When my kids were little, they went to our parish school, and after I dropped them off, I often stayed for morning Mass. Maria, who was around 3 years old, would accompany me.
Maria loved Father Dan, our pastor. During Mass, she would busy herself writing him notes, indecipherable scribbles and pictures, which she would give him after the liturgy. He would respond with delight, always acting surprised to receive such a gift.
One day during Mass, as she busied herself with pencil and paper, Maria leaned into me, pointed to Father Dan on the altar, and whispered with an air of confidentiality, “Is that God?”
I don’t remember how I responded, but I’m sure I didn’t say, “Yep, sure is.” What I hope I said is, “Father Dan is a lot like Jesus.”
Our image of God is often formed in our childhood, and we spend a lifetime letting that image mature, evolve and sometimes get thrown out so we can start over.
I grew up during a time when God’s first adjectives were often “all-powerful” and “omniscient.” In my child’s eye, God was an old white male, and although we were told “he” loved us, we were also impressed that God was a stern judge and punishment was near at hand. “Mortal” and “venial,” “purgatory” and “hell” were terms thrown about as if they were easily definable and made sense to a 40-year-old, much less a 10-year-old.
If I occasionally revert to my childhood God, I can get angry with “him.” If you’re so powerful, I ask, why don’t you help us more? With cancer, for instance, or the inexplicable suffering of children. Or with some miserable bat in Asia that ends up launching a pandemic. Or with our political chaos.
One day, praying about this, I read some notes in my journal about 1 John 4:7-21. In John’s letter, he says, “God is love.” Not, God is power. Not, God is taskmaster or judgmental or God is a rulebook. But quite simply, God is love. This mystery is complex, but we could spend our lives just pondering and living into that one phrase, God is love, and we would have done enough.
Pondering that phrase means looking at the cross. Why did Jesus, a man in his prime with much good left to be done, journey into Jerusalem and face death if not out of some great sense of love?
In August, we celebrated the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe. This Franciscan priest was taken to Auschwitz because he had helped to hide Jews from the Nazis.
After a prisoner attempted escape, several men were chosen to die as retribution and example. One of the selected men cried out in anguish at the thought of leaving his wife and children behind. Father Kolbe immediately volunteered to die in this man’s place. Like Jesus, he willingly went to his cross.
This is what love is. Father Kolbe could have rationalized: I’m valuable. I’m an educated priest, I bring sacraments, spread God’s word, counsel the weary. I’m important and needed. But he didn’t find excuses. He wanted to be like Jesus and Jesus was sent to show us that God is love. Period. Full stop.
Sometimes, love involves suffering.
That God is love means that God loves us. This frees us and inspires us to return that love as best we can. I can’t imagine being brave like Jesus or St. Maximilian Kolbe. But I want to make an effort, even if my best efforts sometimes seem like indecipherable little scribbles that are nevertheless accepted by God with great delight.