we must broaden and enrich its meaning, so we can approach our Father-Mother with the same expectation that we belong to God that Jesus did.
Use any of the questions to reflect on how you pray this prayer and how you image God as Father, Mother, Creator, Sustainer. What images of God do you inherit from your parents and grandparents? How important to your spirituality is the image of God as father? As mother? What images of God impel the way you live your life? What names or images of God from different cultures have opened Holy Mystery for you?
Go for a walk. Call out aloud all the ways you see God alive in nature, in yourself, and in the people you see. For instance, Creator, Sustainer, Forgiving One, Helper, Laughing God, Mystery. Go on until you feel full of God’s presence.