Liturgy Matters - Part IX
To those of us who go to church, saying The Lord's Prayer is so familiar we miss its extraordinariness. In the early church of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it was considered such a radical prayer the catechumens (those preparing to be baptized) were not taught it until after baptism, because it was so subversive. They were afraid if the wrong people got hold of it, it would exacerbate persecution, and so one had to be very sure of who was being given this dangerous text! References to a kingdom coming were revolutionary - potentially seen as a direct challenge to the Emperor.
The Companion to Common Worship, entitled Come to the Feast, includes a helpful breakdown of The Lord's Prayer. It notes that beginning with 'Our Father' tells us two things: firstly it is a prayer for us to say collectively - the words our and us continue throughout. It is one of the great uniting prayers of the Church. Secondly, we are commanded to call God 'Father'. Jesus moves us beyond a simple reference to God 'as the Father of his people' to a close intimacy with him. It means by default that we are the children of God - his sons and daughters.
For anyone uncomfortable with this, feeling unworthy, or struggling with the idea of intimacy with God, it is not our own worthiness, but God's great love, which calls us into this relationship. He has created us for relationship with God and one another. God is not some impersonal being or life-force. There is a reason why we talk about the three persons of the Trinity. There is a reason we are told to see Jesus is to see the Father. Our corporate worship together is vital; but so too is our private relationship and prayer. God waits for us to draw close to him, and to recognise and enter into this relationship. This is not, as I have said, about our own worth - though as creatures of our heavenly Father, the God of all creation, we should give him some merit for the potential he has invested in us! We are the fruit of his hand. Some may struggle with the image of Father, perhaps they have known a father who was unkind, abusive, or others may need to see God as Mother also. The Bible has plenty of female and mothering imagery attributed to God, and it is quite proper to refer to God as both Mother and Father. God is not one gender or the other. Of course, we are dealing with metaphors, and we are talking not about human imperfection (bad fathers or mothers) but divine perfection, divine completeness and wholeness, divine love. I believe that if we are to 'love our neighbour as ourselves', by necessity, we must be able to love ourselves. Accepting ourselves for who we are, and coming to recognise God's great love for us personally as his children - that he likes us as well as loves us, and delights in us, has to be a starting point for healing our woundedness. 'We love because he first loved us' we are told in 1John. We must first know God's love for us, if we are to love God in return (for he is the source of all love) and we must learn to love ourselves if we are to love our neighbours. To pray 'Our Father' is to begin that journey of love.
The next four lines of The Lord's Prayer focus on God's Kingdom. In the words of Come to the Feast, 'they are a request that the divine order of heaven be made visible on earth.' 'Your kingdom come' is the heart of this prayer, echoing Jesus' central proclamation the kingdom of God was at hand. It is not a prayer that longs for the end times, but is inviting and praying for the values and signs of God's kingdom be present in the here and now. Too often as Christians we have been so heavenly minded as to be no earthly use - as the saying goes. We are called to pray and to help effect God's kingdom on earth, and all that means, for the poor, for justice, for inclusion, for love and belonging. 'Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven' it continues. Through us, we are praying here. Your will be done through us. As Teresa of Avila said, 'Christ has no hands, now, but yours.'
From praying for the kingdom, we move to praying for ourselves: for our daily bread; forgiveness, that we not be led into temptation; that we might be delivered from evil. Our prayer for daily bread is so appropriate in the context of the Eucharist, where we receive the bread of life which nurtures us. As well as that rich imagery, it also scoops up praying for the fulfilment of today's needs. The word translated daily is the Greek word 'epiousion' which occurs nowhere else in the Bible, and as Come to the Feast notes, we must guess at meaning through context. It may mean, give us just what we need for today - in line with Jesus telling us not to worry about tomorrow. Or it is possible it can be translated as 'Give us tomorrow's bread today' - which suggests we are also asking for a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, here and now on earth. Again, this can mean both the receiving of the Eucharist, and the experience of God's values - how things are supposed to be - here on earth today.
Forgiveness is a huge issue in itself, and one we cannot do justice to here. For now, we simply note, we are both in need of forgiveness, and in need of finding ways to forgive others. Much damage has been done to victims by telling them 'they must forgive'. For some, it will be a lifetime's journey as they stumble towards this: we must hold that difficulty with sensitivity. Just as loving ourselves begins with receiving God's love, so knowing we are forgiven by God, is where such a journey can begin.
A better translation of 'lead us not into temptation' is actually, 'save us from the time of trial' - a version the Episcopal Church in the US adopts. I wish we did also! Thus we end by praying for deliverance from great testing, persecution and evil, before the final doxology which celebrates God's kingdom above all things and for all time.