A God called “Abba”
The first reading at Mass today was from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. In it we are told, “… those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God …” (Rom. 8:12-17)
The word, “Abba” is translated as Father in most Bibles and I was surprised and delighted to learn in high school that it is actually the affectionate term used by children for their father – more like Papa, or Daddy, or Dad in our contemporary usage. There was a time when children were expected to call their fathers by the more formal term, “Father.” But in most families that is not the common practice. We certainly never called my Dad by that term. It would seem strangely abstract and distant – not at all the kind of laughing, fun, joyful and yet still respectful and loving, relationship we have with him.
The immensity of the difference between the formal way I had always felt with the use of “Father” for God and the more homespun and comfortable use of “Abba” in its place was brought home to me very clearly seven or eight years ago. I was working in a shared office with an insurance agent, who happened to have been born and raised in Israel. A couple of his children were in high school and college and were working for him in his business to earn their spending money and funds for their tuition. As they worked with him day by day, they always addressed him as “Abba,” with a great deal of love and respect in their voices. It was a very loving family and in their interaction and mutual respect and love, summed up by the way they used “Abba,”I could appreciate how strikingly odd, daring, comforting and amazing Jesus’ use of “Abba” in reference to the Heavenly Father would have sounded to his followers.
If the Most High is actually “Abba,” as Jesus said he is, we have nothing to fear. Like little children, we can be assured that when we don’t do what we should, when we go the wrong way, when we fail to act lovingly, our Abba will still care about us and be there wanting to hold us, forgive us and set things right again. That, to me, is really Good News.