God, the Father of Mercies
by Fr. Fio Mascarenhas
The Catholic Catechism (nos.199 ff) tells us that belief in God is the most fundamental of all beliefs. All the other articles of the Creed depend on this first belief, and all the Commandments of God make explicit the first commandment. In revealing themselves progressively to men, the Triune God revealed the Father first.
In the Old Testament, God was revealed as the only One:
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Dt.6:4f).
Jesus himself affirms that God is "the one Lord" whom you must love "with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mt.12:29f). At the same time Jesus gives us to understand that he himself is "the Lord" (Mk.12:35ff). To confess that Jesus is Lord is distinctive of Christian faith. This is not contrary to belief in the One God. Nor does believing in the Holy Spirit as the "Lord and giver of life" introduce any division into the one God. This is the mystery of God, the Blessed Trinity, three Persons but one God:
"You have revealed your glory as the glory also of your Son and of the Holy Spirit: three Persons equal in majesty, undivided in splendour, yet one Lord, one God, ever to be adored in your everlasting glory" (The Missal, Preface of the Holy Trinity).
In revealing his mysterious name to Moses, YHWH (I AM HE WHO IS, or I AM WHO AM), God says who he is and by what name he is to be called (Ex.3:13ff). It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is - infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the "hidden God", his name is ineffable, and he is the God who makes himself close to men (Isa.45:15). By revealing his name, God at the same time reveals his faithfulness which is from everlasting to everlasting, valid for the past ("I am the God of your fathers" - Ex.3: 6), & for the future ("I will be with you" - v.12).
God also reveals himself as "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Ex.34:5). By going so far as to give up his own Son for us, God later reveals that he is "rich in mercy" (Eph.2:4). By giving his life to free us from sin, Jesus reveals that he himself bears the divine name: "When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will realise that 'I Am'." (Jn.8:28, in the Greek text).
God is Truth and Love. He is "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness", which terms express summarily the riches of the divinity. In all his works, God displays not only his kindness, goodness, and steadfast love, but also his trustworthiness, constancy, faithfulness and truth. "God is Love" (1Jn.1:5), and God is Truth itself, whose words cannot deceive (Ps.119:160). This is why one can abandon oneself in full trust to the truth and faithfulness of his word in all things. (The beginning of sin was due to a lie of the Deceiver who induced doubt of God's word, kindness, and faithfulness!) When God sends his Son, who is Love incarnate, into the world, it will be "to bear witness to the truth" (Jn.18:37). So too, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of love, who pours God's love into our hearts (Rom.5:5), as well as "the Spirit of Truth", who will "guide you into all the truth" (Jn.16:13).
God's love is compared to a father's love for his son (Hos.11:1). His love is stronger than a mother's for her children (Isa.49:14). God's love is more than a bridegroom's for his beloved (Isa.62:4). His love will be victorious over even the worst infidelities and will extend to his most precious gift: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (Jn.3:16). By sending his only Son and the Holy Spirit in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange!
Believing in God, the only One, and loving him with all our being, has enormous consequences for our whole life. It means coming to know God's greatness and majesty; it means living in thanksgiving; it means knowing the unity and true dignity of all men and women, since everyone is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen.1:26); it means making good use of created things (the ecological movement and concern for the environment are an important consequence); and it means trusting God in every circumstance, even in adversity.
God Reveals Himself as Abba
As the Dictionary of the Bible by John L. McKenzie indicates, there is no trace in the Old Testament of the term "father" applied to Yahweh as the begetter of the people; the title of "father of Israel" is a theological metaphor which expresses the love of father for his son. This love exhibits itself in its paternal care of Israel (Ex.4:22), in his compassion and forgiveness (Ps.103:13). The paternity of Yahweh also signifies his creation of Israel as a people (Is.63:16); this is a motive for observing his law (Dt.14:1).
It is evident from the text cited above that Jesus did not introduce the concept of the fatherhood of God as something entirely new. It is however, broadened and deepened. The concept of God as father includes the notion of paternal love and care:
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny and not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Mt.10:29ff).
"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Mt.7:11).
The love of the Father in heaven is a model of the love with which the disciples should love even their enemies (Mt.5:43f). The Father is the model of the perfection which the disciples should seek to attain (Mt.5:48). The Father likewise is an example of forgiveness (Mk.11:25). Perhaps the supreme statement of God's paternal forgiveness appears in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk.15:11ff). The Father's love is accompanied by his authoritative will which imposes an obligation upon the disciples: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he/she who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt.7:21).
Jesus often speaks of the Father with relation to himself in a different tone from that which he uses in speaking of the Father in relation to the disciples. Most of these passages which make the distinction between "my Father" and "your Father" are concerned with the mission and authority of Jesus. The phrase "my Father" is most frequent in Matthew (15:13; 16:17; 18:10,19,35; 20:23). The difference is clearest in Mt.11:25-27 where Jesus thanks the Father for what he has revealed to the little ones and concealed from the wise and knowing. He then affirms that the Father has revealed himself to the Son (Jesus), and that the Father and the Son know each other in a way which cannot be revealed to anyone else. This is confirmed by the prayer which Jesus addresses to his Father, saying, "Abba", which is equivalent to our "Papa": a familiarity of which there is no example before Jesus, and which manifested an intimacy that is without equal:
"Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will but what you will" (Mk.14:36).
In John's Gospel, the Father appears almost entirely as the Father of Jesus in contrast to the Father of the disciples. Jesus has a unique relationship with the Father, who communicates himself to humanity through Jesus. Jesus is the object of the peculiar love of the Father (5:20; 10:17). Jesus alone knows the Father (1:18) and Jesus and the Father are one (10:30). To know and to see Jesus is to know and see the Father (14:7f). Jesus teaches what he has learnt from the Father (8:28ff) and does the works of the Father (10:32).
The Father is greater than Jesus (14:28), as the father is always superior to his son; but Jesus has received all power and authority from the Father (16:15). In his incarnate state, the Son remains submissive to the Father. The Father has the initiative regarding salvation. He is the one who chooses and calls the Christian (2Thes.2:13) or the apostle (Gal.1:15). He is the one who justifies (Rom.3:26; 8:30). The Father is the beginning and end of all things (1Cor.8:6). The Son acts only in dependence on him (Jn.5:19) and will submit to him at the end of time:
"When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him that God may be everything to everyone" (1Cor.15:28).
God the Father is invoked in each of the thirteen epistles attributed to St. Paul. The distinctive relationship of Jesus with the Father is asserted especially when Jesus and the Father are joined in invocation; the Father is "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph.1:3). Paul then goes on to tell us that God is also our Father:
"But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir" (Gal.4:4-7).
God has freed us from slavery and adopted us as sons (Eph.1:5; Rom.8:14-17); and that Christ is the eldest son, who shares with his brothers and sisters the paternal heritage (Rom.8:29; Col.1:18). By reciting the "Our Father"(Lk.11:2), the Church expresses the awareness of being loved by the very love with which God embraces his only Son (1Jn.3:1). Our filial life, manifested in prayer, is also expressed by fraternal charity; for if we love our Father, we cannot fail to love his children, our brothers and sisters:
"Whoever loves the one who begot him, loves also the one who is born of him" (1Jn.5:1).
God's Heart, Revealed in the Psalms
The word of God is the first and best source of revelation. But to understand better what God is revealing of himself in the Psalms, we must take the trouble to study the meaning of some original and unique Hebrew words. Two such words are hesed and rahamin. They have no real equivalents in English.
Hesed is generally translated as "love", "mercy", or "grace". It actually means "a special, faithful, steadfast love" for those of one's own family or clan. In Israel's culture, hesed could not exist between strangers or foreigners! When God declared himself to be a kinsman of Israel, he made a very special covenant with them, "You shall be my people, and I will be your God!" All Jews equally belonged to God, and consequently to one another's family.
Ps.136 declares God's hesed love in every one of its 26 verses, and implies a strong sense of loyalty similar to that of blood relationship. The psalm depicts even the history of the universe and of the people of Israel as developing from the bond of kinship between YHWH and this chosen nation. (Ps.2: "You are my son, this day I have begotten you..."). At the end of every verse, beginning with the creation of the cosmos and moving through the great events of salvation in Israel's history, there is the assurance that these good things have happened "because his hesed (steadfast love) endures forever".
God's hesed love for the Jews runs through the whole book of psalms, giving the people a sense of belonging to God and of confidence in him. Ps.5:7 says, "But I, because of your hesed, may enter your house, bowing down in your temple, reverencing you." Many psalms thrill with this feeling of familiarity, of literally being at home in "your house." The psalmists understood the implications of God's hesed love for Israel. Very often joyful and exuberant, they call on fellow Jews to clap hands, dance, sing, shout, exult!
There are also hints that the Gentiles will be invited into this hesed love. Ps.67:4f calls on all "the nations" to praise the Lord. Ps.87 declares that Egypt, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia will gain entrance to Zion. In similar vein, St.Paul later teaches that the walls of division between the Jew and the Gentile have been broken down by the merits of Jesus, so that now Jesus is "the eldest brother" among all human beings. Hesed is God's strong, loyal, masculine love for those he has made his kinsmen!
The other important Hebrew word is rahamin. It is generally translated as "compassion", "mercy", or "pity". (The NAB and the JB translate it better as "tenderness"). Its literal Hebrew meaning is "the feeling of a mother for the child of her womb" (rehem = womb). A mother does not feel pity or mercy for her child but love and pride. Rahamin tells us God feels this way towards us, with a divine determination to do all that is possible so that we develop the nobility that befits his children. Isa.49:15 assures us that the child of God's womb will always "receive rahamin". Ex 34:6 had already declared: "a god of tenderness (rahamin)... rich in love (hesed)".
Because he understood this, David could confidently ask as a family member for God's masculine love (hesed), and for his feminine (womb) love as well: "Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness (hesed), in your compassion (rahamin) cleanse me of my sins" (Ps.51:1). Both Ps.103:4,8 and Ps.145:8 twice refer to both these aspects of God's love: "Crowning you with love (hesed) and tenderness (rahamin)... YHWH is tender (rahamin) and loving (hesed)..."
Rahamin has another significance: waiting confidently in the darkness. It assures us of the absolute kinship-love, womb-love, mother-love that God has for us, but it also reminds us that we often have to wait helpless in the darkness as a mere embryo of what God intends us to be. (We can remember the nine months each of us spent in the watery darkness of our mother's womb, totally helpless and dependant on our mothers. We can also remember the watery darkness at the beginning of the Creation story in Genesis, with the Spirit hovering over the waters). Rahamin is a call to discover (in times of darkness) invitations to die to old ways that have grown tired and constricting. Risking a re-entry into God - our Mother's Womb as it were - we can be led to new births. The Lord will lead us to fulfill new potentialities if we have the faith and courage to wait in the darkness. This demands the humbling experience of feeling helpless like a child in the womb again. But the spirituality of the Psalms will help us undergo every trial with the certainty that we are unconditionally loved as children of the womb of the God who is both a tender-hearted Mother, as well as the dynamic Father-Creator. To conclude, whenever you come across inadequate English words like God's "mercy", "compassion", "love", etc., remember that the original Hebrew words are "hesed" and "rahamin", and experience their full power!
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