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Jun 13, 2022

Why Jesus Called God “Abba”—and What It Means for Us

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Often, we struggle to see ourselves as sons and daughters of God.

In our heads, we feel like God is too big and too grand to be affiliated with us and the mundanity of our lives. 

It’s easier to think of God as Creator, Lord, God of the Universe, Author of our lives. 

But Father? Dad? It seems a little too close for comfort. Our vulnerability sensors go off. It can feel scary. 

For many people, their relationship with their human father is imperfect, and this pain clouds their understanding of their divine Father. 

There’s a lot here to unpack. 

Keep reading, and you will discover the deep intimacy and close relationship God desires to share with you. 

God’s Fatherhood

Many dismiss the image of God the Father as an old man with a beard. The Father is not a male human being, true. In reality, God the Father transcends male and female: he is pure spirit and therefore has no corporal body (see CCC 239).

But the image of God the Father by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel does convey a great deal. While he holds Eve tenderly, close to his heart, he is reaching out his finger to give life to Adam.

This painting vividly portrays God as he appears in Deuteronomy, as a loving father who carries his child Israel along the way (see Deuteronomy 1:31). It conveys one of the main meanings of the fatherhood of God: not only is God the origin of all being, possessing transcendent authority, but he also has the compassion and tenderness of a father for his children (see Psalm 103:13). He is, as Paul says, the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3) who “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world … and destined us in love to be his sons” (Ephesians 1:4-5).


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Abba: What Does It Mean?

A clear expression of God’s fatherly care toward Israel as a nation and toward its kings in particular is found in a number of places in the Old Testament. But Jews, in their prayers, did not address God directly as their personal father, even though they did use a formal term for father to respectfully address their superiors, including the king. Most languages also have informal words for mothers and fathers that children use when speaking with their parents. In American English, they are Mom and Dad. 

In Aramaic and Hebrew, the informal, familiar form of address for one’s father, used both by young and adult children, is Abba. But for a Jew to address God as Abba in prayer was unheard of in ancient Israel. It would have struck a Jew as irreverent and presumptuous. Not not only did Jesus address God this way in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he taught his disciples to do the same. 

“And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Mark 14:36

We can further grasp the importance of the word Abba to the early Christians by the several places where Mark and Paul, who wrote in Greek, remembered and preserved the word in the original Aramaic form that Christ spoke.

Jesus is the only begotten Son of God. Only he, by nature, can call God Abba. We dare to do likewise only because he has shared his sonship with us by his grace. He has allowed us to share his vision and experience of God from the vantage point of beloved sons and daughters. The life of faith, says Pope Francis, is a “filial existence”—that is, the experience of a son or daughter. Walking in faith thus means walking as brothers and sisters in Christ, sons and daughters of the one Father, our Father.

As his disciples, we are called to become like Christ, and Christ calls God “Daddy.” 

Whoa.

We are to become like little children, and place ourselves in relationship with God not as his slaves but as his children. And not his adult children who are self-sufficient and have their parents at arm’s length.

His little four-year-old children, completely dependent, vulnerable, and trusting. 

If you find this hard to grasp, you are not alone. In the time of Jesus, it was extremely difficult, scandalous even, for the Jewish people to think of addressing God so informally. 

This sort of intimacy and familiarity with God was unprecedented, and it is unique among the great religions of the world. To this day, the most common form of address for God that Jews use in prayer is “Lord Our God, King of the Universe.” 

Islam vehemently rejects the very notion of believers being sons and daughters of God or of God having any son at all. 

Buddhism has many things in common with Christianity but not the idea of filial intimacy with a personal God. Viewing God as Father and believing that he invites us to a life of intimate union with him is distinctive of Christian faith.

This is the character of our “Abba” Father—a God who relentlessly pursues us and wants a deep and intimate relationship with us. He wants to bridge every gap or chasm between him and us, to know us completely and love us unconditionally. 


Discover the Amazing Riches of the Catholic Faith

What We Believe presents and explains the essential teachings of the Catholic Faith in a readable, approachable way.

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Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio (“Dr. Italy”) received his Ph.D. in historical theology from The Catholic University of America under the direction of Avery Cardinal Dulles and has had a prolific career as a Catholic author, internationally-respected speaker, pilgrimage leader, and university professor. He is the Co-founder and Director of The Crossroads Initiative, the author of five books and hundreds of articles, and a regular guest on both secular and Catholic TV and radio programs. In 2004, Dr. D’Ambrosio co-authored the New York Times bestseller A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about The Passion of the Christ with Ascension Founder Matt Pinto. In 2019, Dr. D’Ambrosio published the groundbreaking Bible study on the life of Jesus Christ filmed in the Holy Land, Jesus: The Way, the Truth, and the Life, presenting alongside Jeff Cavins and Dr. Edward Sri. He is also the co-author and presenter of What We Believe: The Beauty of the Catholic Faith.


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  • Abba is much more properly equivalent to “Papa” than to “Dad” or “Daddy”. The reason is that the role of a father in modern American society has been greatly diminished. Dads and daddies are friendly guys who are not worthy of a heck of a lot of respect. In order to get closer to the image of the father in traditional societies, like the society in which Jesus lived, it would be more appropriate to translate Abba as “Papa” rather than as dad or daddy.

  • “…[H]e is pure spirit and therefore has no corporal body.”

    Then why do we find this in Exodus: ‘“You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.”‘

    If God has a face that can be seen by Moses, it would appear that He DOES have a corporal body. If we are made in His image and likeness, and we have corporal bodies, He must have something at least similar.

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