The pang of not being a father
I don’t know what it is about long-haul flights – maybe the cramped conditions the subliminal knowledge that you are whizzing through the atmosphere at 600 mph in a tin tube – but I find my attention span is shortened. I can’t even sit through the on-board films.
On my flight home from Australia there was in the row next to me a couple with their child. He must have been about 18 months. He could walk a little, but still had that elasticity of limb that babies have. One could see his constant self-discovery, the way he was learning about his own body’s incarnation by grabbing on to his own toes and raising them to his mouth, gnawing on a dog-eared blanket, pointing to his own shadow and singing to himself.
Having engaged with him non-stop for hours, his poor parents dozed and the little chap, wanting an audience, smiled and waved at me across the aisle and played peek-a-boo. Finally I saw his eyelids grow heavy and, though he fought it, he eventually fell into a sleep, slowly relaxing more and more fully. It was far more engaging than anything on the in-flight entertainment.
In that strange world within a capsule, a capsule within a world, hurtling through the night, miles from home and high above the steppes of an unknown continent, I felt a sudden pang. I thought of it at first as something negative, as the realisation of something lost to me, namely, the experience of biological fatherhood. I had not thought much about it before. Is this, I wondered, an intimation of age?
But as I pondered I realised that what I thought was pain of loss was more complicated. The pain was love: a tenderness that can only be fully realised in relation to your own child, a love that needs to be poured out on its object to not be painful, but which could equally involve pain in being poured out.
That pain, in fact, alerted me to my potential fatherhood, as much as to its absence. I began to relate this fatherhood to the Son of God and his Passion. In some eternal way, perhaps the sacrifice of the Son on Calvary is not something that either he or the Father experience merely as loss.
The pain of sacrificing his Son for our salvation does not diminish the Father, even though he gives him up. Rather, it evokes in him a wholly new love in relation to the Son who consents to offer himself. For the obedience of perfect sonship with which Jesus gives himself entirely on the Cross is itself an affirmation and completion of the Fatherhood of God, if the Son, by so doing, becomes more truly Son.
Though he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering, says the Letter to the Hebrews. He could only learn or obey if there was already in the Father the example of this willingness to suffer – or, at least, to give himself away in love. And only for reasons of love would love allow or endure suffering.
We must not have an image of a Father who is indifferent or inured to the suffering of his Son, still less one who exacts the price of our salvation from the Son. If the suffering of the Son strikes us as cruel, we must realise that such pain touches the heart of the Father. He is no detached observer of the suffering of his only Son. He can allow or bear it only because it represents the staggering self-gift of the Son, given as the loving response to his Father’s own self-offering of love to him.
This is not diachronic (something happening over time). It does not happen only with the Cross. Rather, the Cross is the expression of its having happened. It is the eternal self-gift of the persons of Father and Son which evokes the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. He is the expression of what passes between Son and Father in their giving all to each other because the other desires it. He is the mutual self-gift of Father and Son now given as invitation to enter into that exchange.
When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself, Jesus says. On a plane at 30,000 feet I glimpsed something of what that means: that God the Father allows himself to become fascinated by me, a child who by rights is nothing to do with Him, because once a Son returned Him a perfect love which called forth from Him a depth of love he would otherwise not experience for those who share the likeness of his Son.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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