This Father’s Day is a particularly special one in my household as it is my first. My wife and I welcomed our son, Moses Elias Coleman, into this world on July 16th, 2013, and thus we will be celebrating Father’s Day with an 11-month-old. While reflecting upon this fact I could not help but notice the serendipity of Father’s Day coinciding with the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity this year. Further adding to this happy coincidence is the first reading from today’s Mass for the Most Holy Trinity featuring, you guessed it, a scene from the life of the prophet Moses. The synchronicity of these events, however, is not confined simply to the names of persons. The biblical passage in today’s first reading is one which I often use in the classroom in order to demonstrate the harmony of the Old and New Testaments. More specifically, today’s first reading shows that both Testaments agree that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16).
The biblical passage in question relates the story of God’s theophany to Moses atop Mount Sinai. Previously, Moses had asked God for a glimpse of the divine ‘glory’ (kabod). In response to this request, and because Moses had found favor with the LORD, God promised to reveal His ‘beauty’ or ‘goodness’ (tub) to the prophet (Ex 33:17-19). But rather than simply display His presence, God also speaks His glory to Moses. While passing over Moses, God utters His divine name (see Ex 3:14) – a very intimate act – and then verbally communicates His presence. God says: “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Ex 34:6). This revelation of God’s nature, i.e., “slow to anger and rich in kindness,” is almost axiomatic in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Nm 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 85:15; 103:4-8; 145:8; Jl 2:13; Jon 4:2; etc.). In other words, later prophets and psalmists discerned well that this phrase reveals – as much as human words can – something essential of God’s divine nature.
To put it plainly, when Moses experiences the LORD’s divine presence, what is revealed to him is God’s ‘loving-kindness’ (chesed). He sees not God’s righteousness, or even holiness, but His love. God’s glory is His love. In the original Hebrew, this word connotes a mode of loving which is relational and covenantal. It is not ‘unconditional,’ but calls for a response in kind from the beloved. Like a father loves his child, so too does God love Israel; and this love – as the above passage demonstrates – is part of God’s innermost being. “When Israel was a child I loved him,” God says through the prophet Hosea, “out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). But simply because this love is ‘conditional,’ does not mean that it is coerced. On the contrary, God gives us the freedom (brings us “out of Egypt”) and patiently waits for His covenantal love, His paternal love, to be reciprocated by His children.
Turning to the New Testament, perhaps the best-known illustration of God’s paternal love for us is contained in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32). Although much can be said of each of the main characters in this parable, the father in this story mirrors well the love and patience which our Heavenly Father has for each one of us. When his spendthrift son asks for his inheritance (which is tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead so that I could have my money now!”), the father honors the freedom of the son and acquiesces to his request. Upon the son’s return the father spies him from “a long way off,” suggesting that he has been vigilantly awaiting this moment, and embraces his son with neither reserve nor hesitation. Despite living a life of debauchery and impurity, squandering his inheritance on prostitutes and tending to unclean animals, the son’s sincere contrition and confession are enough to send the father into a flight of rapturous joy.
When I recently taught this passage to my undergraduates I decided to relate a personal experience in order to underscore the love and patience of the father in this story and, consequently, the love and patience which our heavenly Father has for each one of us. When my son was about 4 months old a situation arose in which I was left alone with him while he was crying inconsolably. There was nothing I could do to relieve him of this condition. He w
anted Mama, as all 4-month-olds do, and Papa quite simply would not suffice. So there I was, on the sofa, with the red and tear-soaked face of my son emitting a pulsating and animalistic cry from over my left shoulder, while I gently and calmly patted his back with my right hand. This continued for quite some time…at least in my mind. And so it is with our heavenly Father, who patiently waits for us to calm down from the disruption and disorder of our sins and respond to His paternal love with filial devotion.
This Father’s Day let us remember that whenever we as fathers are “slow to anger and rich in kindness,” we incarnate the glory of God, the love of the Father. Whenever we give or receive paternal love, we are experiencing – in a limited and analogous way – a love whose source is the inner-Trinitarian life of God. And, let us also remember, that this love calls for us to become by adoption what Christ is by nature, i.e., sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. Jesus doesn’t want just servants, he wants siblings!
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.