by Dr Paul Jackson SJ
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is the Christian equivalent of In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Just as Muslims begin many acts of devotion with this formula, so also, many Christians begin their acts of devotion with this particular formula. In the Quran, for example, you will find the bismillah, as it is called, at the head of the 114 suras (chapters), except for the ninth. At the beginning of the most sacred act of Christian worship, the Holy Eucharist, commonly known as the Mass, the priest begins In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, to which the people all reply, Amen. Their response indicates that they all agree to begin their act of worship In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. While they are reciting this short, introductory prayer, Christians make what is called "The Sign of the Cross." They place their left hand across their stomach, just beneath their ribs, and, as they say, In the name of the Father, they place the fingertips of their right hand on their forehead; and of the Son, they touch themselves just above their left hand; and of the Holy, they touch their left shoulder; Spirit, they touch their right shoulder. While adding, Amen, they bring their hands together.
Immediately after the Sign of the Cross at Mass the priest says: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all! To which the people respond: And also with you.
After the Introductory Rites there is a prayer, readings from the Bible and a homily delivered by the priest. The priest and all the people then proclaim their faith by reciting either The Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. The former begins with I believe in God, while the latter begins with We believe in one God. When we come to the central prayer of the Mass, known as the Eucharistic Prayer – of which there are nine commonly used ones - the second one begins thus:
Father, it is our duty and our salvation,
Always and everywhere
To give you thanks
Through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
He is the Word through whom you made the universe…
In the final part of all the Eucharistic Prayers the priest says or sings:
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honour is yours,
For ever and ever.
To which the people respond:
The 'him' of this prayer is Jesus Christ. Immediately after the conclusion of the Eucharist Prayer, as given above, all recite the Lord's Prayer, which Jesus himself taught his disciples. It begins thus: Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven… When the priest gives a final blessing to all the people, he says:
May Almighty God bless you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The people respond with:
There can be no better indicator of the faith of Christians than the prayer formulae used during their most sacred form of worship, the Holy Eucharist. Briefly, Christians worship God, whom they address as 'Father'; they do so in union with Jesus Christ, whom they designate as 'Son'; and their prayer is offered in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the irrefutable rhythm of Christian worship. What lies behind it?
The Origin of Christian Worship
In order to answer this question it is necessary to recall the long struggle against the tendency of the Jewish people to be influenced by the polytheism of their neighbours and fall into idolatry. A careful reading of the biblical texts indicates that such aberrations were associated with a selfish disregard for others, especially the widow, the orphan and the stranger, the vulnerable members of Jewish society. The prophets insisted on the worship of Yahweh, the personal name for God in Hebrew. Jews, however, do not pronounce this name, out of respect. Instead they say 'Lord.' We will follow this convention. The prophets also insisted on the need for dealing justly with other people, especially the powerless, enumerated as the widow, the orphan and the stranger. By the time of Jesus, the Jews were firmly united in their worship of God. This worship had its focal point in the Temple in Jerusalem. King Herod had overseen the planning and early construction of a truly magnificent temple. We are told in the Gospels that it took forty-six years to build. It was the pride and joy of all Jews. It was the House of the Lord, the House of God, and its very existence reinforced their belief in the Lord as the one, unique God, and it was there that they came to worship Him. No matter where they were, when the time for prayer came, they turned in the direction of the Temple in order to pray. While the people wholeheartedly worshipped the Lord in His Temple, a veritable bazaar had been set up inside the premises of the Temple. Traders sold cattle, sheep and doves needed for worship, and, because people came from different countries, moneychangers had set up tables where they did a brisk business. All four Gospel narratives – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – recount how Jesus made a whip of cords and drove out the sellers and their cattle and sheep; overturned the tables of the moneychangers, spilling their coins all over the ground, and said to the sellers of doves: Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace! (John, 2:16) We notice that he called God, My Father.
Jesus addressed God as Father in his private prayer. The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, as he was about to be arrested, tried, unjustly condemned to death, scourged, forced to carry his cross to Golgotha, and there be crucified, is recorded by the authors of three Gospel narratives. My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want (Matthew, 26:39). Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want (Mark, 14:36). Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done (Luke, 22:42). It needs to be recalled that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the Gospel narratives, as they have come down to us, were written in Greek. Hence the significance of Mark's use of the actual word used by Jesus, Abba, followed immediately by its Greek equivalent, given in English translation as Father. There is no need to explain the meaning of Abba to Muslims in India, nor to elaborate on the nuances of the word, used so lovingly and trustingly by small children as they address their father. These were the sentiments with which Jesus addressed God as Abba.
For Christians, the high point of God's revelation is found in the life, teaching, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Not only did Jesus himself address God as Abba, but He also instructed his disciples to do the same: This, then, is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
holy be Your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts
as we forgive those
who are in debt to us.
Do not put us to the test
but deliver us from evil.
It is true that the Greek text has the ordinary word for father, and not the Aramaic Abba.
Nevertheless, Jesus clearly invited his disciples to turn towards God lovingly and trustingly, as
to a loving and much loved Father, as He himself did. The Gospel narratives make it clear that Jesus was in the habit of rising early and praying to God as his loving Father. This does not mean that He was not filled with a reverential awe for the unutterably infinite glory and majesty of God. He most certainly was. These sentiments of reverential awe might be thought of as the basic, foundational dimension of his whole attitude of heart and mind, but this whole thrust of his being was crowned, so to say, by the realization of a bond of such intimate love that we can only faintly appreciate its depth. It is in the strength of this bond of inexpressible love that Jesus is able to accept the cup of suffering offered to him in Gethsemane. The sentiment of awe invites us to bow down in adoration, while that of love enables us to embrace even things that naturally repel us. Christians vaguely sense all this when they address God as Father.
We have already noted the greeting used at the beginning of Mass. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. This greeting is based on the concluding prayer found at the end of the Second Letter to the Corinthians, of the Apostle Paul, (13:13), with only one change. The original has the Lord, while the greeting at Mass has our Lord. The probable date of this letter is 57 C.E. Its significance can be more fully grasped in the light of what scholars commonly accept as the first written text in the New Testament, Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, written probably in 51 C.E.
From Paul, Sylvanus and Timothy to the Church of Thessalonica which is in God the Father and in Christ Jesus the Lord:
May grace and peace be with you!
We give thanks to God at all times for you and remember you in our prayers. We constantly recall before God our Father the work of your faith, the labour of your love and your endurance in hope of Christ Jesus our Lord.
We know, brothers loved by God, that God has chosen you. For we brought the Good News to you, not merely with words, but also with power and the Holy Spirit. (1st Thessalonians, 1:1-5)
It is clear that Paul uses the Lord and our Lord interchangeably. This is the basis for choosing our Lord at the beginning of Mass. We also notice Paul's terminology regarding the word God. We read God the Father; God; God our Father; God and God. This is Paul's usage in his first letter, which constitutes the first words of the New Testament text as we have it. Paul was a Jew, as was Jesus, but he was not an ordinary Jew. He was a brilliant student of an outstanding scholar, Gamaliel. He was also a Pharisee who burned with zeal for the religion of his ancestors. This was why he entirely approved of the stoning of Stephen, and set about persecuting the Jews who had become Christians for deviating, as he thought, from the religion of their ancestors. For him, it was tantamount to a betrayal of God. Paul's whole consciousness was steeped in a profound reverence for God. If someone were to ask him if he believed in God, he would not have been able to understand the question, for his life was centred on God. This basic orientation never changed, as the repetition, five times, of the word God in the above quotation, clearly indicates.
Equally clearly, he had now embraced an added dimension to his consciousness of God. This newness can be traced to a life-changing experience on the outskirts of Damascus. He was on his way there to arrest and bring to Jerusalem any of the Jews who had become followers of the Way taught by Jesus. He himself relates what happened to him, using his old name, Saul:
As he travelled along and was approaching Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The voice replied, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do." (Acts of the Apostles, 9:3-6)
This life-changing encounter was of such importance for Paul that he narrates it in two more places in the same book, namely, 22:3-16 and 26:9-18. It could be more accurately called a "life-wrenching encounter." To appreciate the magnitude of the conversion we need only read Paul's own words about the vehemence of his previous attitude:
At one time I myself thought it my duty to use all possible means to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I did in Jerusalem and, with the authorisation of the chief priest, I put in prison many who believed; and I cast my vote when they were condemned to death.
I went round the synagogues and multiplied punishments against them to force them to renounce their faith; such was my rage against them that I pursued them even to foreign cities. (Acts, 26:9-11)
These are not the accusations of some enemy. These are Paul's own words. Clearly, Paul was full of God and of his Jewish religion. Equally clearly, he had no scruple about using violence in order to 'protect' his religion. Implicit in his attitude and actions was the belief that God condoned such violence. After all, it was purely in order to protect His religion! As a result of his encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus he understood that violence was incompatible with God's very nature of compassionate, merciful love. He could never sanction such violence perpetrated in His name! Paul now wholly belonged to the Lord Jesus and found he could address God as Father, as the above quotations unambiguously proclaim.
It could be suggested that Paul's previous 'knowledge' of God was more intellectual conviction than experiential knowledge. This conviction grew out of long study of the Jewish scripture, the Old Testament, under the famous Gamaliel. Moreover, anyone who reads the Old Testament could be excused for thinking that God condoned violence. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal failed to call down fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice, but when the prophet Elijah had prepared his sacrifice the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering (1Kings, 18:38). We then read what Elijah said to all the people: "Seize the prophets of Baal and let none of them escape." So they seized them. Then Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and had them slaughtered there (1 Kings, 18:40). Rene Girard and a number of scholars who have been influenced by him have shown the anthropological origins of what he termed "sacred violence." He argues persuasively for its ultimate rejection by the biblical revelation. The fact of violence in the Old Testament, however, helps us understand Paul's attitude before his conversion.
Paul addressed the small Christian community in Thessalonica as being in God the Father and in Christ Jesus the Lord. It is by being united to Christ Jesus that a Christian becomes united to God the Father. Although profoundly mysterious, the relationship is clearly interpersonal, and a Christian approaches God with the mind of Christ Jesus, with a clear emphasis on the love of God.
The simple answer to the question posed at the beginning of this chapter is "Yes! Christians do believe in One God." The chapter itself has attempted to describe the manner in which Christians believe in One God. It might be called the 'rhythm' of their belief. It is rooted and grounded in the experience of Jesus Christ. It is not the fruit of philosophical speculation. Its very complexity is a pointer towards the Infinite Mystery known as 'God.'