The Abba of Jesus By Sr. Joan Pensenstadler, S.S.N.D., Ph.D.
By the fourth century, Logos or Word Christology gave way to emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God. In large part this was an effort to combat the Arian heresy, which taught that, as the Word present from the beginning, Christ was the first-born of all creatures. The Council of Nicea insisted that Christ was "one in being" with God, begotten, not created. To establish this fundamental Christian belief, the relation between the Unoriginate Origin and the Beloved Begotten One was described in terms of Father and Son. These terms were not meant to indicate actual, separate entities, but relations in love.
It is this love relation which, I believe, best interprets the meaning underlying Jesus' reverent utterance of Abba. This personal address, literally translated "daddy" or "papa," is spoken by Jesus, not to anchor us to a male image, but to convey (through the words available to the first-century imagination in a patriarchal culture) the quality of relatedness he experienced with God. Calling God "Abba" suggests a relationship of intimacy and absolute trust and subverts the patriarchal sense of father where men dominate women, and children serve in unquestioning obedience rather than in grateful love.
Sandra Schneiders, in her book, Women and the Word* (1986--$4.76) contends that Jesus understood himself as one sent by God for a specific mission. John repeatedly presents Jesus as the One-Who-Is-Sent, which serves as a kind of parable throughout the Fourth Gospel. "The parable is that of the son who is gradually initiated into his father's trade, apprenticed to his father until such time as he is able to take over the 'family business."' This parabolic theme wherein Jesus gradually enters his father's business of bringing about the redemption of the world, requires, in the first-century imagination, a father image for God rather than that of mother. Schneiders continues, "In the patriarchal culture of Jesus a mother-son relationship could not have carried this meaning because mothers had no independent trades and they did not train their male children for adult work." The religious and cultural demands of Jesus' day call for him to name his experience as a father-son relationship. There are no other images available to him as the One-Who-Is-Sent.
Considering how seldom the word "father" is used as a reference to God in the Old Testament, and never as direct address, it must have been jolting to hear Jesus call God by the endearing term, "Abba." In doing so, Jesus was naming his God a tender and unconditionally loving parent rather than a royal patriarch who ruled his people from a mighty throne. Through Jesus' address of God in prayer and through the metaphor of God as father in the parable of the prodigal son, we see a father who is the very antithesis of patriarchy.
the father's behavior in Jesus' parable would have been a scandal to those imbibing the family standards of first-century Palestine. First, to allow a child to leave home with the blessing of his/her inheritance and then to receive the wayward one back with open arms and no conditions is the only metaphor of father appropriate for God who loves in total freedom. Father God receives us as the daughters and sons we will never cease to be, because unconditional love is who God is. Jesus healed the father metaphor which had been patriarchalized in the image of human power structures and restored to it the original meaning of divine origination in and through love.
Perhaps this is why Jesus gives the mandate: "Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the One in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). The human image of father had, sadly, been so perverted that the community of equals, which Jesus envisioned as the reign of God, could not emerge with the patriarchal understanding of father still intact. Jesus was creating a new family in which mutuality becomes the bond of relationality, guided by an unconditionally loving Abba, a justice embracing Sophia. It is the family in which there exist no rankings: "There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
God is a communion in love, and we are called to intimate participation in this divine relationality. Mother and father are powerful and intertwining metaphors, expressed throughout the Jewish and Christian Scriptures that speak of our profound relation with this God and his interaction with us. By proclaiming both images of eternal Mother and eternal Father, we being faithful to the God who has been revealed to us, and we are actually freeing God from the imprisoning confines of a single, masculine metaphor that cannot possibly contain Gods ineffable richness. Indeed, we must be true to the living God, lest we remain guilty of the accusation of Moses: "You forgot the God who gave you birth" (Deuteronomy 32:18).
But the Divine capacity for relation stretches us beyond parent-child metaphors to ones of mutuality and adult discipleship--lovers in partnership, co-creators in building the earth. Our challenge is to live the legacy of love that we have inherited from our gracious God, making the justice, compassion and inclusive community of Jesus a reality today. Even as we enlarge the metaphors, we realize all language about God is inadequate and ultimately brings us to profound reverence before the One beyond all names.
*At our on-line book store. Other books by Sandra Schneiders: Beyond Patching : Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church (1991--$7.16) and New Wineskins : Re-Imagining Religious Life Today (1986--$11.16).
Sr. Joan Pensenstadler is an Associate Professor at Mount Mary College and the Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Education. This article is condensed from her presentation, Father-Mother Images of God: Images for the Inexpressible, at the 1998 Association of Diocesan Liaisons Conference, Jamaica, NY.
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