Although he had his foibles, my father was a good man. Apart from the talkativeness that came with a drink, he did not say much about himself, or about anything (a trait which I have definitely not inherited!). He was very quiet, even in the way he’d open and close the door. But he did plenty. He was a very hard worker, a docker for over 40 years. At one time, he and my grandfather were reckoned to be the two strongest men in my home town of Ardrossan. Whether true or not, it was a good line to throw at my friends. He had fought in Burma during World War II, so he had seen his fair share of the world and of its darker side. He was 45 when I was born, and I only ever saw him with white hair. There was a certain austerity to his aspect when he was sitting alone. I always felt there was a distance between us, as a matter of fact more than anything else. In some ways, it made him more mysterious and made me more respectful of him. I remember him taking me with him on his pushbike, placing me on the bar (locally we called it giving someone a “barrie”), when he went to work or went along the North Shore to gather seaweed for the garden. I felt very cozy on the bar, his arms around me, hands on the handles.
I remember him hoisting me up onto his shoulders when I was very wee. On Sundays, when he would read the newspaper, I crawled up onto his lap and studied his face intently, poking at it now and again to see how it felt and asking lots of questions. He didn’t wince, but kept his eyes steadily on the paper. He used to do a lot of gardening, especially on the vegetable side of things. I would wander in and out of his carefully laid rows of seed. He never scolded, but just put the rows back in order. I remember going with him to the Carmelite convent that was in the town there, to do their garden, too. I can still see him digging with great energy. I only once got corporal punishment from him, which was amply deserved for defying his curfew. On one occasion after I was ordained and encountering a problem, he gave me a pep talk that perked me up big time. I had never heard him speak like that before. It was wonderful. He was a faithful father to us children and a faithful husband to my mother and could show us all great kindness. He was not perfect, and he never claimed to be so. But he had, right to the end, a great sense of dignity and autonomy. As I said, my father was a good man.
I share all this with you today, because the first and second readings speak to us about God the Father and, I believe, call us to deepen our personal relationship with Him. But our relationship with God the Father, as those we have with God the Son and with Our Lady as our Mother, beckon us first to take a look at how we have experienced fatherhood in our own lives. Human fatherhood is God’s creation. Our earthly fathers are God the Father’s gift to us so that we will learn who He is as Father through them.
But the reality of life is not always straightforward. Some sociologists today say that we live in a fatherless society: the absent father is a major problem. And since fathers are human, they can fail, sometimes egregiously, in relation to their children. At other times, their faithful fulfilment of the paternal role provides immense confidence and a deep sense of self to both sons and daughters. Fatherhood along with motherhood are the foundational relationships of our lives and, for good or for ill, they leave profound marks on us in the depths of our psyches and souls.
A good relationship with your father sets the scene for a good relationship with God the Father. If your relationship with your father has been wanting, there can certainly be problems in understanding or even wanting God as Father. Yet, the very lack of a good human father can become a springboard for a potentially life-changing relationship with God the Father, since He is precisely the father you never had. Through faith, the very lack of a father, or the experience of a bad father, can become the fertile ground for a unique intimacy with God the Father. Whatever has been good in your relationship with your human father is taken up and multiplied infinitely in your relationship with God the Father. Whatever has been bad or lacking is now supplied by the infinite goodness of the heavenly Father.
And what are some of the traits of the heavenly Father? Our first two readings in particular today give us a lot of food for thought, prayer and rejoicing.
Firstly, there is the fact that God wants us to call Him father. Jesus used the Aramaic word “Abba” when addressing his divine Father. The “a” vowel and the “b” consonant are so basic and elementary. They already tell us that, as the infant is in its father’s arms attempting to talk to him in response to the gaze of love he is receiving, so are we in relation to God. We must not be proud, but try to imagine ourselves in that embrace. That is our starting point. We are held by the Father, basking in his gaze of eternal love, tenderly cradled in his powerful arms. That is a place we must return to often in our lives, especially – not except! – when we have sinned.
Isaiah says, “Our Redeemer is your ancient Name.” The Father rescues his child. Isaiah is talking about the rescue of Israel from Egypt. We are talking about the rescue from sin and death which the Father worked through the death and Resurrection of His Son, Jesus. But we are also talking about the rescue from sin in the sacrament of confession, the rescue from worry and anxiety through prayer and the Father’s providence. From any quandary or dilemma, our Father wants us to call on Him, “You, my Redeemer, your ancient Name!” And He will come to our rescue in the way and at the time His love knows best.
Such is the urgency with which Isaiah expresses Israel’s desire for God to return to help it, he cries, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down!” We know that God did that in sending us Christ, but I am sure there are times we all wish God would do the same in our own lives. And He will, if we trust Him. God as Father takes the initiative, He intervenes, He acts, He visits us. But we must trust Him, and live as He wants, keep Him in mind. How can our call be sincere if our lives are all over the place because of sin or apathy? We know how he wants us to live. If we do that with sincerity of heart, we will experience his fatherly power and initiative.
Isaiah also teaches us that the Father is no pushover. There are quite a few lines in the reading which speak of the Father’s anger at us for being rebels against him, like men unclean, our integrity like filthy clothing, withered by our sins. He addresses our apathy in these terms: “no one invoked your name or roused himself to catch hold of you.” And the anger of the Father is described thus: “… for you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins.” It does us no good to put too much sugar in our understanding of God. Sugar can neither eliminate just anger nor sweeten sin. The Father gets angry and is right to do so. Our sins cannot be whitewashed. They are unclean and filthy and they wither us away. We should ourselves be angry at that, angry that we have sold out on our loving Abba.
But if He is angry, it is only because He loves us and wants to reform us and educate us again in love and virtue. And here is the powerful image of the Father as the potter, we ourselves being the clay. He does not throw us away in our mess, but remoulds us through his gifts. The Father is the Giver of gifts and graces, all channelled to us through His Son and in His Spirit. If we withdraw from rebellion, he withdraws from anger and once more pours out on us, with all his jealous love, the power of His redeeming Spirit. Ensconced once more in His fatherly arms, the Spirit enables us to cry with new vigour, “Abba! Father!”
It is Saint Paul who gives us two other attributes of the Father, in the second reading. Firstly, he tells us that the Father will keep us “steady and blameless” for the day of Christ’s return. Naturally, that requires of us that we don’t rebel again in any major sense of the term, that is, we don’t live in mortal sin. We might wobble, but the Father will steady us, like he would a child staggering in finding its steps. Paul insists that the Father will keep us blameless. For us sinners, that’s hard to see, but we mustn’t doubt His promise. We must trust that He will do it.
And finally, Paul gives us a hugely consoling word about the Father: He is faithful to His call. He won’t change His mind about us. He won’t be like a father who wants a child and then, once it’s born, ignores it or rejects it. God’s fidelity does not depend on us. God is faithful because that’s who He is, and if He has created us, redeemed us and called us into His Church it is because He has in store for us “what no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has even entered into the heart of man: all that God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and all the rest find their origin in the Heart of God the Father. The whole of creation is His work of art. And yet, what He wants more than anything else is to hold each of us personally in His arms with everlasting love and hear us cry out, “Abba, Father!” Let that be our cry, our mantra, this Advent and Christmas.