In the Lord’s Prayer, we begin with the words – ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’. That we can refer to God as ‘Father’ is something that is now often taken for granted, even by non-Christians. We see ourselves as naturally being God’s children, and any suggestion that there may exist an enormous gulf between creature and transcendent Creator, let alone a separation due to sin, is anathema to modern man. Yet, in the liturgy of the Roman rite, this first line of the Pater Noster is prefaced with the words ‘we dare to say…’; in the Eastern rite liturgies, similar expressions are used, such as ‘we dare in all confidence…’ and ‘make us worthy of…’ These prefaces are grounded in a proper awareness of the transcendent holiness of God, and the awesome privilege we have in being able to address Him as Father. As the Catechism (quoting Saint Peter Chrysologus) says:
‘Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry…“Abba, Father!”…When would a mortal dare call God “Father”, if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?’
It is by no means obvious that we should be able to address God in this way, and when Jesus, asked by His disciples how to pray, offered this as a paradigmatic form, He was doing something quite revolutionary, and offering a preview into the great reconciliation between God and man later to be achieved through His atoning sacrifice. God is holy, which does not just mean morally perfect, but to be set apart from the world, and in God’s case this is entirely so, in that He is completely other than His creation. I am certainly not denying that He is also immanent within creation, but I feel the balance has swung too far in that direction, and am trying to address it by drawing a bit more attention to the utter transcendence of God.
This also of course brings to mind the Incarnation – this too is an awesome, marvellous thing, which when meditated upon, leads to an intangible feeling of awe. God the Son deigned to enter into our world and reveal Himself to us, and furthermore told us that we, by uniting ourselves to Him, may have the honour of calling His Father our Father. This is astonishing, that we may be able to unite ourselves to God in this way, and be taken up via the power of the Holy Spirit into the loving relationship between Father and Son that always was, is and ever will be.
The nature of the Holy Trinity is love – God is Love, and the Trinitarian doctrine outlined at Nicaea and Chalcedon preserves this essential teaching for us. However, the idea that God is love is another example of something simply assumed by many. Yet, is it obvious that this should be the case? It is certainly possible to ascertain that God is great, God is holy, omnipotent, omniscient, and even Good. Yet, to say that God is Love is something that natural reason could not have discovered for itself – it is by no means obvious. However, many today, often those wishing to undermine or deconstruct Chalcedonian doctrine, seeing it as restrictive or a needless accretion to the ‘basic’ Gospel, do see it as such.
For example, it is sometimes said that all we need to know is that Jesus died for us on the Cross, that this shows God’s love for us, and the rest of Catholic doctrine is just commentary or annotation – sometimes helpful, often not. But this seems to me to beg the question – how does one know that the Cross reveals God’s love for us? Without the preservation of a particular understanding of who Jesus is and what He came to do, as well as what His life death and resurrection achieved – i.e.; without the deposit of faith held within the Church (which includes Scripture and Tradition) – Calvary would be a historical footnote, at best. The doctrines held to be unnecessary by those who wish to reduce or obviate Church teaching in this way actually need to be assumed before one can begin the reduction process. Thus the reductionist is caught in something of a contradiction.
God is Love, and we are able to say, with Jesus, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven…’, but these are not things to be taken for granted, and we can only know them because our Lord formed a Church that would preserve His teaching about Himself, and gave that Church the assurance that His Spirit would continue to guide us throughout the ages, leading the Church into greater understanding of the Truth. To take these things as given is to undermine the awesome honour that has been bestowed upon us in being allowed to become partakers of the divine nature, and to confuse nature with grace. Nature can only tell us so much, and so must be perfected by grace – we must never take for granted the incredible otherness of the things that have been revealed to us, even (and perhaps especially) when they seem to have become self-evident.