Month: August 2021

Guido_Reni_-_St_Joseph_with_the_Infant_Jesus_-_WGA19304

The Father in Abrahamic Religions

By Anthony MacIsaac

Inter-religious dialogue has often touched upon the topic of Motherhood, and there has been a wealth of reflection on this, even unto the apparently radical idea of God as Mother. Not so often, it would seem, has Fatherhood been discussed in this way. In this “Year of St. Joseph” – inaugurated by Pope Francis, and ending this December – it seems pertinent to consider what Fatherhood means more deeply. 

To begin with St. Joseph himself, Christianity generally considers him the “Foster-Father” of Jesus Christ. In a certain sense of analogy, the Holy Family resembles the Holy Trinity. Jesus Christ as the Son, Mary as the Holy Spirit, St. Joseph as the Father. Alike to the Father – St. Joseph remains in the background, and is an unseen presence. His position within Christian piety has fluctuated. In the medieval period, he was often seen even as a cantankerous nuisance – caricatured as such in the carnival performances, which sought to emulate the key elements of Christ’s life, usually on Shrove Tuesday. It is difficult to say how this unfortunate image grew, but it seems to have been culturally rooted in the time. Many may have considered him an unequal spouse to the Virgin Mary, and the role of step-father may have been thought of in negative terms. Yet, it could be that the humour regarding St. Joseph was in good natured spirits too. Whatever the case, his cult soon grew, especially with his role as Patron of the “Good Death”. Since he disappears from the Gospel early on, he is considered to have died during Jesus’ teenage years. By the 19th century, he was seen as “The Worker”, and a Patron to labourers everywhere. His popularity continued to increase, and in the 20th century his role began to emerge anew as a Father-figure. He was invoked in particular as a Saint of family life. With the “Year of St. Joseph”, his status might be at its apogee, and it would seem the Catholic Church is calling her members to a greater consideration of this holy man. In short, his role as a Father-figure carries with it many connotations. Even if he wasn’t perfect, his hard work as a carpenter and his devotion to Mary provided a safe and secure environment for Jesus to grow. Himself taking on the carpentry that St. Joseph no doubt taught Him, Jesus became a man probably quite like St. Joseph, doubtless also in His tenderness and care for those around Him. It is also notable that the Jews of this time saw Jesus as the son of Joseph, to the extent that the genealogy of Jesus refers back to King David via him – even if Mary’s genealogy is actually used in one of the Gospels. 

 The place of the father within Islam has certain similarities to that of St. Joseph within Christianity. When the Prophet Muhammad’s mother Aminah fell pregnant, her husband Abdullah left for a trading trip. Tragically, during his time away he fell seriously ill, and died without ever meeting his son. The aged figure of Abd al-Muttalib, the father of Abdullah, then took Muhammad under his protection. Despite being Muhammad’s grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib raised the boy as his own son, and exerted a formative role in the boy’s growth. His place within the Islamic tradition is interesting, in that his earlier life is characterised by an adherence to the “old ways” of monotheism, before the coming of Islam. One episode in particular is striking, in that Abd al-Muttalib almost sacrifices his son Abdullah, alike to Abraham and Ishmael – in Islam it is Ishmael and not Isaac who occupied this place. The familial descent of Muhammad from Ishmael comes through the line of Abd al-Muttalib, whose own great-grandfather was Qusai, the King of Mecca. The parallels with Jesus’ descent from the King of Israel, David, and the preceding Patriarchs are clear. Dying when Muhammad was eight years old, one of Abd al-Muttalib’s other sons took on the role of foster-father to Muhammad, Abu Talib. The relationship between Abu Talib and his nephew was always one of warmth, but there is controversy as to whether he accepted Muhammad’s claims to prophecy – and he thereby remains a difficult figure in Muslim tradition. In any case, he helped his nephew secure his place within the Meccan community. Over time Muhammad himself became a father, and many Muslims today trace their ancestry back to his grandsons Hassan and Hussein. There are certain Sufi litanies that invoke these individuals, in prayer to God, and these reflect a veneration for Muhammad as father to the Ummah (Nation).

In Judaism, certain figures are likewise considered as fathers to the Chosen People. Abraham – venerated as “Father in Faith” by Jews, Christians and Muslims – represents the first among these, leaving asides the legendary Noah for now. Recently Pope Francis visited Abraham’s place of birth – the ancient city of Ur, in Iraq. This choice was made because of the unifying significance to the life of Abraham, whose role as father is key to God’s Covenant with him, that promises descendants as numerous as the stars. God even introduces Himself to Moses as the God “of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob”. With Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve Tribes of Israel are evoked – and the Nation of Israel proper takes its foundation from these twelve Tribes. To take a brief glance back at Noah, his position as proverbial father of Humanity has also been used somewhat within Jewish apologetics to underscore the reality that we are all called to some share in God’s plan. There is much more that could be said here; however it seems good to highlight the role of fatherhood within mainstream Abrahamic religion as a creative, nurturing and guiding presence.

(Our Feature Image is Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Renic. 1635)

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Lockdown and Interfaith Dialogue

By Bishop Brian McGee – Published originally in ‘The Coracle‘.

The pandemic has proved to be a difficult experience for everyone. The lockdown, whose purpose was to save life, inevitably also limited our experience of life. As people of Faith we too felt this keenly. For long stretches praying communally was impossible and when public worship resumed distance, brevity, no singing and masks were the rule. And yet we were delighted to be back!

Naturally, we wonder what the effects of the pandemic will be on Faith and religious observance. Yes, we hope that family prayer and personal reflection will have been rediscovered but what effect will ‘loosing the good habit’ of attending Mass hold for many people? Time will tell. However, the Lord is still with us and he remains our source of hope.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic Pope Francis encouraged us by insisting that every crisis also offers opportunities. I have found myself wondering what opportunities have unfolded for Inter Faith Dialogue. I became the Bishop President of the Inter Religious Dialogue Committee not long before the virus struck. I only managed to attend a few events before lockdown began. Certainly online Meetings followed but these, although beneficial, were somewhat awkward as I am not technology minded but, more importantly, had never met the other Faith leaders in person. A certain frustration endured. What opportunities could possibly rise from this crisis?

During May 2020 Pope Francis had called for people of all Faiths to pray and fast for the end of the pandemic. Our Committee got together with Ahl-alBayt Scotland for a short time of prayer on Zoom. The invitation for prayer during this global crisis was certainly well received and the attendance was much higher than typical in-person Inter Faith gatherings. It was an uplifting experience but I presumed that would be the end of it.

Our Muslim friends would celebrate Eid ten days later. By then they had been fasting for thirty days. As we know, Muslims break their Ramadan fast each night at sunset in family groups and within friendship circles. Communal prayers may also be offered. The concept of being with others is integral.

Meanwhile, the Festival of Eid which closes Ramadan also involves great family and communal celebrating. Festive meals are enjoyed together. However, none of these communal celebrations could take place during lockdown. The isolation of lockdown would be felt very deeply by everyone. Even those living in families would still miss their wider family and friends.

What happened next was very beautiful. Many within Ahl-alBayt had felt genuine bonds of warmth and friendship with us as we turned to God for an end to the pandemic. Painfully aware of the isolation they were feeling at this special time of the year they asked if we would join them online! That they would ask us to share in their special day was a great privilege. Once again a healthy number of Catholics and Muslims joined together. Although I had not met of the participants it was still good to support others at that challenging time.

There followed very pointed criticism levelled at our committee for participating in the occasion. To be honest, even at the time, I did think that we rushed a little into the event and more thought and planning would have been beneficial beforehand. Nevertheless, the criticism, although more emotive than based on fact, did make us stop and think. Our committee consists of good, solid and enthusiastic people. We did not want to be doing anything wrong and causing anxiety for our fellow Catholics. We studied relevant parts of Vatican II, more recent Papal and Church documents as well as the example of the Popes. We shared the text with a previous President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. We concluded that we had not done anything wrong but that more preparation should be used in the future. The Committee further discussed our findings and drew up a protocol so that we could participate in future events with confidence. The criticism pushed us to learn for the future and that was a good outcome.

What was more interesting that during Advent the Ahl-alBayt Society wanted to reciprocate our kindness. They knew that Christmas is a special festival for Christians which we celebrate in families and with friends. The restrictions, although lighter than in May, still prevented our usual gatherings. Our Muslim friends wanted to reach out to us. This time we invited two scholars – one Catholic and one Muslim – to share our respective understanding of the person of Jesus. Friendship, a genuine care for those of another Faith and sharing of beliefs. Surely this was true Inter Religious dialogue. After discussion we finished with a prayer composed by Pope Francis to be used by those who believe in One God.

Covid-19 has been so detrimental to human contact in so many ways. In Scotland it has opened new paths in Catholic- Ahl-alBayt dialogue. I wonder where it might lead next?

Bishop Brian McGee

Bishop of Argyll and the Isles

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