A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Abba Father — Who Are You? (2)

Fr Tom Ryan

‘Closest to the Father’s Heart’

It is impossible to get inside someone else’s ‘skin’. We get glimpses from what a person says or does. But to experience life from within another person’s consciousness, that’s a mystery beyond us. And rightly so.

We recall times when someone shares their deepest yearnings, hopes, fears and hurts. Such moments of personal revelation are precious. Even when we are allowed ‘into’ someone else’s pain, it can, strangely, nourish us. Our hearts expand, our attitude to the other person is changed, even slightly. We are, hopefully, more understanding towards them.

Again, when someone opens up with another, divulging from within their own ‘mystery’, it can only be given freely. Forcing a person to disclose what is most personal is not true revelation. It’s a violation, a desecration of a sacred gift.

We know how much Jesus desires to reveal himself and share his life. Further, in my deepest recesses, there exists what spiritual writers refer to as the ‘hot point’ of the soul (i.e., the person). St Paul refers to it as the ‘spirit’ or pneuma – where we are open or closed (or resistant) to God.

Within this receptive space the divine Spirit, Pneuma, comes to live in us with the Father and the Son. In saying ‘yes’ to the divine offer of friendship, we are ‘spiritual’ -- pneumatikos; in refusing or resisting this invitation, we become ‘unspiritual’ -- sarkikos.

It is intriguing how much Jesus wants us to share in his experience, in his consciousness, putting on ‘the mind of Christ’ (Philippians 2:5). He not only wants us ‘to be with me where I am’. He wants to be in us as our dearest friend, and to share what he is given by his Abba / Father through the bond of love (the Spirit). 

A shaft of joy

This theme recurs, especially in John’s Gospel. Yet, there is an (almost unexpected?) intimate incident in Matthew that could almost be from John’s Gospel. One writer suggests it is like a ‘bolt from the Johannine heaven’. It begins:

I bless you, Father, Lord of Heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children (Matthew11:25).

Jesus continues: this ‘revealing’ was what it ‘pleased’ the Father to do; the Father had ‘entrusted’ everything to him; no one knows the Father ‘except the Son, just as no one knows the Son except the Father and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (Matthew 11:26-27).

From this moment of joy, let’s consider Jesus’ use of the image ‘mere children’. How often Jesus appeals to a child or childlike attitude as the imperative for being open to receive God, open to God’s reign and values. It could be another way of expressing the first Beatitude: blessed are the ‘poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ or, in another version: ‘blessed are those who admit their need for God’. It is bringing a receptive and needy heart (the ‘hot point’ of the soul) and letting God fill the space. For St Thérèse of Lisieux, we come ‘with empty hands’.

Does Jesus just pick out the ‘child’ metaphor as ‘suitable’ for his teaching? Or does this image best capture what was most personal to him? Being loved like a little child, being cherished and treasured -- this was his primordial experience. Addressed as the ‘beloved’ in the Baptism that begins his ministry, for instance, shapes and sustains his sense of his identity and his mission.

Child’s talk?

Some years ago, scripture scholar James Barr wrote an article ‘Abba Isn’t Daddy’. A key point was that Jesus’ use of Abba to describe his divine ‘Father’ wasn’t from a small child’s chatter. He explains:
The word’s origin wasn’t an infant’s stumbling efforts to pronounce ‘daddy’ and ends up as ‘da’ or ‘dada’. Abba was a family word that adults used to address the father of the house or clan. The word denoted respect, affection, even tenderness. Jesus, no doubt, grew up hearing this word at home and in village life.
 Today, we wouldn’t consider it childish to say ‘my darling father’ or ‘my dearest dad’.

Abba, then, for Jesus, best described his unique divine consciousness of being ‘closest to the Father’s heart’. No doubt, this phrase had special resonances for Jesus: ‘Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb’ (Isaiah 49:15).

Clearly, Jesus used Abba to express his intimacy with his Father. This practice had a lasting impact on his disciples.

Was Jesus unique or the first in addressing God as Abba / Father? Scripture scholars are hesitant to say a definitive ‘yes’. They suggest that Jesus’ use of Abba/Father was distinctive or characteristic of him. Certainly, it was a secret that only he could share with us. Think what doors, and hearts, it has opened.   


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