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The Lord's Prayer: A Synthesis of Christianity
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We live in an age when people are looking for digests to condense large amounts of knowledge into a small span of print. If we wish to capsulize all that Christ taught, all that He stood for, and all that He wants us to do, we cannot find a better synthesis than what has become known as the Lord's Prayer.
The Lord's Prayer is the only prayer that Christ taught directly to His apostles and through them has been teaching the human race. It is an eminently practical capsulization of the faith, because it both tells us what to pray about and how we should pray. Over the centuries, notably by the Fathers of the Church, it has been called the most efficacious prayer we have, outside of the Sacraments themselves.
It is embedded in the liturgy; and in our ecumenical age it is the one prayer that all Christians recite. Pope John XXIII observed, regarding our separated brethren, "They shall cease to be our brethren when they cease to recite the Lord's Prayer." It is the one mark of unity we have among all the baptized of Christendom; all Christians pray the Lord's Prayer.
In the Lord's Prayer there are seven petitions, and in Biblical language, seven is the symbol of fullness, of plenitude. They are petitions, implying that although there are other ways in which we can pray by our prayer of expiation, our prayer of love, our prayer of adoration nevertheless petition or asking God is by Christ's own witness very pleasing to Him. He wants us to ask, and let us never be embarrassed about it; Christ tells us to. That, by the way, would be a pretty good description of who we are: asking-creatures.
There is, furthermore, a hierarchy of values within the Lord's Prayer. In pursuance of Christ's own formula to "seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be given to us," the first three petitions have to do with the things of God. In the fourth petition we couldn't come down to earth with a heavier thud: "Give us this day our daily bread." Yes, we sublime creatures of spirit need food to keep that spirit and body together.
In response to the request, "Lord, teach us to pray," Christ replied, "When you pray...." Watch the adverbs; in the Scriptures they are very important. Here the adverb is "when"; so while in one sense we should always be in a prayerful attitude, we are not quite always praying in the formal sense. There should, then, be times, as often as they can be depending on our work, when we pray. We make the decision when, and prior to that whether. It is an act of human liberty, the highest exercise of the human spirit, to choose to unite itself with God. All other liberty is secondary to this one.
Finally, the opening words place us into the highest possible context for prayer, namely in union with others, because we invoke God as our Father. It is we who are praying with millions of others and they in union with us, responding to that very important aspect of our nature, that we are social beings. And although at times we feel that the social sciences have done less than justice to what we really are, members of a society created by God, patterned after His own Trinitarian society, invoking God as our Father reminds us that indeed we are part of a world-wide family. It is an expression of our worshipping God consciously as members of the human race and as members of the Church.
We address God as Father with that loving trustfulness of a child towards its parent. And we tell Him that He is in Heaven and we are still on earth. Of course we really are not telling Him, as though He needs to be informed; we are recalling it ourselves, and how we need to do that: We know what we mean, but sometimes have to express it in a childish way: though we are still here, we are already in contact with God who is "there".
Prayer, then, as expressed in the opening invocation of the Lord's Prayer, bridges the gap; it is the only thing that can span the chasm between time and eternity. There is no other way.
The Seven Petitions
The First Three Petitions
First of all we pray, "Hallowed be Thy name." The name of God in Biblical language stands for God Himself and "hallowed be..." means "may it be sanctified". We pray that God be sanctified, a curious expression if you think about it; but we mean that though God is God, He created men in order that He might be known and loved by them. That is the reason He made rational creatures. We know, because we know ourselves, that not all human beings either know God as well as they should or, knowing Him, do not love Him as they ought.
So we pray for everyone, especially for those who most need to know more about God because they are ignorant about Him; and we pray also for those who know Him and knowing Him do not love Him in the way they should theirs is the greater guilt. But remember, all through the petitions, though we are speaking often in generic language, we include ourselves that we too might know God better and knowing Him, might love Him more.
Behind this first petition, of course, is the plea that people might use their human liberty so that in exercising their freedom they might want to know more about God. If there is one thing that is not forced on us, it is knowledge, and the response to what we know by love.
We ask, and this is an unanswerable question except on the basis of human freedom: "Why are there still so many who do not know the true God? And why do those who know Him not love Him the way they should? Is it because God does not want to be known or loved by everyone?" Heaven forbid! It is because somehow, either they themselves or others have been neglectful; and that "or others" is part of the social dimension of the mystery of salvation.
Thy kingdom come. This is different from the first petition because it is in effect a plea for the extension of the kingdom which Christ came to found throughout the world. Remember, the word most often on Christ's lips was not "Church by actual count, He used the word Church only twice in the Gospels. Many times, however, He used the word "kingdom", meaning that organized body of His believers which we now call the Church, that it might be extended throughout the world in terms of the number of people who would become Christians by entering the Church through baptism and remaining in it by their profession of the true faith.
This is the ecumenical part of the Lord's Prayer because although there are many, many more than just Catholics who are Christians, they do not share with us the fullness of the faith we enjoy, undeservingly indeed. We pray for those loved ones in our families who though Christians, are not Catholic. And we pray also for that larger ecumenism, for the two-thirds of the human race which do not profess the Christian faith. How this has bothered me over the years! It cannot be that the Holy Spirit is not giving His grace; it can only mean that those who are Christians are not praying and acting on this petition!
This is the missionary cry of the Church: "Lord, may Thy kingdom come." After two thousand years, that over two-thirds of the human family is not invoking the name of Jesus, the Son of God, and is not venerating His mother, the Mother of God, is ourfault, and the fault of Christians who over the centuries who, thoughthey recited this prayer, did not live it out. We are also praying, then, for those within the Church, that all who are Christians might behave like Christians and live up to what they profess to be.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven..Note the comparison. Can you imagine the chaos if this petition were the opposite, "Thy will be done in Heaven as it is on earth", as though the way God's will was done on earth was the pattern of how God wants His will to be done? What, then, is the model for praying that Gods will be done? The pattern is the way His will is being done in Heaven. That sounds odd to us, because we associate struggle, effort, resistance, overcoming obstacles, with doing God's will. We should remind ourselves what the qualities are of "as it is in Heaven"; then we can spiritually relax. We talk about relaxing the muscles; the spirit, analogously speaking of course, has its muscles too. Let us relax!
How is God's will done in Heaven? First of all, everyone does it. His will is done universally. We are praying, then, that God's will on earth might be done by everybody. Of course we are realists, and so we pray: "May it be done by more and more people all the time."
Second, it is done perfectly. In Heaven nobody does not do God's will; and everyone does it as generously as they can. No one holds back. You know what that means. How do we hold back on doing God's will? One guess! By doing our will! Simple. The Gospel is uncomplicated. His will is done with complete generosity, with all the created power given to the saints and the angels.
Finally, and what is most satisfying, God's will is done in Heaven joyfully. Do you know why they are happy in Heaven? Because they are all doing God's will perfectly, which Saint Augustine calls "the measure of happiness on earth". Who is happy? The one who does God's will more. Who is most happy on earth? The one who does God's will best. And it takes us a lifetime to learn this. Why didn't somebody tell us this before? Christ did. We have been saying this from childhood. Doing God's will should be our greatest joy. How anybody sold us a bill of goods to the contrary, I will never know.
The Last Four Petitions
Now there is a shift in stress. In the fourth petition we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread". Of course the bread of the Lord's Prayer comprehends all our bodily needs. Remember, we are praying not only for ourselves, but for everyone. We take the satisfaction of our bodily needs, notably our food, much too much for granted. Most of the human race, let us remind ourselves, goes to bed hungry every night. There are countries where thousands die of starvation every month. In India death tolls are reported, due to starvation, of 100,000 per month.
We pray, then, for the bodily needs of those millions who lack the necessities of life. May God forgive us, we sometimes dare to complain about what we are served at table! Where is our faith?
Do you know that the life span of most of the human race is less than half of ours in America? And do you know why? It is because of malnutrition and the lack of all those medical and therapeutic aids that we have to sustain our lives. Is it any wonder that almost one half of the human race is in revolt? They know about us wallowing in affluence while the breasts of their mothers don't have enough milk to feed the infants of their wombs.
This fourth petition is a most important invocation. It is the failure by Christians to live up to the demands implied in this petition that has created the hydra of Communism in the world today.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This, you will notice, is a second comparison. They are frightening things, these comparisons of God! Trespasses means offenses. How many people offend us? Being offended may indeed be conscious and deliberate on the part of the one who offends; but frankly, in most cases, it is not so. In most cases it is we who are offended, and perhaps just because we take offense! Therefore, whether the offense is intended on the part of the offender or not intended, as far as we are subjectively concerned it makes no difference right? We are offended, though the other may later protest that it could not be so.
The passive voice of the verb brings out what we so much need to know. We are constantly being offended by people, and usually a lot of psychological consequences follow. Very well. Being offended, we are to forgive; whether the offense is intentional or not, we must forgive and we ask God to forgive us in like manner. What a petition! It is, if you wish, a malediction unless we carry out the condition that Christ bids us insert in our plea.
In other words, the request for mercy is provisional. It is a provision four times over; we lay down four conditions. We ask to be forgiven by God:
There are degrees to forgiveness, and those degrees are matters of depth. "I have forgiven her, or him, but I can't get it off my mind." Says who? We have on our minds what we want to have on our minds, and what we don't want, we won't have there. This is at the heart of the Gospel.
Lead us not into temptation. Clearly we are not asking to be delivered from all temptation; that would be a not so wise request for the call of the angel of death. As long as we are on earth we are going to be tempted, which means we are going to be tried. Temptations from the world, from the flesh, and from the evil spirits are part of God's plan for our salvation and sanctification.
But we do ask in this petition to be enlightened, and I hope I will be clear; we ask to be enlightened in two ways.
First, to avoid unnecessary temptations. You know, there is such a thing as being needlessly aggressive, in exposing ourselves to temptation. There is such a thing as tempting God. There is such a thing as heedlessness. And from another point of view, we ask to be enlightened to avoid temptations that God foresees, better than we, would be too strong for us. When are temptations too strong? That's easy when we get into them! We have so much strength; we have so much grace. Then, with consummate thoughtlessness, where angels, who know better would fear to tread, we human beings bluster into a jungle of temptation which God never really intended us to be exposed to. We need to pray for light.
But second, we also pray to be strengthened to resist temptations that we do face, both those that God in His ordinary providence intends us to experience and those which we might have avoided but have to admit once we are there, "This is me, just like me! Lord, now get me out!" We need light, then, to show us how to scramble out of the manhole that we fell into; how to overcome whatever forces of evil are upon us, whether our own passions or the world or the evil spirits; how to successfully overcome those temptations; and, the clincher, how to be better for all of these temptations.
That is the divine purpose for temptations: that we grow in virtue. The purpose of temptations cannot be, because it is a divine purpose, just that God might see us writhe or struggle. He does not like to watch us wrestling with the devil. What He wants is that having been tested we might be stronger in our loyalty, in our faith, in our trust, and above all in our love for Him.
The final petition of the Lord's Prayer: Deliver us from evil. This, of course, is a plea to be liberated from sin. What kind of sin? All mortal sin absolutely, and venial sin increasingly; so we are praying for a gradual diminution of our deliberate venial sins. But we also pray for deliverance from physical evil that might prove too much for us to resist.
There are sufferings whether the social pain of estrangement, non-acceptance or rejection, or the physical pain of the body which we also know God wants us to undergo. But these sufferings should prove good for us. We ask to be delivered from those that wouldn't be good for us, because suffering is not always sanctifying. Suffering can make people cynical.
We ask also to be delivered from the evil one. In Eastern Christianity, the closing invocation of the Lord's Prayer is, "Deliver us from the evil one." Then, we especially ask to be delivered from the greatest evil that can befall a creature of God; we ask to be delivered from everlasting death.
Let us ask our Savior, who taught us this prayer, to help us not only say it, but to live it. It contains all we need to know and all we must do until we no longer have to recite the Lord's Prayer, which will be in Heaven.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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