Today’s find: Abba

Vacation videos: They’re not for the faint of heart. But every once in a while, a real gem emerges—as was the case a few years ago, when my brother-in-law was showing us clips from his trip to the Holy Land.

He had happened upon a playground in Jerusalem, packed with four- and five-year-olds clambering on a jungle gym—many of them, bleating for attention for their feats of derring-do: “Abba! Abba! Abba!” the kids would shout.

And that’s when it hit me, just how badly translated this Aramaic word often is in our English versions of the Bible: Typically, the phrase appears as “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6). But “Daddy” is probably a more accurate rendering.

It’s as if it shocks us to think that Jesus was on such familiar terms with God—shocks us so much that we tend to add a layer of formality to the translation: “Father.”

Since seeing my brother-in-law’s video, I’ve grown to love Jesus’ term of endearment—Abba. My affection for it may have something to do with the fact that my own father died when I was 27…at a time when I was just learning to be a Daddy myself. I needed an Abba then…and still do today…so I am grateful that Jesus gives me permission to call God “Daddy.” I am grateful, too, for the holy men in my parish and in my prayer circles who have served in loco parentis—becoming important ‘Abba’ figures for me over the years.

I am also aware that the term is limiting in a significant way. God is much bigger than my own projected needs, or than my own personal relationship with the Lord. Yes, God is “Father.” God is “Daddy.” God is “Abba.” And God is also much, much more.

There’s a moment during every Kairos Prison Weekend that brings this awareness into sharp focus for me. It happens on Sunday morning, when we lead our Kairos brothers through a meditation called “The Healing of Memories.” It’s a long prayer—much too long to reproduce here—but early on, there’s a section in which the participants are asked to seek the Lord’s help in freeing them from the hurts, the violence, the abandonment they may have experienced at the hands of their fathers. The implication is clear: When, as children, many of our incarcerated brothers called on “Daddy”, the responses they received did anything but draw them into a loving relationship with God.

So why is ‘Abba’ on my mind…and in my heart…today? Because a dear friend and I were chatting about this blog last evening. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that she noticed how often I use masculine pronouns to refer to God.

Now, that seems natural enough to me: God, Father, Abba – wouldn’t it be appropriate to also refer to the Lord as “he” in second references?

On the other hand, God has given me talents as a writer…one of which is to seek precision in the words I choose. So if I want my writing to draw myself – and others – closer to the Lord, can I really afford to keep all my references to the Mighty One gender-specific?

I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to abandon masculine pronouns completely in my blogging about spirituality. But perhaps, like any good Abba, God is gently encouraging me – through my friend’s observation – to expand my horizons a bit during this holy season. Perhaps I am being invited to grow in my relationship with the great I AM: The One who is God, Beyond All Names.