In July and August of 1939, just before World War II began, Msgr. Ronald Knox gave five sermons on the “Our Father” — my edition of his Pastoral Sermons does not indicate where, probably at Oxford. Some 60 years later, Pope John Paul II asked us to devote the final year of the 20th century to God the Father. We underestimate the importance of our minds if we think it unimportant that we rightly conceive God in the way He has revealed Himself to us.
Knox’s first sermon is entitled, “The Fatherhood of God.” Usually, we think of what we need and want, but in times of world crisis, Knox points out, we realize that the “future is in God’s hands, not ours.” We are, to be sure, created by God, so we bear His image in our very being. Yet we are not asked to pray to “God our Creator,” but to “God our Father.” Knox notices that in Our Lord’s teaching, “He is more anxious we should love God for His goodness, than fear Him for His punishments.” Yet, we cannot forget that in His Passion, Christ cried out, “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass; nevertheless, not my will, but thine.” How do we react to this sterner side of God’s Fatherhood? “In our age, we are frightened of it; we fight shy of it.”
Knox already saw that in this age, “filial piety is perhaps less taken for granted than in any age which went before us.” The consequence is that “if you tell a young man or a young woman of our generation to think of God as a Father, they do not necessarily love him any the better for that.” Yet, God is our Father “in the full sense.” This means, as St. Paul says, that we do not name God by analogy from earthly fatherhood, but just the opposite. God is the “author, not merely the cause, of our being.” This distinction is of great importance. “You must not wait till you can learn to understand your father before you learn to know God. It is by learning to know God that you will learn to understand your father.”
The Lord’s Prayer begins not simply with “Father” but “our Father,” or better in the Greek, “Father of us.” Knox adds, “When I pray, however much I am rapt and carried away by this intimacy with my Father, there must be a continual undercurrent in my prayer which reminds me that He is also our Father, the Father of us all.”
The teaching about God’s Fatherhood is also related to the way Yahweh is contrasted with other gods who dwell in “sanctuaries on earth.” The name we give God is unique in that it is a name we are told to call Him. The ancient gods had long lists of names. God is too holy to be named in the Old Testament. Christ teaches a more simple name, “our Father.” “His blessedness is such that all our praises, all our love, all our congratulation can add nothing to it.” We do not “add,” but we do “acknowledge.”
The Holy Father has often mentioned the scriptural passages in which we are pictured as “seeking the face of God” or wanting to know God “face to face.” In his audience of January 13, 1999, the pope explained that God gradually revealed His Fatherhood, culminating with Jesus. “Jesus based His teaching on His own experience as Son and confirmed the conception of God as Father already outlined in the Old Testament; in fact, He constantly expressed, lived it in an intimate and ineffable way, and offered it as a plan of life for anyone wishing to be saved.”
Thus, our understanding God as Father is not something we project by analogy on God. It is because of the internal life of the Trinity that we know the profound meaning of fatherhood and of a Son “begotten from all eternity of the Father in the Spirit.” To Philip’s question, “S how us the Father,” Christ answers that “knowing [him] (Jesus) means knowing the Father, because the Father works through [him]” (John, 14:8-11). We are, the pope teaches, adopted sons and daughters. If we want to meet the Father — we can refuse — we “must believe in the Son: through him God does not merely assure us of His providential care, but communicates His own life, making us ‘sons in the Son.'”
This article originally appeared in the June 1999 issue of Crisis Magazine.