The other day I happened on a very moving setting of the Our Father done by St. Vladimir’s Seminary choir. It was at the end of a long day at work, full of difficulties, and listening to it brought a profound sense of consolation. Before leaving work, I wrote down some thoughts in my journal on the meaning this prayer evoked in me at that moment. Here’s an excerpt:
Jesus gave the Our Father right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. St. Matthew’s masterful recapitulating of the Mount Sinai revelation of God’s will for worship, like a hyper-compressed, in nuce and perfected Book of Leviticus. Leviticus prepared for the Temple worship of Zion from whence would come the Temple prayer-book, the 150 Psalms — which are also hyper-compressed in the Our Father. Jesus’ model prayer also sums up the whole Gospel. It’s a neutron star. St. Augustine said it well:
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.
The Our Father is also an extended consent to God’s action. But Jesus does not have us say “yes” to just any abstract or impersonal Deity. No! It’s addressed to a Father, and Jesus makes it clear that Father looks, acts, sounds just like Him. John 14:9, Jesus is the Father’s great exegete, interpreter, mouthpiece, as in John 1:18’s exēgēsato. By heading His new prayer with Father, or in keeping with His dialect, Abba, everything else said in this prayer to God is meant to be prayed in the key of trust and love. It’s no coincidence that the only example of Jesus using Abba is in Mark 14:36’s agony in the Garden, the moment in His life when the provident God seemed least Abba-like. Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6 remind us that the Holy Spirit gives us Jesus’ own “crying out” relationship to the Father — especially in our Gardens of agony.
God is addressed in St. Matthew as a Father “in heaven,” a Jewish circumlocution employed to preserve the irresolvable tension between God’s extreme otherness and extreme nearness. He is, after all, the Terror of Isaac (Genesis 31:42) and Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14) who attracts (Ex. 3:3) and repels (Ex. 3:5). We must keep in mind, every time we pray these words, that we are being very daring. The Orthodox liturgical preface the Lord’s Prayer says it this way: “And grant, O Lord, that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call upon you the Heavenly God as Father and to say…” St. John also captured this tension in Rev 1:17-18 when the Risen Jesus revealed Himself:
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
While the Lord’s prayer is a consent to the Heavenly Father’s action, by consent we don’t mean resignation to God’s omnipotent manipulation of our actions. This form of consent, rather, is a deeply involved and entirely free consent that allows God uninhibited reign within our lives, allowing Him to co-define the meaning of our freedom. That’s what we do, for example, in marriage. My “I do” allowed Patti to become part of the shaping of my whole life, opening up the possibility for us to cooperate and give birth to something genuinely novel: a synergy of two-in-one-flesh. When we say Yes to God, He becomes Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without our Yes, no Emmanuel. Mary is the perfect icon of what is true for all of us, for only when she said Yes was the Word made flesh and God became Emmanuel. When God is our Emmanuel, we pray like this:
That is why I love your commands
more than finest gold,
why I rule my life by your precepts,
and hate false ways. — Psalm 119:127-28
In the Our Father’s first three petitions, the verbs used are in a form scholars call a “divine passive” (passive aorist imperative) form. As I gather (I am no linguist), this verb form indicates (1) the primary actor is God; (2) we are entreating God, in an imperative (command) form, to act; and (3) we are the primary recipients of His action.
Just think of it! Listen to the boldness of these verbs. Jesus gave us permission to issue God commands to act. How remarkable! We say: “God, do this!” But what is it we command God to do? Hagiasthētō to onoma sou means, “let your Name be holy”, elthetō hē basileia sou means, “let your kingdom come” and genēthētō to thelēma means, “let your will be done.” Really, all three of these mean essentially the same thing — Eternal God, be who you are toward us, do your thing in us, through us, with us. “On earth as in heaven.” In heaven God’s will is sovereign, and now on earth we grant Him permission to reign as King.
Then the next four petitionary verbs in the Our Father continue with the same posture of receptivity before God. But now there’s a much more specific focus to these begging-imperatives for God to act: Give us! Forgive us! Lead us not! Deliver us! Like the prayer to the divine shepherd in Psalm 23, these four petitions presuppose a God who provide us with a superabundant feast in the presence of our enemies (whom we also forgive with God!). After we ask Him to feed us, we implore Him to redeem us from ourselves and then from our foes, whom we forgive. What?
Note also that, in light of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we know well that the actualization of this Prayer’s seven petitions is accomplished by means of us! We are to bring Kingdom-goods to haters by renouncing anger, lust, divorce, lying, retaliation, judgment, anxiety; and by practicing love for enemies, forgiveness, blessing, almsgiving, prayer, fasting and the Golden Rule. All these are requisite elements of the reconciled and reconciling community of God’s Kingdom come. And they are the direct effect of praying those seven petitions to our Father. Yikes! The use of “our” emphasizes the extension of God’s fatherhood to all humanity: weeds and wheat, friends and enemies, good and evil, saints and sinners (Matt 5:44-45).
Totally wild…the “our/us/we” is perfectly realized only in Jesus whose “catholic” humanity is humanity’s “Our” in the most mind-blowing way: He is the new Adam in whom all of humanity is recapitulated. The “total” Christ, both Head and Body, is both God and man, Bridegroom and Bride, Creator and Creation all reconciled into one new Mystical Person (Col. 1; Eph 1; Eph 5; Gal 3:28). Jesus is the posture of God toward fallen humanity (John 3:16) and the posture of fallen humanity toward God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
More amazing. The very One who teaches us this prayer is Himself the Name above all names, the Kingdom in person, the doer of the Father’s will, the Giver and Gift of our super-substantial (epiousion) Bread, the Pardoner and the Pardoning of all debts, the Liberated Liberator who yields us not to temptation and delivers us from all evil. In fact, Jesus is the Father’s Response to every one of these seven petitions.
When I pray, I must be fully ready to accept the implications of all seven petitions. What am I saying? I am giving permission for God to act with uninhibited freedom to inaugurate in me — in us — His in-breaking Kingdom. I am saying, “Father, eradicate at will anything in me that impedes the coming of the Kingdom of your Son into this world, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.”
All that packed into a prayer that takes less than a minute to verbalize.
Next time you pray the prayer Jesus gave us, mean it.
Now join me in praying with the St. Vladimir Seminary choir: