I remember like it was yesterday. I was in fourth grade and me and my friends were watching The Empire Strikes Back, which everybody knows is the best of all the Star Wars movies. In the climactic scene, an under-prepared Luke Skywalker has just had an epic lightsaber fight with Darth Vader, who has cornered him and cut off his hand (super-traumatic!). And then it happened – Darth Vader, pretty much the most terrifying villain ever – tells poor Luke (whose hand he’s just cut off) that he’s his father! If you had been there, you would have heard a horrified gasp escape our 9-year-old lips, for it was pretty much the worst thing my buddies and I had ever seen. Absolutely devastating. So it might sound strange, but I think this seminal episode in pop culture history actually helps us to reflect on the first phrase of the prayer that Our Lord teaches us to pray. As shocking and awful as the discovery of Darth Vader’s fatherhood was to poor Luke Skywalker, so Jesus’ revelation that God is “Our Father” should shock us and fill us with joyful amazement.
We can understand the Fatherhood of God in a couple of ways. First, He is our Father in the sense that He is our Creator. We owe our existence at every moment to His desiring that we exist, and not just in some vague and general way. Indeed, He knows each one of us intimately, and wills that each one of us exist personally. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Lord God is always referred to as “Father” and never “Mother.” The reason for this is not explicit or totally clear in the scriptures. After all, God the Father is pure spirit, and has no physical characteristics of fatherhood. In fact, there are instances where the love that God has for the people is compared to the love that a mother has for her child. Then why is He always referred to as “Father?” In the ancient societies that would have surrounded the people of Israel and the early Church, worship of mother deities was very common. But these deities always implied a kind of pantheism, in which the difference between Creator and creature disappears. This makes sense if you consider the way an unborn child lives and is nourished in its mother’s womb. The God of Israel, however, is distinct from creation. He is “other,” which reflects the relationship of a father, who is always distinct from his child. Although this is theological speculation, and not a definitive answer, ultimately we always refer to God as Father and not Mother because that is the language of Sacred Scripture, including the language Jesus always uses to address God.
That being said, there’s another, and more awesome sense in which God is Our Father. When we think about Christ Jesus’ relationship to the Father, it is the relation of the First and Second divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity – God the Father and God the Son. Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Jesus is ‘the Son’ in the strict sense – He is of one substance with the Father. He wants to draw all of us into His humanity and so into His Sonship, into His total belonging to God.” Jesus is Son of the Father by nature. You and I are children of the Father by adoption, which occurs when we are reborn in Christ at our baptism. As adopted Children of God, we are given a full share in everything that Christ receives from the Father, including the right to address the Lord of Heaven and Earth in the tenderest of terms that a child uses to address its father – Abba, papa, dad.
If you’re still reeling from the trauma of Darth Vader’s paternity reveal, let me give you a different image to consider that I hope illustrates the second sense of God’s fatherhood. Imagine you’re someone who has no family of your own and have spent your life basically alone. You fall in love, and you end up marrying into the best family ever. At the wedding, your new father-in-law – of whom you’re in awe (and who is the opposite of Darth Vader) – puts his arm around your shoulder and says: “please call me dad.” In a small way, the joy that this would bring is like the joy that we should feel as members of the Church, the Bride of Christ, who at the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching dare to call God “Our Father.”