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"Prayer: Gift and Response" Part 8: "The Our Father"

Byline: Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
Posted: June 3, 2010

This last meditation for the year, this First Thursday of June 2010, is entitled simply “The Our Father.” It is as once the prayer of God and -- in the words of Tertullian of old -- “truly the summary of the whole gospel.” It is a prayer in response to the request of Jesus’ disciple who asked Him simply: “Lord, teach us to pray.” How grateful we should be to that one disciple who made that request. He had to have asked Him because they were so impressed with Jesus’ own prayer life, His prayer addressed to His Father. We are forever indebted to him for asking Jesus that question. And for the answer Jesus gave us. As Pope Benedict writes: “The meaning of the Our Father goes much further than the mere provision of a prayer text. It aims to form our being, to train us in the inner attitude of Jesus,” in His prayer life from His dialogue with His Father. (Jesus of Nazareth, 132)

What about us?

How often do we ask the Lord Jesus that same question? How often, moreover, do we make requests of the Lord -- specific requests, requests regarding our health, our job, our family or the health, job and families of others who are close to us? At its heart, most of the time our individual prayers are really based on the prayer Jesus gave us. The “Our Father” is the fundamental Christian prayer.

When we think about it, the “Our Father” has a central place in the scripture, in our worship and our life as Christians, as Catholics. It has from the very beginning. Is it central to our prayer lives?

St. Augustine once wrote: “Run through all the words of the holy prayers [in Scripture] and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.” CCC 2762 Twice do we find the Lord’s Prayer in the gospels -- Mt’s version (which is the one the Church has adopted) is the central part of that great Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:9-13). Luke’s version, taken from what scripture scholars refer to his “Gospel of Prayer,” is called the Sermon on the Plains (Lk 11: 2-4) So important is this prayer that the early Church Fathers wrote sermons and essays on it -- Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian. They were often addressed to the catechumens and neophytes. St. Thomas Aquinas referred to it as “the most perfect prayer.” CCC 2763

To underscore again the centrality of this prayer, the Catechism teaches us that it is the “quintessential prayer of the Church. It is an integral part of the major hours of the Divine Office and of the sacraments of Christian initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist.” CCC 2776 At each Mass, before Holy Communion, we recite the Our Father together. “In the Eucharistic liturgy the Lord’s Prayer appears as the prayer of the whole Church and there reveals its full meaning and efficacy.” CCC 2770 We pray the Our Father over and over again in the rosary as well. The early Christians prayed it three times each day.

The centrality of the Our Father really should not surprise us. After all, it is “the prayer to our Father...taught and given to us by the Lord Jesus. The prayer that comes to us from Jesus is truly unique: it is ‘of the Lord.’” CCC 2765 The Our Father is an “indivisible gift of the Lord’s words and of the Holy Spirit who gives life to them in the hearts of believers.” CCC 2767

The Our Father contains seven petitions. The first three deal with God. The last four concern us. The relationship of the two sets of petitions could be compared to the relationship between the two tablets of the 10 commandments -- the first three refer to God and the last seven refer to one’s neighbor. Before we examine more closely the 7 petitions, however, we start with the addressee of this prayer Jesus taught us. It is the Father -- His Father, Our Father.

ABBA

“Father,” in Aramaic -- “Abba” has to be one of the most important words in the entire Bible. The best translation is “daddy” or “daddy dear.” Consider how radical this was for the Jewish mind -- to call God “daddy.” What intimacy! What familial closeness! It is a far cry from God speaking to Moses from the burning bush where He told Him: “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” CCC 2777

“It is true, of course, that contemporary men and women have difficulty experiencing the great consolation of the word father immediately, since the experience of the father is in my cases either completely absent or is obscured by inadequate examples of fatherhood.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 136)

We must thus allow Jesus, the Eternal Son, to teach us what “father” really means and how it is that we can call God Abba, daddy dear. As we grow in our relationship with His Son, Jesus, we become more clearly aware of our relationship as sons and daughters to His Father. He thus becomes more and more a personal God. At its heart, however, “we can invoke God as “Father” because he is revealed to us by his Son…and because his Spirit makes him known to us.” CCC 2780

Not only does Jesus teach us about the Father. In this prayer, He teaches us about ourselves.

By Baptism, we become sons and daughters of the Father, adopted sons and daughters. We too, with Jesus, are empowered by the Spirit to call God Abba. But we can never forget that “the Our Father is always a prayer of Jesus and that communion with him is what opens it up for us.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 135) “The personal relation of the Son to the Father is something that man cannot conceive of nor the angelic powers even dimly see: and yet the Spirit of the Son grants a participation in that very relation to us who believe that Jesus is the Christ and that we are born of God.” CCC 2780 Praying to the Father should develop in us the will to become like him and foster in us a humble and trusting heart.  CCC 2800

Not only do we call God Father but also importantly we refer to Him as “Our” Father. “The adjective, as used by us, does not express possession, but an entirely new relationship with God.” CCC 2786 That relationship affects our relationship to each other.  By Baptism, we belong to each other. Admittedly we live in a community with a strong emphasis on individualism. When we pray “Our Father,” we are called to leave that individualism aside and to exclude no one. Not only is the Father close to us in prayer.  We are close to each other, those other adopted sons and daughters, as we pray.

“Who art in Heaven”

St. Augustine explained this expression so well when he wrote: “Our Father who art in heaven” is rightly understood to mean that God is in the hearts of the just, as in his holy temple. At the same time, it means that those who pray should desire the one they invoke to dwell in them.” CCC 2794 So understood, “heaven” is not a place beyond the stars but a way of being. God, although majestic, lives within us and we live in Him. When we pray in this way, we ask for a more profound experience of the presence of God within us right now. Is that not the essence of prayer?

“After we have placed ourselves in the presence of God our Father...the Spirit...stirs up in our hearts seven petitions, seven blessings...CCC 2803

The first three -- Name, Kingdom, Will -- move us to God.

The second four -- Bread, Trespasses, Temptation and the Evil One -- help us focus on our basic needs--our needs of feeding, healing, battling for victory of life and protection.

We will reflect on them one by one:

First -- “Hallowed be thy Name”

In the biblical sense, a person’s name is synonymous with the very person. A name expresses and manifests who a person is. The term “hallow” means “to recognize as holy, to treat in a holy way.” CCC 2807 Hence when we pray “hallowed be thy name,” we are praying that we might continue to recognize the very person of God as holy, as set apart, as worthy of our praise and adoration. “The holiness of God is the inaccessible center of his eternal mystery.” CCC2809

St. Cyprian, commenting on the Our Father, wrote: “By whom is God hallowed, since he is the one who hallows?  But since he said, ‘You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy,’ we seek and ask that we who were sanctified in Baptism may persevere in what we have begun to be.  And we ask this daily, for we need sanctification daily, so that we who fail daily may cleanse away our sins by being sanctified continually...We pray that this sanctification may remain in us.” CCC 2813

In praying that God’s holiness, His presence, might always be foremost in our lives, we also pray that He might keep us holy and close to Him. At the Last Supper, Jesus prayed: “Holy Father, protect in your name those whom you have given me.” He was praying for you and me as He teaches us to make holy the name of God the Father, daddy dear. How do I treat His holy name?

Second -- “Thy Kingdom Come”

The Kingdom of God is in effect the breaking through into our world of the presence of Jesus Christ.  When we pray “thy kingdom come,” we pray that we might experience more deeply the person of Jesus in our lives both NOW and at HIS FINAL COMING. In effect, the Kingdom is already here on earth but not fully here “since Christ’s final transformation of individuals, society, and culture has yet to happen in its fullness. This is why we need to pray this petition every day and work for its coming.” (USCCA 486) Romans 14:17 teaches us that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Hence when we pray for God’s Kingdom to be made manifest in our day, we pray that we in our own way may push the world to be more just, peaceful and joyful.  This all takes place in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is what we pray for in this second petition.  The Catechism teaches: “Since Pentecost, the coming of that Reign is the work of the Spirit of the Lord who ‘completes his work on earth and brings us the fullness of grace.’” CCC 2818

“By a discernment according to the Spirit, Christians have to distinguish between the growth of the Reign of God and the progress of the culture and society in which they are involved. This distinction is not a separation. Man’s vocation to eternal life does not suppress, but actually reinforces, his duty to put into action in this world the energies and means received from the Creator to serve justice and peace.” CCC 2820

Third -- “Thy will be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven”

Jesus took this petition to heart in His earthly life. He expects us likewise to make it a significant part of our prayer life. Remember, the night before He died during the agony in the garden, at the Garden of Gethsemane -- Jesus prayed: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but your will be done.” Lk 22:42 Here Jesus consents totally to the will of His Father even unto death.  When we pray this third petition, “we are asking that the drama of the Mount of Olives, the struggle of Jesus’ entire life and work, be brought to completion in us; that together with him, the Son, we may unite our wills with the Father’s will, thus becoming sons in our turn…” (Jesus of Nazareth, 341)

In this prayerful petition, “we ask our Father to unite our will to his Son’s, in order to fulfill his will, his plan of salvation for the life of the world.” CCC 2825 The love command -- love one another as I have loved you -- “summarizes all the others [commandments] and expresses his entire will.” CCC 2822 That is our daily challenge and that should be at the heart of our prayer lives that we love each other as Jesus did -- always putting the other person first, giving our lives and hearts for another if need be.  That is the will of God for us.

Standing alone, “We are radically incapable of this, but united with Jesus and with the power of his Holy Spirit, we can surrender our will to him and decide to choose what his Son has always chosen: to do what is pleasing to the Father.” CCC 2825 That should give us reassurance every time we pray “thy will be done, not mine.” “By prayer we can discern ‘what is the will of God’ and obtain the endurance to do it. Jesus teaches us that one enters the kingdom of heaven not by speaking words, but by doing ‘the will of my Father in heaven.’” CCC 2826 Action over words -- and love above all.

Fourth -- “Give Us this Day our Daily Bread”

With this fourth petition, we turn to God prayerfully asking that He care for us and that in turn we care for each other. This is so countercultural because each of us likes to live under the illusion that we are self-sufficient and that everyone else should be also. “ ‘Give us’: the trust of children who look to their Father for everything is beautiful.” CCC 2828 In this petition, we seek, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to develop a trusting relationship to God who is our daddy. “Give us this day” -- one day at a time.  Prayerfully we should not be worrying about tomorrow. Our focus is this day, this hour, this moment.  Give us now, O Lord, in effect what we need and nothing more -- all we need for our nourishment.

There is a social justice theme here as well -- the Catechism teaches that “the presence of those who hunger because they lack bread opens up another profound meaning of this petition. The drama of hunger in the world calls Christians who pray sincerely to exercise responsibility toward their brethren, both in their personal behavior and in their solidarity with the human family. This petition of the Lord’s Prayer cannot be isolated from the parables of the poor man Lazarus and of the Last Judgment.” CCC 2831 “‘Our’ bread is the ‘one’ loaf for the ‘many’.”CCC 2833 In praying for our daily bread, we pray for the generosity of heart to share our bread with others.

Now there is another part of this petition -- we pray “Give us this day” and then we add immediately “our daily bread.” We learn from Origen that the word “daily” (epiousios) appears nowhere else in the Greek New Testament. Taken literally, it means “super-essential.” This has been understood to mean the “super-essential” bread which is the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the medicine of immortality without which we have no life within us.  After all, “Man does not live by bread alone, but...by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Mt 4:4 And that word is the Word of God, is Jesus, the Word Incarnate which is His Body and Blood. We pray in this petition not only for our material needs but importantly for our spiritual “bread,” for regular reception of the Eucharist and the grace to see in the Eucharist the great saving food for our salvation.

Fifth -- “And Forgive us our Trespasses, as we Forgive those who Trespass against us”

In this most important petition, we acknowledge that we are sinners, that we are trespassers not unlike the prodigal son or the tax collector who confessed they were sinners. Oh what an important acknowledgment in the life of a Christian, of every Catholic! Pius XII once wrote that the loss of the sense of sin is the sin of the 20th century. With this petition, we not only take ownership of our sins but pray for forgiveness and pray for the grace to forgive those who sin against us. We pray for the grace to receive the sacrament of Penance often. Jesus took this petition to heart even on the wood of the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Lk 23:24 Christ died that “sins might be forgiven.” At its core, this petition for forgiveness challenges us to be like Christ. “It reminds us of him who allowed forgiveness to cost him descent into the hardship of human existence and death on the Cross.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 160)

We pray for forgiveness, a theme that permeates the entire Gospel, and we pray also that we be empowered to forgive those who trespass against us -- “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgiveness from the heart is often very difficult. Alone it is impossible to forgive. The Catechism reminds us that: “there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.” CCC 2842 That is our prayer.

Sixth -- “And lead Us not into Temptation

“When we say ‘lead us not into temptation,’ we are asking God not to allow us to take the path that leads to sin. This petition implores the Spirit of discernment and strength; it requires the grace of vigilance and final perseverance.” CCC 2863

Our family and work life is continually challenged between good and evil, between right and wrong. “We are engaged in a battle ‘between flesh and spirit.” CCC 2846 Choosing good, the right and the spirit is only possible through prayer. In fact Jesus prayed for us to the Father at the Last Supper when He said: “Keep them in your name.” Jn 17:ll The Letter to the Hebrews, speaking of Jesus, reminds us that “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Heb 2:18

Through prayer in the power of the Holy Spirit we too can “discern between trials, which are necessary for the growth of the inner man, and temptation, which leads to sin and death.” CCC 2847 This is at the heart of the sixth petition.

Seventh -- “But Deliver Us from Evil

The Catechism makes it clear that evil is a person in the world. So often this is the butt of jokes as is the existence of hell, but it is our faith. “The evil we confront is not just an abstract idea, but an evil, fallen angel who wants to prevent our salvation.” (USCCA 489)

“In the last petition, “but deliver us from evil,” Christians pray to God with the Church to show forth the victory, already won by Christ, over the ‘ruler of this world,’ Satan, the angel personally opposed to God and to his plan of salvation.” CCC 2864 Jesus prayed this same prayer at the Last Supper: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one.” Jn 17:15

The Catechism includes the text from the Roman Missal prayed in the Mass after the Our Father which is so apt: “Deliver us Lord, we beseech you, from every evil and grant us peace in our day, so that aided by your mercy we might be ever free from sin and protected from all anxiety, as we await the blessed hope and coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.” CCC 2854

Amen -- “So be it.”

With this morning’s meditation, we have completed the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church -- all four pillars -- and our reflection on the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. It has taken us four years. Thank you for being so patient. Congratulations for your persistence. Your presence has certainly been an important encouragement to me as well. My prayer is that you have a wonderful, prayerful and relaxing summer. Our next session is on September 30 (for First Thursday). We will begin a series entitled Authentic Lay Spirituality. God bless you all!