The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 1: Avinu-Malkenu (Our Father-Our King)"


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In the beginning there was a good Father. We can speak of Him as Father, not because He, in some merely figurative way, resembles those whom we call our fathers on this earth. Rather, all others are called fathers only because, in some very imperfect way, they imitate His Fatherhood. For it is from Him, the greatest and best of Fathers, that, as St. Paul says (Eph 3:15), "all fatherhood in heaven and earth is named." Really, we should call Him the good Father, for in comparison to Him, no other being is good (Lk 18:18-19), no other deserves the name of Father.

Again, we really should not have said: there was a good Father. For while of all creatures we can correctly say: "they were" or "they will be", of Him it is only correct to say: "He is." For whatever goodness, or happiness, or even existence we creatures have, we have it piecemeal: one installment, as it were, of our existence succeeds or follows after the previous bit has ceased to be, while another waits ready to follow when our present fleeting fragment has passed. But with the Father there is no constant succession of birth and death of moments in a bit by bit existence. He is. All that He is and has, He possesses simultaneously, in one undying, eternal present, which never began, nor will ever cease. As we saw above, although we seem to ourselves to say rightly, for example, that He created the world, using a past tense, yet for Him that, like everything else, is present. And though we say that His Son will come at the end, yet for Him, that is simply now present. For with Him (Jas 1:17), "the Father of lights, there is no variation or shadow of change." If no change, then no succession of future-present-past-for time is the most restless of changes. To Him who is, all is present, eternally present. (We begin to see why Dionysius said that God is best known by unknowing: we must constantly correct our imperfect words when we speak of Him.)

This good Father is rightly called Father in the first place because He has one only-begotten Son. Yet this Son is not younger than He, nor lesser in dignity or power. Of Him the Eternal Father says through the Psalmist (2:7): "You are my Son, this day have I begotten you." That is, on the never beginning, never ending day of eternity. "Yours is princely power on the day of your birth in holy splendor: before the daystar, like the dew, have I begotten you." In the infinite act of knowledge of Himself that is His very being, the Father speaks but one word (Jn 1:1)-not a word that is a quickly-dying vibration of the air, such as we creatures utter, but a complete expression of Himself, so perfect, so substantial, that this Word is a Person, His eternal Son. And yet, though the Son is another Person, distinct from the Father, that same Son could correctly say (Jn. 10:30): "I and the Father are one."

From the unfathomable stream of infinite knowledge that flows between the Father and the Son, there proceeds Infinite Love. But again, it is not a love such as that which we creatures know among ourselves. We must again revise our words: this Love of the Father and the Son is a Person, a distinct Person, the Holy Spirit. Yet these three are only one, one inexpressible God.

It is right to speak of this adorable Trinity as inexpressible, for no created words can represent the divine wonders. That is why we have repeatedly found it necessary to correct our language, as we compare divine truths to things of our experience. For all our human words are dependent on those things which we have experienced in some way. To express created things, created words can suffice. But since nothing we know directly can mirror more than some fragmentary gleam of the divine perfection, we must constantly apply correctives to our words when we apply then to God.

Here in passing we might well reflect on the frightening responsibility of those of us creatures who are called father, be it in the natural, or the supernatural order. For since the notion a child gains of God our Father is based on the experience he has of those whom he learns to call father, what he sees in them will of necessity reflect on God Himself!

There is another important corrective we need to use in our description of God. For it is really not true to say that He has goodness, or justice, or love. It is correct to speak thus of ourselves, weak creatures, that we have goodness, love, justice, since it is not our very nature to be good, loving, or just. We are one thing; our goodness is another. But in the "one who is good, God" (Lk 18:19) there is no such real difference. He does not really have goodness, He is Infinite Goodness. He does not have love: rather, as St. John wrote (1 Jn 4:8): "God is love."

Love is a desire for the well-being and happiness of another for the other's sake1 and so involves self-giving. The Father gives Himself so fully that the Son thus has His Divine Being. The mutual giving of Son to Father and Father to Son again is another Divine Person, the Holy Spirit. So St. John did well to write "God is love."

These thoughts of the Father who is no greater than His Son, of the Son who is as eternal as the Father, of the three who are one, of the God who never was nor will be, but only is-these daze our poor minds. An eternity of face to face contemplation will not enable our minds to come to the end of amazement. J. P. Arendzen wrote well:

God remains unfathomable even to the greatest of His saints. They see Him, but none can see to the very depths of his divine being. God is a world, a wide universe, which none of the Blessed has ever totally explored. Even after millions of cycles of ages, neither Mary, the Queen of Heaven, nor Michael, the Prince of the heavenly host, shall exhaust the greatness of the divine majesty. It is an ocean on which the little craft of created intelligence can forever press forward in all directions. For it is a sea without a shore. As a pretty many-colored insect on swift wings floats on the summer breeze and allows itself to be driven along in the seemingly boundless air; as a lark rises in the apparently boundless sky, so do the blessed roam about in the limitless wideness of God.2

But it is good for us to stand in powerless awe before the inexpressible abyss of the Three who are One, the God who is love.

In His incomprehensible generosity, this good eternal Father planned to become our Father. It is solely out of the most absolute generosity that He conceived this desire. For in Himself, in the boundless life in which each divine Person gives Himself so fully to the Other that all are equal, yet all are One, He neither needs nor possibly could gain anything. As St. Irenaeus said: "In the beginning, God formed Adam, not because He stood in need of man, but that He might have someone to receive His benefits."3

It is often said that He created to manifest His own glory.4 This is true, but only if it is properly understood. We will grasp it best if we consider the truth as it is implicitly revealed in the constantly repeated teaching of Our Lord Himself that God is our Father. An earthly Father does not desire children that he may have someone to honor him, or to give him glory. Nor does he really love and care for them because they are good, but because he is good. Yet he does will that they honor him-not for his own good, but for a twofold reason: First, because what is right in itself calls on children to honor and obey their father;5 second, so it may be well with them, for if they obey him, they are disposed to receive all that he generously wills to give them.

Similarly, though immeasurably greater and purer6 is the generosity of our Father in heaven. What little honor we could give Him, even if we were far more faithful than we are, is not the thing that really moved Him to make us. Really, when we speak of "serving God" we should put those words within quotation marks. Imagine a monastic community of a hundred of the greatest Saints "serving" God for a century by fasting, silence, the divine office, the Mass. Or think of an apostolic community of the same number of Saints, engaged in superhuman works of zeal of the apostolate for a century. At the end of that time, He would gain nothing at all from either group. As the book of Job says (2:2-3) "Can a man be profitable to God? . . . Is it a gain to Him if you make your ways perfect?"

Nothing at all can strictly move the Unchangeable Father. Rather, out of His Infinite Goodness and the unspeakable Love that He is, in unalloyed generosity, with no hope or possibility of any gain whatsoever for Himself, He freely willed to be our Father.

When we creatures love another, we are started in that direction by some good we see or think we see in another. That leads us to feel or think: "Such a fine person. I hope he/she is well off, gets what he/she needs for happiness." For that is precisely what love is, willing good to another for the other's sake. But what good did our Father see in us at the very beginning, before He made us, that led Him to love us? Nothing at all-for we were, simply speaking, nothing. Any good we were to be or to have would be purely His gift. So we can see now: He alone is purely generous. His love needs no starter, needs not to see good in another. When we love we need such a starter, and hence we cannot match His pure unmixed generosity.

Lovingly, as a parent might prepare the room in expectation of the first child to come, our Father prepared a wondrous world for His children, that He might satisfy His deep desire to share His happiness. By an all powerful fiat of His will, He created the vast depths of starry space, and adorned them with a lavish profusion of diamond-gleaming galaxies, that the heavens might tell the glory of the good Father who made them.

It is good for us to contemplate these amazing works of our Father, to try to gain some small impression of His immense majesty. As Pius XII told an international meeting of astronomers:

We are grateful to you . . . because this scientific exploration and elevating contemplation of the universe lifts up our spirit . . . ever higher towards the knowledge of that Supreme Goal who transcends all knowledge and impresses His own seal [some image of Himself] in every other being . . . Who is "the love that moves the sun and the other stars."7

Let us imagine ourselves out of doors on a clear autumn night. As we turn to the southern portion of the heavens, there, close to the horizon, we see a rather small, reddish star. It is called Antares, and belongs to the constellation of Scorpio. Its small size is, of course, only apparent, for astronomers tell us that the diameter of Antares is so huge that even if the more than 93 million miles of space that lie between our earth and the sun were tripled, Antares still could not pass between them! It is many times the diameter of the sun. Still more tremendous is its distance. For although its light has been racing towards us at the staggering speed of over 186,000 miles per second, every second of every minute, every minute of every hour, every hour of every year, still, the light we see tonight has taken well over 430 years to reach us.

And yet, the great God who made all the splendor of the heavens by a mere word, loves each one of us, and wants us to call Him Father.

But now let us turn to the northern sky. There, in the constellation of Ursa Minor, we find Polaris, the star that gleams directly over the north pole of our earth. The light we see began its journey to us long before these United States were founded, in fact, long before the century in which Columbus set sail: it was about the time of the Great Western Schism, in the fourteenth century, that the light of Polaris began its long journey, speeding every second, day and night, for over six hundred years, at the rate of over 186,000 miles per second. If in the time of Luther, God had willed to annihilate that star, even today we would not know of the destruction, for the light that set out in the 14th century would still be coming to our eyes.

And yet, the mighty God who made all these wonders, not by great labor, not after long planning, but by merely willing them-He loves me and wants me to call Him Father.

But, the truth is, even Polaris lies at a relatively short distance. Nearby in the sky, as it seems, in the W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia is a very dim patch of light which is really a world in itself, an independent galaxy or "island universe." It is Andromeda. It lies far beyond the galaxy to which our earth and sun belong, at a distance of 2.2 million light years. Nor is it the outermost lightship of creation.

Years ago, when the 100 inch telescope of Mount Wilson was first trained on the heavens, it was able to detect some one hundred million galaxies within the sphere of a billion light years, each galaxy having about one hundred billion stars. More powerful instruments since that day have greatly enlarged what we can detect. At present the most distant objects seem to be the Quasars, the farthest of which is perhaps 14 billion light years away. Only our Father knows how many more universes may lie beyond even this staggering reach. For He is "the love that moves the sun and the other stars."8 Yet this God of awful majesty loves me, and not only permits, but insists that I call Him Father.

The vast splendor of the heavens tells the glory of their Lord most eloquently of all. But for him who pauses to meditate, all creation speaks of the wonders and goodness of our Father-from the majesty of snow-draped mountains and murmuring pine forests, to the crystal-bedecked caverns that lie beneath them; from the roaring ocean swells to the mysterious creatures that inhabit the lightless deeps; from the simple invisible cells that multiply themselves countless thousands of times, to the wonderful intricacy of the human brain, in which before birth hundreds of thousands of neurons develop each minute, each making hundreds of thousands of synapses (connections), to a total of about 100 trillion synapses, and about 1011 neurons (about 100 billion). Yet no two neurons are identical in form.9

Even if we look at a bit of wood or fabric-every fiber in it is teeming with atoms, each comparable to a miniature universe. The simplest atoms, like hydrogen, have just one electron and a nucleus. More complex atoms, such as uranium, have seven orbits, or better, energy levels around them. Within the nucleus lies a complex organization whose basic building blocks we are just beginning to understand. Yes, it is right to sing in the liturgy: "The heavens and earth are full of your glory. All you works of the Lord, bless the Lord."

Aristotle, greatest of pagan philosophers, considered it unthinkable that even friendship should exist between a god and man.10 Yet he had in mind poor beings we would not call gods at all. What would he think of the gulf between Infinite Power and Goodness, and creaturely nothingness!

Indeed, if we allow our imagination free play, we might think of some great archangel flying through outer space, and looking from afar on our globe. Any one of us might well seem to him as a tiny dark blob, which appears for but a moment on the surface of the sphere, and then sinks back, to be seen no more. He might see too that this tiny thing is not only insignificantly small and short-lived, but that it is besmirched with many a stain. Yet, he would see this inconsequential soiled speck lift up its eyes, raising them beyond the farthest stars and most distant universes to heaven itself, and say: "My Father-I love you." Unthinkable boldness! That such a being should dare not only to speak to its Creator, but to call the great God Father, and should dare to offer Him its love! "What is man, that You are mindful of him, or the son of man, that You visit him?" (Ps 8:4).

And yet, our Father not only allows, not only invites, but even insists that we love Him. And such is His love that although when we turn to look at our own weakness and sinfulness, we see that we really are soiled dust, yet by His goodness and power, our lowliness has been made capable of receiving, by grace, a real participation in the very nature of the great God Himself. As St. Peter wrote (2 Pt 1:4) we are "sharers in the divine nature."


1 Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8. 2.
2 J. P. Arendzen, Purgatory and Heaven, Tan Books, Rockford, 1972. pp. 60-61. St. Thomas Aquinas thinks there is no development or progression in the vision of God: Contra gentiles 3. 60. But cf. St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 7. 9: ". . . in heaven . . . those who know Him more, understand more clearly the infinity they still have to understand." From: "Vida Y Obras de San Juan de la Cruz", Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Madrid, 1950, p. 1007.
3 St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4. 14. 1 p. 7. 1010.
4 Vatican I, Canon I de Deo creatore, DS 3025. Cf. Philip J. Donnelly, "St. Thomas and the Ultimate Purpose of Creation" in: Theological Studies 2 (1941) pp. 53-83, and the words of Bishop Gasser, President of the Doctrinal Commission in Collectio Lacensis VII. 113. Friburg, 1892.
5 We note here the same two reasons that our Father pursues in His works towards us.
6 The second of these reasons, His concern for objective goodness, will be developed more in chapter 4.
7 Pius XII to the International Union of Astronomers, Rome, Sept. 7, 1952. AAS 44. 732. The internal quote is from Dante, Paradiso 33. 145.
8 Dante, cited in note 7 above.
9 Cf. Scientific American, September, 1979, esp. pp. 45-46, 55, 113.
10 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8. 8.