Our Father

SCOTT HAHN

I was a teenage college student and still savoring my recent experience of conversion. I had been "born again," saved by Christ from sins that would have destroyed me, and I was eager to share my faith with other kids who seemed headed for delinquency.

So I jumped at the chance for a summer internship in the inner city, helping to run youth programs for adolescents who lived in poverty. The ministry was run by two tough young men who had converted to Christianity after spending years in street gangs. One had been a member of the militant Black Panthers.

Their misspent youth was a providential preparation for ministry in that part of town — where most storefronts were boarded up and drug dealers and police cruisers were the most frequent visitors. They talked tough to me on my first day and showed me to the spartan room where I'd be spending my nights. On one particular night, fairly early in the summer, I was in that room on my knees praying when a bullet whizzed through my window and lodged in the wall. Still, I have to say I was happy to be there. The squalor and danger made me all the more aware of the neighborhood's need for Jesus Christ.

In Need of a Father

Weeks passed before the directors of the ministry felt confident enough to let me give inspirational talks to the inner-city boys. The directors prepped me once more to make sure I was truly aware of the boys' home life. Most, I was told, came from single-parent households. Many didn't even know the name of their fathers. Some had fathers who were in prison — or dead, as victims of their own criminal lifestyle.

My directors had spent their entire lives in neighborhoods like these. They evoked a bleak picture of a subculture that had no experience or recent memory of father-involved family life. And all this they brought to a practical point: "When you talk to these kids, don't talk about God as their Father. That's something they can't relate to. It will only turn them off."

I was stunned. How could a Christian talk about God without mentioning His fatherhood? I had finally arrived at the moment I was dreaming of — the day when I could preach the Gospel to kids who were "at risk" — and I knew that I couldn't do it the way my directors wanted me to do it.

So I asked them: How could I lead our group to the Son of God without mentioning His eternal Father? How could I lead them to pray except in the way that Jesus had taught us: "Our Father"? I made an impassioned case, and I guess I convinced them, because they agreed to let me try it my way.

I did, and my directors had to acknowledge that I succeeded. When I spoke of God as Father, I spoke not to the memories of my audience, but to their need. They hungered for a father more than they hungered for a good meal. They knew what they'd been missing, and they were eager to find it in God.

There is only one God. He is the God whom Jesus revealed to us, and He is the God who made the hearts of these adolescent boys. God made us for Himself, said St. Augustine, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Him — the only true God.


Father Forever

As a young evangelical, I knew the words of J.I. Packer: "Everything that Christ taught . . . is summed up in the fatherhood of God. 'Father' is the Christian name of God."

As a superannuating Catholic, I turn to the words of Tertullian. This third-century African Christian wrote that, before Jesus Christ, the "expression God the Father had never been revealed to anyone. When Moses himself asked God who He was, he heard another name. The Father's name has been revealed to us in the Son, for the name 'Son' implies the new name 'Father'" (De orat. 3: PL1, 1155; cf. Catechism, no. 2779).

Since the name lay hidden until Jesus revealed it, it was new to mankind with the New Testament. But it was not newly coined. For God's name, from all eternity, is Father. Jesus revealed this at the end of His earthly ministry when He commanded His disciples to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19). What Jesus named here was radically different from anything the world had heard, before or since. Other religions have invoked their gods as father, but they have used the title only in a metaphorical sense — meaning that their god is like a father, because he begets them, guides them, and provides for them.

Jesus praised God as begetter, guide, and provider, but He also — by His own eternal sonship — named God as eternal Father. For "Father" can only be God's name, His personal identity, if God is Father eternally.

Think about the other titles we give God — Creator, Lawgiver, Physician. He is only Creator after He has created something; so Creator is not God's personal identity. He is only Lawgiver after He has given a law; so He is not an eternal lawgiver. He is only Physician after He has creatures in need of healing.

Yet He is Father forever, because He has always lived in communion with His Son and the Holy Spirit.


A Family Affair

The eternal relation of the Father and the Son is not a metaphor. Indeed, human fatherhood is more like a metaphor for God's eternal fatherhood. Human fatherhood is a created image — more or less vivid, depending on the sins of the dad — of God's eternal fatherhood. God is Father to Jesus, who shares His sonship with us. In the Church's ancient phrase, we are made "sons in the Son" through Baptism. We become, quite literally, partakers of the divine nature (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4). We are made godlike. We are made to participate in the love Christ shares with the Father. Only when we grasp this can we truly pray, "I shall not want." We'll want for nothing because the Lord is not just our Shepherd, but He is also our Father. And someone who lives the life of God ultimately needs nothing more than that.

God is our Father because we share in Jesus' sonship. Note that we do not address Him as "my Father," but "our Father." By gathering us together in Christ, God has established a universal human family in the Church. In the words of Pope John Paul II: "The Father, Creator of the universe, and the Word Incarnate, the Redeemer of humanity, are the source of this universal openness to all people as brothers and sisters, and they impel us to embrace them in the prayer which begins with the tender words: 'Our Father'" (Letter to Families, no. 4).

Our common sonship gives us the right to address God as a common Father, as our Father. All the remaining words in the Lord's Prayer — indeed, all the truths of the Christian faith — can be understood as an elaboration of that compact opening phrase: Our Father.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Scott Hahn. "Our Father." Lay Witness (January/February 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

THE AUTHOR

Scott Hahn is Professor of Theology and Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the founder and director of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author of many books, including Lord Have Mercy, Letter and Spirit, Understanding the Scriptures, Swear to God, Scripture Matters, Understanding Our Father, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity, Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God, The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, and co-editor of Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God. Dr. Hahn has also written numerous articles in lay and academic publications.

Scott Hahn received his Bachelor of Arts degree with a triple-major in Theology, Philosophy and Economics from Grove City College, Pennsylvania, in 1979, his Masters of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1982, and his Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from Marquette University in 1995. Scott has ten years of youth and pastoral ministry experience in Protestant congregations (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas and Virginia) and is a former Professor of Theology at Chesapeake Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia. He entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 1986.

Copyright 2002 LayWitness


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