(This is Part I of “Formed by Divine Teaching”, a 12-part series on the Lord’s Prayer. Click here for the “Formed by Divine Teaching” main page, where you can find updated links for each new installment in the series.)
What does it mean to pray?
To answer this question, let us go to the Gospel of John. Yes, to John– not to Matthew or Luke where the Lord’s Prayer appears, but to John, the latest and most theologically sophisticated of the Gospels. Here we see a text written after the decisive break from Judaism, written after the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, boasting of a marvelous synthesis of Jewish and Greek thought, and which thus contains elements of a mature Christian faith. If we follow the old adage that the revelation of God ended with the death of the last apostle, the Gospel of John then is surely the final written testimony of God’s consummate communication with the world. Communication— this is at the heart of prayer. Prayer is communication with God, and if he is communicable, then he must have the quality of personhood– someone who can hear and answer.
Can God indeed hear and answer? If we were to argue from materialist causes, the answer would be “no”. Even the classic proofs or descriptions of God’s existence, while valuable, ultimately fall short of the reality itself. Conceiving of God as id quo maius nequit cogitari (Anselm), or conceiving of him according to the various proofs of Aquinas (from contingency, from complexity, etc.) are still depictions of God in purely material terms, with the result that God himself is seen as a merely material source of all other material things (prima materia, primum movens) and nothing more. Such speculation can fathom neither the reason for the order of things nor the idea of a God of love and compassion who speaks to his creatures and who can be addressed as “Abba, Father!”. This is the limit of materialist philosophy and the reason why an exclusive reliance on the hard sciences will never disprove God; science and philosophy by their nature cannot supply the idea of a God who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Not by materialist or physicalist methods does one arrive at the idea of a personal God, but only through metaphysical reasoning seen through the eyes of faith. With clarity of vision and masterful prose, John depicts for us what it means to really see God, not in a literal, material sense, but in the higher, spiritual, metaphysical sense– how He is in Truth.
In John’s prologue, we see the famous words: “In the beginning was the Logos [word, reason], and the Logos was in communication with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning in communication with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” In John’s vision of creation, there is first and foremost a reason, a wisdom behind the structure of the cosmos. Next (relying on J. Ratzinger), there is the idea that this reason, this Logos was in communication with God. The Greek preposition πρὸς supplies a host of meaning; whereas usual English texts say that “the Word was with God”, the word πρὸς indicates not only a proximity in terms of location but a unity of sense, purpose, or action between subjects—a unity which presupposes coordination and communication. This unity is then asserted in the next line: “the Logos was God”.
Innate in the very nature of God himself is the idea of dialogue and communication. He cannot be identified as some static materia prima, primum movens, prima causa, or an indeterminate id quo maius nequit cogitari, useful as these ideas may have been in the historical of theology; rather, God is communication itself. He is reason itself. Since “all things were created through the Logos,” it follows that creation is an act of communication. It is the utterly gracious, superabundant outpouring of the internal dialogue of God. Created things therefore possess an inherent capacity for relation, both to God and to other things in the created world, for rooted in God himself is the possibility of communication.
“And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us”: through the first creation (the creation of the world) and the new creation (the Incarnation), God himself becomes present in the created world. The internal dialogue in the Deity– between Father and Son– becomes the condition and model for the dialogue of the world with God. In prayer, the human person assumes the humble, obedient disposition of the Word Made Flesh, and by raising his heart and mind to the Father, participates in the eternal communication of the Son to the Father. In a special way for Catholics, we express this at Mass, where in the dialogue before the Eucharistic preface, the priest invites us with the words sursum corda—literally, “hearts on high”, and to this we respond habemus ad Dominum—we have lifted them up to the Lord!
The Lord’s Prayer—a commandment from God
This connection to the liturgy is not accidental. The Lord’s Prayer, which is recorded with slight variations in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, was part of the Christian liturgy already in the first generation after the Apostles, with Luke’s version probably closer to the actual words of the Lord. Given to us by Christ, the humble and obedient approach exemplified in the prayer shows us how to more perfectly participate in the eternally obedient communication of the Son to the Father. While The Lord’s prayer in Luke does not occur in a specific context, its context in the gospel of Matthew leads to some fascinating insights. Matthew, writing for an early Jewish-Christian audience, attempted to convince them that Jesus was indeed the Messiah of the Jews. Accordingly, his text is chock full of Jewish references that he leaves unexplained (phylacteries and fringes, the two didrachma, the seat of Moses). The gospel’s five book structure mirrors that of the Jewish Pentateuch (Torah), while Old Testament citations and imagery are frequently cited to draw parallels between Moses and Jesus.
One such example is the so-called Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus gives new commandments to his followers using the form “you have heard it said… but I say unto you”; the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer are also taught in the context of this discourse. The image of Jesus preaching on the mount evokes the image of Moses on Sinai, who hands the Law to the people Israel. In Matthew’s gospel, however, Jesus is more than a mere prophet. Yes, he gives commands as did Moses, but Jesus does so on his own authority, speaking in the first person, a privilege known by the ancient Jews to pertain only to God himself. In using the formula “I say unto you”, Christ identifies himself with God’s very power, something Moses could have never done. Yet despite this omnipotence, Jesus is ever humble, for “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped; rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness and found human in appearance” (Philippians 2:6-7). And in this state of utter humility, he gives the disciples an exemplary manner in which to pray.
This is just speculation on my part, but perhaps Matthew has drawn another parallel between Moses and Jesus; namely, that as Moses brought to Israel basic synthesis of the Law (the Ten Commandments) from Sinai, Jesus too gives a unique, ten-part synthesis of the New Covenant from his mountain of preaching. One can see parallels (though not exact) between the original Jewish Decalogue and the Lord’s Prayer:
I am the Lord thy God… thou shalt not have other gods before me || Our Father who art in heaven: In both these statements is an acknowledgement of God as supreme and above all creation, including all other so-called deities; to him alone is due honor, worship, and reverence.
Do not take the name of the Lord in vain || Hallowed be thy name: The name of the Lord, revealed to Moses on Sinai, is most sacred, for it points to the unfathomable, ineffable nature of his being; so sacred, in fact, is this name (YHWH), that both Jews and Christians never utter it.
Keep holy the Sabbath || Thy kingdom come: The Sabbath is the day of rest, in which God looked upon all creation and saw its perfect goodness. In keeping the Sabbath, one looks forward to the day when ever age is perfected anew in the reign of God.
Honor thy father and mother || Thy will be done: “Thy will be done” is also Christ’s words at Gethsemane; in obedience to his eternal Father, he submits to his will.
Do not murder || On earth as it is in heaven: Heaven is the realm of the living; disrespect of innocent life on earth is therefore a reflection of hell, the realm of death. By this petition we ask that those on earth might one day partake eternally in the joy of the angels.
Do not commit adultery || Give us this day our daily bread: Christ teaches us to ask for what we need, not for what we want. When we expect more than our daily bread, we focus on the desires of the ego instead of on God’s will for us. Similarly, adultery goes beyond the desire for properly ordered love by which we disregard the God-given dignity of others and make them objects of our hunger.
Do not steal || and forgive us our trespasses Forgiveness is the inverse of stealing: whereas theft is motivated by a selfish desire to possess and control, forgiveness is utterly selfless, consisting of giving up one’s claim to retribution and vengeance.
Do not bear false witness || As we forgive who trespass against us: Refusing forgiveness to the sincerely contrite is effectively to call their contrition a lie; ironically, the unforgiving person refuses to see the truth in a sorry and brokenhearted person, which is the sacrifice acceptable to God (Psalm 51:17).
Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife || Lead us not into temptation: In Hebrew Scripture, the devil is known as ha-Satan, “the tempter”, whence our modern term “Satan”. Temptation is the foundation of sin, and the converse is true: remove the temptation and there is no sin. Indeed, how often is lust the First Temptation which leads to other sins? The story of David and Bathsheba is a prime example: after lusting for Bathsheba, the King is led to murder and adultery..
Do not covet thy neighbor’s possessions || But deliver us from evil: When show all the riches and kingdoms of the world, Jesus says to the devil: “Get behind me, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord God alone shall you worship and him alone shall you serve!'” (Matt 4:10). In the gospel, devil worship is equated with a vicious pursuit of wealth.
As one can see, this is not a strict parallelism, though correspondences in content are definitely apparent. The idea that the Lord’s Prayer is a genuine commandment from God, as genuine as the Decalogue, is most important. Thus, “obedient to the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching,” we dare to utter His sacred words.
The “Our Father” is a sign of unity. How beautiful is it, despite a history rife with divisions and turmoil, that all Christians can still come together to pray this very prayer? Notwithstanding schism after schism, some form of unity still binds all followers of Christ, and it is beautifully expressed when they pray in the manner taught by the Lord– with humble hearts, in obedience to His commandment, and with these same immortal words which he taught his disciples.