Coming to Terms: Our Father Who Art In Heaven
by Catherine Fournier
There are many silly reasons for it, and I'm sure I've heard them all. "I don't want to distress those in the congregation who had difficult relationships with their fathers." "Assigning a gender perpetuates the inequalities of our male dominated culture . . . " "It's just another title, one's as valid as the other." I'm referring of course to the fashion of substituting the title "Creator" in place of "God the Father."
I've also been left speechless by the assertion that "It's only because you're a writer that you think it's important. Most people don't notice or care about the substitution, they know what I mean."
As an experiment, after Sunday Mass next week, try addressing your parish priest as 'Parent N.' If you can bring yourself to do it, I think you'll both be surprised how ludicrous and inappropriate it sounds, and how insulted your priest is by your changing his title. If you like, you can address your next letter to your parents "Dear Begetter." Be prepared for some repercussions though. I think your mother and father will notice and care about the substitution.
Naming is a fundamental human activity, from earliest times part of what and who we are. "So the Lord God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name." (Genesis 2:19) Naming is not arbitrary, through names we declare identity and connection. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you." (Jer. 1:5)
We choose and use names carefully. My youngest son is named 'Robert Emmanuel' in honour of a dear family friend, Father Bob Papi, my Scottish heritage, Robert the Bruce (strong), my favorite Advent hymn 'O come, O Come Emmanuel' and the conviction that 'God [is] with Us.' When he was very small, I called him 'Bud' (I don't know why.) Now that he is bigger, he and I have agreed that no longer the size of a bud, he should be called 'Twig,' because he's very skinny. A child with strong inner dignity, we never call him 'Bob' always 'Robert.'
Robert had a speaking role in the Christmas play this year. His father took him to the school the night of the first performance. Though he didn't tell me about it afterwards, I'm sure that my husband Peter listened patiently as Robert proudly explained all his costume changes and stage moves, expressed confidence that Robert would play his part well, applauded loudly enough that Robert could hear he was in the audience, and rewarded him for a job well done with praise, some constructive criticism and stories of his own childhood on the way home.
In short, he was father to his son. The little boy who once was so attached to his mother that he would punch his siblings if they hugged me in his sight, now is reservedly affectionate with me and devoted to his Dad. And my husband, recognizing and understanding the importance of this relationship in the development of his son into a man, reciprocates with all the love, personal attention and affection of a father. The title at once expresses the physical relationship and the unique intimate personal active role.
The name Father is both earned and bestowed. Our priests earn the title Father because their relationship with their parishes is one of love and guidance. In the same way a Father is called to guide and lead his family, priests earn their name using praise, constructive criticism and stories to aid us in our development as God's people. We bestow the name Father upon these men because they stand 'in the person of Christ' and we ask them as God's representatives to carry out the duties of a father.
Calling them Father expresses a trust that they will love and guide us. It also expresses the knowledge and confidence that this is God's role too. Whatever our experience of fatherhood, as our Father He will love, guide and protect us, and then welcome us home at the end of time.
God has called Himself our Father, but just as He brought all the creatures to Adam for naming, He asks that we re-affirm the relationship by giving Him the name Father. We call ourselves His children each time we do so.
On the other hand, the word Creator is a functional title, nothing more. It carries no message of relationship, connection or trust. Creation is a one time affair. Even the most dedicated artist will eventually declare his work finished and move on to another project, yet God has promised that He will never abandon us. Creation brings things into being, it does not continue a relationship with them.
The substitution of Creator for Father is not an insignificant or unimportant change. It subtly but significantly erodes the love and trust between God and His people, removes God to the position of an artistic tinkerer and demotes us to objects. We can not follow someone who does not care about us, we can not love someone who does not involve themselves in our daily lives.
Peter's pride in his son, Robert's admiration of his father, God's love for them both deserves better.
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