Praying in the words of our Lord
The Lord’s Prayer. The Our Father. Most of us can rattle off this prayer without having to stop and think about the words. We’ve said it so many times, we jump into autopilot by the time we finish saying “Our Father…”
But Lent is a time for us to slow down, and make close inspection of our spiritual lives. And it is well worth the time to meditate on the words and individual clauses of the Lord’s Prayer. We should dwell on the individual parts, then seek silence within to hear God’s message to us in the whole.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
For some, the image of a father is comforting. It connotes strength and stability. For others, “father” carries with it negative connotations from earthly fathers, or other male figures who’ve abused, abandoned or marginalized the reader.
In spite of the masculine name of God, we must remember God is above gender. And at the same time, God is both male and female. She is Father. He is Mother.
The imagery of God in heaven also, to some, connotes separation from us. Think Zeus atop Mount Olympus — old white man, beard, sandals, the whole bit.
But, we must remember, these words are coming to us from Jesus — from God incarnate. God became flesh, chose to take our form and take on all our suffering and pain, to give us these words. These are not words of separation, handed down from an impersonal god. These are words of union, given to us by God, who loved us so much She chose to become us, to suffer with and for us.
God in heaven is not God separated from us. God in heaven is God calling us to union with the Almighty. We are God’s. God is our source. Our beginning and end.
hallowed be thy Name,
It is self-evident that God’s name is consecrated — it is hallowed, or holy — and we should honor the name of God. But, coming from the mouth of Jesus, God incarnate, the question of name takes on new meaning.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh, or Jehovah, meaning “The I am” or “The self-existent One” is used 6,807 times in Scripture and is by far the most common name for God. But it is not the only name.
Elohim, loosely translated as “The Creator,” also is common. Adonai signified “The Sovereign God.” El Shaddai meant “The Almighty God.” Each of these had different nuance, for use in referring to God at different times under different circumstances.
When we add in names that were really more descriptions of God’s attributes, there are as many as 1,000 different names and titles given for God in Scripture. For every way God might interact with the Jewish people there was a different name – a different name for the many different attributes and “moods” of God. Each name was a definition of the way in which God was seen as interacting with His people.
But, in the name Jesus, God takes on an entirely new mantle.
In Matthew 1:21, an angel of the Lord tells Joseph that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
The literal meaning of Jesus, or Yeshua, means “Salvation” or “God Saves.”
Jesus tells us later, in John 16, “ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”
The name of the Father is hallowed. But, when we bow to the name of Christ, we bow to the completion of God’s name, of God become flesh, who overcame our flesh to conquer death and lift us to eternal life.
thy kingdom come,
“Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus’ words from Luke 17:21 tell us the call for “thy Kingdom come” is not just an anxious call for the kingdom of God to come to us, and right all wrongs, in some future time and unseen way.
We do call for God to institute God’s kingdom — to bring down a kingdom ruled by love, justice and charity.
And God calls us to do the same — to tap into the kingdom already in our midst, to be the hands and feet of Christ, and build up a world defined by love, justice and charity.
When we cry “thy Kingdom come,” then, we’re not simply passively asking God to do something. We’re praying God will give us the strength, wisdom and courage to do the doing, and build God’s kingdom.
thy will be done,
Jesus foretells here his own words in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he suffered anguish at the coming torment of his torture and crucifixion. Jesus surrenders to the will of God, with these words: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Mary shows the same surrender at the Annunciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
When we pray “thy will be done,” we are kneeling beside Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying for the strength to surrender ourselves entirely, for the strength to take up our cross and follow Him, and to pour out ourselves in selfless love. We pray to die to our selfish ways, and let God’s will guide our every step.
on earth as it is in heaven.
We cry out for God’s help in surrendering to God’s will, that we can be God’s hands and feet in making the ways of earth be “as it is in heaven.” We pray not only waiting for God to take us to heaven, but for God to give us the strength and courage to treat our neighbor as we would want to be treated in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Jesus uses these words to close his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Do not worry.
We pray for daily bread — bread for today — because we begin to weigh ourselves down with worry when we think on bread for tomorrow. Bread for today is enough. God will provide for tomorrow.
The only real moment we have is now. And in the now, we’re called to love God and love our neighbor. When we begin to love bread accumulated yesterday, and worry for bread tomorrow, we lose sight of those God calls us to serve now. We pray for the trust to surrender to God’s provision, to be strengthened with bread today, to love and serve God and our neighbor today. Tomorrow, and the bread that will come with it, belong to God.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
It would be easy to read this as a quid pro quo: if you forgive, then God will forgive you. It especially feels that way in the last two verses from our reading, in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
But, we know it is not a quid pro quo. Grace already is offered. Salvation already is won. Death is conquered and forgiveness poured out at the cross.
What remains in question is our ability to fully surrender to that grace — to pour out ourselves in love to others, and open ourselves to be overcome by Christ’s love.
When we forgive others their trespasses, or sins, or debts, we open our hearts to fully receive the forgiveness that already is freely offered.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
And now we get to the hardest part of the prayer. Of course we want to be delivered from evil. But, does God tempt us? Does God lead us into temptation, or abandon us in the “time of trial.” The short answer is “No.” God is not a tempter. That is the devil. Or the enemy. The evil one. The world. But not God.
We struggle with this verse because we’ve been told so many times that white-bearded angry god atop Mount Olympus is going to tempt us, lead us into the ways of evil, just to see how we’ll react.
These struggles recently have led the Roman Catholic Church to consider amending the words of this clause in the Our Father to “do not let us enter into temptation” or “do not abandon us to temptation.”
But, if we look outside the narrow confines of these few words, we see what I believe to be the proper context. First, we need to remember, right before opening the prayer, Jesus tells us “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
God knows we need to not be led into temptation. And God will answer us according to God’s love for us.
Temptation inevitably exists. But it is our free-will chasing of passions and pleasures that leads us there — not God. What we ask is for God to help us not succumb to our own weakness.
Second, let us go back to the Garden of Gethsemane. Anticipating his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus cries out: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
I don’t think it would be too far off-mark to paraphrase this as Jesus crying out, in his human nature: “God, I’m not sure I can handle what’s ahead of me. But if it’s your will, I know you’ll be with me.”
We pray for God to keep us from temptation that is too strong for us to endure. But, this does not mean we will not be tempted. In fact, we must be tempted.
As James tells us: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
The enduring of temptation is a refining process — a process we need.
Julian of Norwich, after her visions of Christ on the cross, recounts these words: “But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: ‘It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”
It behoved that there should be sin. In other words, it is beneficial that there is sin. We need the temptation of sin to refine and strengthen us, just as a weightlifter needs the stress of the weights to tear and rebuild flesh.
On our own we cannot withstand the trial. But, as Jesus tells us, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Our prayer at the end of the Our Father is not so much about avoiding temptation, because the world is temptation. Rather, it is about learning to rest not on our strength — in which we will fail miserably — but to rely entirely on the strength of God, which will not fail.