Our Father

Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of his disciples said to Him, 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.' So He said to them, 'When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, For we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.'

- Luke 11:1-4

I love the Lord's Prayer but I know that, as with anything familiar, it is easy to come to disregard its significance and to treat is as something ordinary and commonplace. I have been saying these words now for twenty... something (cough) years and it is certainly a failing of mine. I have become more keenly aware of it since having been made a reader because now I am responsible not just for my own prayers but also for those who are gathered with me. When I lead the Trisagion prayers or the Hours, and I get caught up in the rhythm, I sometimes find myself rattling them off, but when I get to the Lord's Prayer, I am reminded of what I am saying, what the words mean, and to Whom I am addressing them, and it acts as a call back to the reverence and awe with which we must approach God.

The prayer is loaded with theological meaning which others will be far better at understanding or explaining than I, and there are numerous papers written on the subject. My focus is simply on the opening words and what they mean for us.

When we call upon God as "Our Father", we are claiming our place within the family of God, affirming our Baptism and our sealing with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, through which we receive the adoption as children of the same heavenly Father and become joint heirs with Christ, into Whose Body we are grafted. In the Divine Liturgy, the priest introduces the prayer by asking that God may grant that, 'with boldness and without condemnation, we may dare to call upon Thee, the heavenly God, as Father'. We begin the prayer by signing ourselves with the Cross of Christ, and we prostrate ourselves towards the east, acknowledging that we share in the inheritance of Christ, and that it is only through God's grace and through no worthiness of our own that we may presume to call God our Father. We are mere temporal beings, of which the psalmist writes:

As for man, his days are as the grass, as a flower of the field, so shall he blossom forth. For when the wind is passed over it, then it shall be gone, and no longer will it know the place thereof.
- from Psalm 102

Yet the great God of heaven, the eternal God, Who is beyond space, time, language, speech, and comprehension, Who is Creator and Maker of all that is - this God adopts us as his children and calls us his sons and daughters through our Baptism into the Body of his Son. This is what we are saying when we dare to call Him Father. I find this astounding, and not something that ought to be taken lightly.

Therefore, brethren, we are debtors — not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.
- Romans 8:12-17

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of his glory. In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in Whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, Who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of his glory.
- Ephesians 1:3-14

In their treatises on the subject of prayer, Tertulian and St Cyprian of Carthage both express this link between Baptism and the ability to call upon God in prayer as Father. St Cyprian tells us that this was the first prayer said by the newly-baptised upon emerging from the font. They also emphasise the corporate nature of it: that we do not approach God in prayer as individuals but as part of God's family, through our common Baptism and our common faith.

Dearest brothers, we should turn our minds and understand not only that we call Him "Father, Who is in heaven," but that we add to this and say: "Our Father," that is of those who believe, of those who have begun to be children of God, sanctified through Him and restored by a birth of spiritual grace...
- St Cyprian, "On the Lord's Prayer"

It is for this reason that the unbaptised were, for many centuries, not permitted to even be present at the corporate prayer of the Eucharist, when the Church actualises the fullest possible expression on earth of the New Covenant in the Body of Christ, and its relationship to the Father. A number of the Church's canons very forcefully forbid us from joining in prayer with those who are not united with us in faith, and it is also the reason why, to this day, our catechumens, who have publicly affirmed their obedience to the Church, are dismissed from the Eucharistic assembly until such time as they are baptised. From the Liturgy of St James:

Let none of the catechumens, let none of the uninitiated, let none of those who are not able to join with us in prayer remain.
- The Dismissal of the Catechumens

We can see how serious it is when we stand with our brothers and sisters at the Eucharist and call upon God as Father. The placement of the Lord's Prayer between the Anaphora and Communion is no accident, and is common to most, if not all, ancient rites. One is the great offering back to the Father of all that He has given us, along with the saving death, Resurrection, and Ascension of his Son, and the other is our nourishment with that very risen and ascended Body and Blood of his Son and our communion with God and each other.

What does that mean for us? Have we lived in such a way as to strengthen that baptismal bond? Have we entered into prayer regularly? Have we looked after the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of God's children? Are we really in such a state that we can, with clear conscience, easily say the Lord's Prayer? Or have we sinned and damaged that relationship so that we need to ask forgiveness of God and our brothers and sisters? Have we professed things contrary to the saving Faith? If so, then we should not be afraid to confess and receive absolution. These are the things to think about in our daily lives and when we come to Communion, and indeed whenever we pray. So if, like me, others of you find yourselves sometimes breezing through the prayers out of habit, or perhaps because you want to get them over with so you can get on with other things, perhaps we should let the words Our Father call us back and cause us to think about what we are saying, so that, once we have made our prostration, we may stand tall, adopted and redeemed, as "sons of light and sons of the day", and with boldness and without condemnation, call upon the heavenly God as Father, and say:

Our Father, Who art in the heavens,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from the evil one.

1 responses:

Ian Climacus said...

Thank you Michael for this call to action in this prayer in particular, and for the reminder of what it actually means. I have gained much from Fr Alexander Schmemann's Our Father, which will need a re-read soon, but your wise and considered words [I do not do this merely to flatter; I speak in truth], as well as sharing your own experiences of seeing this prayer as common-place as I have too, have been of great benefit to me at this time. The quote from the Divine Liturgy, '...we may dare to call upon Thee, the heavenly God, as Father...', always challenges and comforts me as the priest chants it.

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