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Abba’s Child

“Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one,and come away.” Song of Songs 2.10-13.

I have chosen these verses this morning as a tribute to Brennan Manning who went to be with his beloved Abba on Saturday. How many lives must have been touched and how many hearts changed by reading The Ragamuffin Gospel or by hearing his classic sermon, Abba’s Child? In that sermon, Brennan explains how “Abba” is the first word of any Jewish child to his father – the equivalent of “daddy” or “papa” – and that it is the word that Jesus seems to have consistently (and shockingly) used of God throughout his entire life. At the age of twelve, he was telling his mother, Mary (half-frantic with worry over where he had got to in Jerusalem): “I have to be where my Abba is …” (Luke 2.49). Almost at the end of his life, it was the word on his lips in Gethsemane: “Abba, take this cup from me …” (Mark 14.36). It was, it seems, the only word that would do to express the unbroken intimacy that Jesus enjoyed with God. Did I say “unbroken”? Well, no, not quite. As Brennan reminds us, it was broken once. It was broken on the cross …

“[There was] a moment of Jesus’ life that is more shrouded in mystery, denser with misunderstanding and incomprehensibility than any other. Jesus, the eternally beloved Son of the Father, the man whose life simply makes no sense except in terms of growing intimacy, trust and love of his Abba, is abandoned by his Abba. Sin appears to have its way … And for the first time since he was an infant, Jesus feels himself to be without any presence of his Abba, and in the desolation of abandonment he cries: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34).

But then Brennan says something wonderful. He says that, despite that cry, “there is no indication that Jesus lost trust, hope, confidence in his Abba. In fact, from what follows, it appears that the first ray of Easter light fell upon the Cross on Good Friday.” Then he goes on to tell how one of the Biblical scholars he most reveres – Pierre Benoit of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem – after 38 years of studying the Passion narratives, “believes that the Abba of Jesus spoke to his Son as he hung naked and nailed to the Cross, the spit running down his face, his body bathed in blood.” And the words that Benoit believes Abba spoke to him are these – the words with which I began …

“Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one,and come away.”

As Brennan says: “Abba called Jesus home … And Jesus seems to hear the voice of his Abba because his last word on the Cross is a response from the powerful, profound intimacy of his own heart. Jesus cried: ‘Abba, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ (Luke 23.46).”

Brennan then concludes his sermon by telling how, on one of his regular visits to a leper colony in Carville, Louisiana, he is asked by a nurse to go to the room of a young Mexican-American woman called Yolanda who is dying. It is a wet, dark day. He anoints Yolanda with oil and prays with her and as he turns away to put the stopper in the phial of oil, the room floods with light. “Ah, some sunshine,” he thinks, “that’ll cheer her up a bit”; and he glances up at the window. But no – it’s still dark and raining outside. So he turns to Yolanda …

“Her face was like a sunburst … it was like a thousand sunbeams were streaming from it … I had to turn and shield my eyes … she was jumping out of her skin with joy.” He asks her what has happened. “The Abba of Jesus has just told me he will take me to be with him today,” she says.

“What did he say?”

“He said … ‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one,and come away.’

Later that day, when Yolanda has indeed gone to be with Abba, Brennan discovers that the young woman was completely illiterate and had never read the Bible or anything else. Nor had he, Brennan, ever spoken those words from Song of Songs to her. It was Abba himself who had spoken them to her heart.

How wonderful that just this last Saturday he spoke them to Brennan too, and how wonderful that he will one day speak them to you and to me.

NB. You can watch Brennan preach Abba’s Child here.

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