The Name of God: Abba
by Fr. Paul Tarazi
When Jesus sent His apostles to preach the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 10:7), He said to them, “He who welcomes you welcomes Me, and he who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me. He who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet, receives a prophet’s reward; he who welcomes a holy man because he is a holy man, receives a holy man’s reward. And I promise you that whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is a disciple, will not want for his reward.” (Mt. 10:40-42) The meaning is clear: the disciple, the prophet and the holy man are representatives of the Lord, and to welcome one of them is to welcome the sender Himself. But the situation is not so obvious in the case of children, for one might interject and rightly so: there is no basis whatsoever to say that a child as such represents Jesus, exactly as there is no ground for Christ to be in the midst of a gathering of two or three per se. Our Lord Himself acknowledges the validity of such an objection when He adds in both cases the key expression “in My name.” Thus He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in My name, welcomes Me,” (Mt. 18:5), as He does later: “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in their midst.” (v. 20)
In biblical terminology, the name fully expresses the reality and the being of a person. And the personal presence of someone gives a new perspective, imprints a new outlook to a given situation. It is therefore Christ Himself who, in as much as He rules our lives, makes us see the children and their role in our life in an unprecedented and unique perspective. The questions put to us are: What is actually that perspective? How does it work? and, What is its impact on our daily life?
In the whole New Testament the Aramaic word “Abba” appears only three times: once on the lips of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36) and twice in the letters of St. Paul where we read that the Spirit of Christ is Himself the one who cries in us: Abba. (Rm. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6) Moreover, in the three instances the authors give the Greek translation* of this word, which is Father. But precisely this fact brings to our mind the question: Why didn’t the authors merely use the Greek word for “Father” since the whole text is in Greek? Finally, the fact is noteworthy that, in all the ancient liturgies of the Church, the exhortation of the priest to the faithful before the Lord’s prayer runs similar to the one we hear today in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, namely, “And vouchsafe, 0 Lord, that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call upon thee, the heavenly God, as Father…”
The result of all this is the following: Jesus Christ’s use of the Aramaic “Abba” made such an impression on His disciples in that it was a unique instance in 1st Century Jewish piety; this explains why it stamped the apostles’ memory. Moreover, it was an exclusive use to the extent that the early Church was aware that, only through Jesus and in His Spirit, one could utter that word, that is, she was aware that its use was ultimately reserved to Christ Himself. This explains why the early Christians considered it daring to call God “Father” and prayed not to be condemned for such boldness.
But why? Why all this fuss about a simple Aramaic word? Well, it is because — and modern biblical research has convincingly shown that —“Abba” actually means “Daddy”! Shocking even to the most remote and possibly unused grey call of the coolest and most objective human brain: A young man of 1st Century Palestine called God “Daddy.” Unbefitting, scandalous, blasphemous, crazy, unreal! … Maybe! But he did it, he did call the Almighty One “Daddy”! He addressed God as a child his own father!
Open then your catechisms, teachers, and bring your books, theologians . . . Add to the question “What is God?” and to the chapter entitled “God” that He is also “Daddy,” a “Daddy,” even if He is so only to Jesus . . . Add it! And if this shatters your whole mental conception of what God is, then be it so! “Abba” prayed the man of Nazareth when He felt the bitterness of suffering and death at Gethsemane. . . “Abba” prayed He and that moment has forever been inscribed in the flesh of our human history! A man of our own flesh and blood considered Himself to be in a unique way the child of the Most High!
From that moment on every child baptized and chrismated in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Son of God, has daring to call God “Daddy,” that is with the same expression he uses to address his own earthly father. The practical meaning of this is that whatever image a child develops of God’s Fatherhood is to a great extent rooted in his experience of our parenthood. And woe to us if that image is distorted! Woe to us if our children refuse to say the Lord’s prayer because of us! Christian parents, you have been made aware: in your case, it is not enough to be good parents, nor great parents, nor even extraordinary parents! . . . Christian parents, you have been told the only way out. “You be perfect, even as the Father who is in heaven is perfect!” (Mt. 5:48)
“But, O God,” one might say, “this is too much. This is absurd to the extent of being both ridiculous and impossible. And above all, You are imposing on me an uncalled for situation!”
Allow me to share with you how I imagine God’s answer would sound.
“My dear fellow, I know how you feel and I know how it hurts. But I had no choice. My sadness was so unfathomable when you didn’t want to understand that I was a question of life and death for you, and My impatience grew because My love for you was so great that I did not want you to choose death. But how could I impose a choice on someone I created in My image, free as I am? How could I? So I decided to share with you a level which you considered proudly and selfishly yours. But this decision was so expensive for Me. I had to sacrifice My only child, the only one who, by nature and right, calls Me “Daddy.” I felt the bitterness of death when I heard him saying, ‘Abba, you have the power to do all things. Take this cup away from Me.
Nevertheless, may Your will be done, not Mine.’ (Mk. 14:36) Dear fellow, this was the price I paid to make you understand that I shared parenthood with you.
“But, if it is through baptism that your child calls Me “Father,” then by the same token you also are My child. And this is precisely what hurts you, that you cannot be totally like Me: solely Father; that you cannot be totally like Me: the ultimate Giver of Life. I know, to acknowledge that was precisely the hardship of the first Adam. It is indeed hard for a grownup person to admit that he is also a child. But, you do have the example of the new Adam, Jesus, My Son. It is, after all, at the peak of His human glory that He knelt and cried: Abba!
“Come on, dear fellow, let it go. Don’t quench the Spirit of Sonship. Let Him cry in you: Abba! Come on, don’t be another first Adam. ‘The whole creation groans and is in agony, awaiting the manifestation of God’s children.’ (Rm. 8:19) Come on, child, the whole creation is waiting for you to be renewed. Come on, child, say it, say: Abba!”
We have seen that if we receive a child in Christ’s name, i.e., if we have Christ’s perspective in dealing with a child, then we receive more than we had ever expected; then we are introduced into the mystery of mysteries, the mystery of God the Father, which is nothing else but the Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal Life. This explains why, in the gospels of Mark and Luke, the text assigned for our sermon reads thus: “Whoever welcomes a child such as this in My name welcomes Me. And whoever welcomes Me, welcomes, not Me, but Him who sent Me.” (Mk. 9:37; Lk. 9:48)
AN ILLUMINATING STORY
Before departing, let me share with you a story which might illumine some aspects of my message. This past academic year, two seminarians were assigned to my parish. My four year old son, Jalal, must have taken hardly the weekly intrusion of these two sub-deacons in the churchly domain reserved to his father. So, one Sunday after Liturgy, he holds one of them in the Church Hall and says, “Tom, you know, you are only a priest. But my Daddy is both a priest and Daddy.”
Suddenly, it dawned on me why only a child can speak of that kingdom to come. It dawned on me because I remembered that, in the book of Revelation, the Heavenly City, Jerusalem the Golden, shall have no temple, since God Almighty and the Lamb shall be its temple (21:22); there priesthood shall cease, whereas the loving Father and the sacrificed Son shall remain forever. It dawned on me because the text goes on saying that Jerusalem the Golden “had no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God gave it light and its lamp was the Lamb.” (v. 23) And I understood that the child lives in a world very similar in its essence to the Kingdom of Heaven. In his world Dad and Mom are the essential life-bestowing and life-preserving factors, and in the Kingdom the Father will be all in all. (I Cor. 15:28) And I understood that without children our vision of God would be highly impoverished and our grasp of His kingdom very loose. And I understood that the children are there for us not to rear and make grow into our likeness, but rather to have around as a living icon of what we are called to become. And I understood more than ever the profoundness of the Lord’s saying, “Verily I say to you: unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mt. 8:3)
I understood and I wept. And I prayed: “Abba, Daddy! Have mercy!” And for an unforgettable second I had a foretaste of the Kingdom.
*What makes the translation even more obvious is that, in the three cases, the Greek text reads “the Father” and not simply the vocative “Father,” which would have been more natural.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America