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The Love of the Father

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The first few months of parenthood are unlike any other season of life. Emotions swing from joy and wonder to anxiety and concern, and then back again, in a heartbeat or two. The normal rhythms of adult life vanish, and the unrelenting three-hour cycle begins: feed, burp, change diaper. Repeat. Sleep in between, maybe! Nothing in this cycle is particularly glamorous, but all of it is essential to a helpless, dependent child.

“High-stakes boredom,” a phrase my husband heard from comedian Andy Richter, has become the mantra of our household since our first child was born in mid-April. We became a family of three when I got pregnant last summer, but now we see the outworking of that as we show up to care for our son’s needs day in and day out, glamor or not. Parenthood ceases to be theoretical and becomes relational, a continual self-giving on our part that creates lifelong emotional and physical bonds. He is too little to respond beyond the occasional smile or finger grasp, which only increases the importance of our role as our family grows together.

We are created in God’s image, and the fact that we are born into families reflects the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity. But I am struck as much by the differences between God’s fatherhood and our parenthood as I am by the similarities. Coming to motherhood slightly later in life, I am very aware that this is a new role added to a host of other roles I have played as an adult: scholar, educator, and administrator, competitive athlete and coach, ex-pat, wife, writer, priest.

Some of these identities are more permanent than others. My competitive athletic days have been over for a while because of the time commitment, whereas I can step into and out of the scholar and writer roles more fluidly. I believe priestly ordination is for life, but even that can end under certain circumstances. Motherhood is distinctive, though, because I can never stop being a mother. Even bereaved mothers and estranged mothers are still mothers. This is a permanent relationship, come what may in the future.

Still, though motherhood enriches and changes me, it is not essential to who I am. Had I never become a mother, I would still be myself. Thus, I must negotiate between the role of mother and the rest of my identity. Right now during maternity leave, that means ensuring I have enough sleep to function! But soon, when I go back to work, I will have to balance the demands of the priesthood with those of motherhood. Both are important to God’s economy, both are parts of my identity, neither mutually excludes the other per se. At times, though, I will have to choose which role needs my attention most.

In contrast, fatherhood is essential to God the Father. The Son is eternally begotten from the Father; thus, God has never existed without this relationship. Fatherhood does not change or enrich God the Father; it is him at his core. This means that nothing he does is ever at odds with being Father. Scripture gives us many names for God, which show the different roles that he undertakes in his care for us. These names show his authority as our Lord, his provision for us, his presence with us, his everlasting nature, among other things. But none is at odds with, or competes with, his fatherhood. He does not have to negotiate his fatherhood with anything else that he is or does. This is partly because he is infinite, but it is also because he cannot be or act without his fatherhood. He is God the Father.

God’s fatherhood is where his self-giving flows from. This happens primarily in the begetting of the Son. The Son is the perfect image of the Father because he eternally reflects the essence of who God is. The Father’s self is on display in the begetting of the Son. God’s self-giving then overflows into the creation of the world and, specifically, the creation of humanity. The love of the three persons of the Trinity comes together in this act of creation, and with perfect unity of will and purpose, God brings us into being.

Because God’s fatherhood is essential to his being, this act of creation is an extension of his fatherhood. So when we as his creation rebelled, rather than cutting us off from his fatherly love, he gave even more of himself, sending his only begotten Son to live and die as one of us. Through God’s costly act of sacrificial self-giving, we are adopted into his family, children and heirs alongside the Son. God the Father steps in and cleans up the mess that we make of ourselves, children that we are. This redemption flows from his fatherhood.

The sacrifices parents make are costly. Other pieces of our identities must recede to make space for the little ones that God entrusts to us. We negotiate who we are to pour out a love that is a pale imitation of the Father’s. But even if our love pales in comparison with his, we understand his love for us better because of the children in our lives — ours or those of other parents. The loving sacrifice that goes into nurturing and welcoming them reminds us how messy and needy we are as children before God our Father. We are not quiet, orderly, and in control in his presence. We are helpless and dependent, needing to be fed, needing to be quieted and calmed, needing someone to redeem our messiness. And God in his sacrificial self-giving longs to do just that for us, simply because he is our Father.

Molly Jane Layton
Molly Jane Layton
The Rev. Molly Jane (MJ) Layton is the associate rector for congregational care and worship at the Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan.

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