I was reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth a few months ago, and the thing which struck me the most from that book (and there were lots of really good parts) was his discussion of the Our Father, or Lord’s Prayer, which was commissioned by Christ in Matthew 6:9-13.
It’s unique, in that it reverses what we would think (as humans), as the logical order that the prayer would go. Instead of beginning with resistance of the devil and arriving at Heaven (the paths that our lives take, more or less), this view is “downward-looking,” if you will. You can almost imagine the classic portrayal of God, peering over a cloud and looking down into our souls, and even beyond, into the pits of hell. Here’s what I mean:
The prayer is made up of a salutation (# 1), and 7 petitions (# 2-8). Watch how the prayer starts with God and moves outward, and downward, from there. As a group, it goes 1-2 are Heavenly, 3-5 are ways that God reaches out from Heaven to Earth, 6 includes both Heaven and Earth (with some hellish things – trespasses – thrown in), and 7-8 deal with hellish things:
- Our Father, who art in Heaven: This doesn’t deny that God is found elsewhere. For example, we know elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel that “wherever two or more are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). But certainly the primary abode of God, and thus, the desired destination of the faithful, is Heaven. For only in Heaven do we find the fullness of God, and it is this which separates Heaven by a degree of infinity from any other locale. Biblical passage to focus on: Galatians 4:3-7.
- Hallowed by thy Name: We know that the name is intimately connected with the thing being named. Interestingly, this is an area where a lot of Postmodernist academics agree with Christianity, in that when an object is named in a particular way, you are by naming it impacting your relation to it. In Christianity, we see lots of examples of this. Genesis 2:19-20 shows God presenting animals to Adam to name, even though there’s apparently no one else around. John 1:1 and 1:14 describes Jesus as “the Word.” In Acts 4:12 we learn that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” God’s refusal to allow Himself to be named, opting instead as “I AM who AM” in Exodus 3:14. He seems to be saying both that He is eternal, and that He is above classification. He is, in a sense, unnameable, or perhaps, His name is beyond our grasp. For this reason, we see the prohibition against taking the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7). Biblical passage to focus on: Rev. 2:17 says that “To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it,” which deals with the importance of the name (#2), the Kingdom (#3), and the Eucharist (#4).
- Thy Kingdom Come: This means both the Heavenly Kingdom, and the Church, God’s Kingdom on Earth. We know this from, amongst other places, Matthew 13:24-29, where we learn that there are both wheat and chaffe in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth (we know it’s just the Kingdom on Earth because of some explanatory context Jesus gives the parable in Mathew 13:36-43. So when we say “Thy Kingdom come,” we’re already trying to advance the cause of Heaven, encouraging God to bring Heaven closer to us, in a sense, and the instrument for this on Earth is the Church. So one of the ways that God reaches into the world from Heaven is through the Church, the Kingdom of God. Biblical passage to focus on: Luke 22:40, 1 Corinthians 10:13, and James 1:13-14.
- Thy Will be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven: Self-explanatory, although it’s worth noting that if we take this seriously, we’re required to comport our will to God’s. If we say, “thy Will be done,” and refuse to do His will, we’re liars. Jesus is the perfect model for this in the Garden (Luke 22:42). So another way that God reaches into the world is through expressions of His will – when we model our lives after His will, we come closer to Heaven, and experience some sense of Heaven on Earth. Biblical passage to focus on: Matthew 26:36-46.
- Give up this Day Our Daily Bread: This has clear Eucharistic connotations. Here’s a bit from Andoremus explaining it:
So Jesus, as “the living Bread come down from Heaven,” whose Bread is His “flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51), is the third way that God reaches out to us from Heaven. Biblical passage to focus on: John 6:25-70.
The Greek word here is epiousion, which is a hapax — a word that is only used here and nowhere else in the Greek language — and so presumed to be the Greek equivalent of whatever word Our Lord may have used in Aramaic or Hebrew. Most translate the word as “daily”, and this goes back to the Latin of Saint Jerome, who renders “arton epiousion” as “panis quotidianum”, daily bread, in the Gospel of Luke. However, in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Jerome translates the same words as “panis supersubstantialem”. In other words, Jerome, who realized that this Greek hapax could not be expressed in Latin with both meanings at once, chose to give it one meaning in Matthew — “daily”; and another in Luke — “supersubstantial”, so as to preserve both senses of the word for Latin speaking Christians, albeit in two distinct biblical locations.
- Forgive us our Trespasses, as we Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us: This is a conditional petition. We’re making a deal of some sort with God: if you forgive us, we’ll forgive others. And indeed, the forgiveness of sins Christ wrought on the Cross does seem to have this string attached. Matthew 18:21-35 tells of a Master forgiving a debt of 10,000 talents (about $3 billion, which was an unthinkable debt until lately), but then revoking that forgiveness in Matthew 18:34 when the man refused to forgive his neighbor. Just to make it crystal clear what’s going on, Mathew 18:35 says, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” This petition also heralds the arrival of a new discussion, sin. Biblical passage to focus on: Matthew 6:14-15.
- Lead Us Not into Temptation: Continuing the theme of sin, this deals with the gray area, temptation, the “penumbra of sin,” so to speak. Biblical passage to focus on: Luke 22:40, 1 Corinthians 10:13, and James 1:13-14.
- Deliver us from Evil: Seemingly straightforward. Actually, there’s a little more to it: in the original Greek of the New Testament, it says, “the Evil,” suggesting that it deals as much with the forces of darkness as it does with sin generally. Perhaps “deliver us from the evil one” would have been an appropriate translation, but as it stands, it’s sufficient. If we’re delivered from evil, we’re delivered from the devil. Biblical passage to focus on: Ephesians 3:10-18.
In the book, Pope Benedict mentions an Eastern Orthodox cleric who remarked that the prayer almost seems more appropriate to say in reverse. I can see his point. In our fallen, sinful state, to even begin the angelic praises of God in Heaven seems totally inappropriate. While the Our Father (written by God) has a “top-down” approach, we want to approach things “bottom-up.” We want immediate relief from the devil, and from all the things we’re about to do wrong. And once that’s done, we’re ready to wipe ourselves clean and get to forgive each other. God doesn’t follow this order. His order is something like that cheesy (and astrologically inaccurate) slogan: “Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars.” Rather than just trying to resist the next temptation, He is calling us to a radical devotion to Him, which will do more to break us free from the bondage of sins than the immediate bottom-up relief we’re looking for.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the insights contained in this succinct prayer. What an amazing prayer!