It’s a prayer faithful Catholics say at least once a week at Mass, if not several times daily. The words are well-known and well-worn in our mind, but there is a lot more to the Our Father than at first meets the eye.
Here are five things you did (or may) not know about this, the most central of all Christian prayers:
1. Echoes Jewish prayer: There’s an ancient prayer that beings with these words: May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days. … Sound familiar? It’s strikingly similar to the Our Father, but this is from a Jewish prayer called the Kaddish, which predates the time of Jesus. This prayer, which is often said at funerals and during mourning periods, expresses longing for the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth and is a “sanctification of God’s name,” according to one Jewish source. The word Kaddish is linked to the Hebrew word qadhosh, meaning holy. The connection between the Kaddish and the Our Father shows is yet another example of how the entirety of the Old Testaments—its commandments and prophecies, its sorrows and yearnings—were fulfilled in Jesus and the new kingdom He established through His ministry.
2. Fulfills Old Testament prophecy: Addressing God as ‘Our Father’ marks a radical change in our relationship with God. While God is described as ‘Father’ just 15 times in the Old Testament, Jesus describes him as such about 165 times in the gospels, according to Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. In most of those 15 Old Testament references, the ‘Our’ is not used with ‘Father.’ The two words appear together just twice in Isaiah 63:16 and 64:8. The first of these verses anticipates the first line of the Our Father: Lord, art our father, our redeemer, from everlasting is thy name. (In fact, ‘Our Father’ is repeated earlier in the same verse.) In the next chapter we read: And now, O Lord, thou art our father, and we are clay: and thou art our maker, and we all are the works of thy hands (Douay-Rheims). Although the specific phrase ‘Our Father’ is not in it, in Jeremiah 3:19 God rues faithlessness of the Israelites, who were supposed to regard Him as a Father. But later, in chapter 31:8-9, God predicts that His people will come back and call Him ‘Father’:
Look! I will bring them back from the land of the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth, the blind and the lame in their midst, pregnant women, together with those in labor—an immense throng—they shall return. With weeping they shall come, but with compassion I will guide them; I will lead them to streams of water, on a level road, without stumbling. For I am a father to Israel. … (New American Bible, Rev. Ed.)
Truly in the Our Father this prophecy has finally come to fulfillment. By becoming ‘partakers of Christ’—through baptism and the Eucharist—we share in His sonship and can therefore address God as ‘Father.’ The trinitarian intimacy that was shared between the Father and Jesus is now opened to us.
3. The kingdom is Christ: There are many ways to read the petition Thy kingdom come. Many believers rightly sense these words ask God to spread His kingdom on earth and also within our hearts—something we know will not be completed until the end times. But kingdom has an even more fundamental meaning than all this. Several Church Fathers identified the kingdom of God directly with the person of Jesus Christ, using term autobasileia—or “self-kingdom.” (Basileia is the Greek word for kingdom.) “Jesus himself is the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he,” Pope Benedict XVI writes in Jesus of Nazareth. Put simply, when we pray Thy kingdom come we are praying for the coming of Christ—now and in the end times.
4. Super-substantial bread: You wouldn’t know it from the English text, but smack dab in the center of the Our Father is one of the greatest Eucharistic references in the Bible. What reads in English as daily is the Greek word epiousios, a combination of epi-, defined as upon or fitting, and ousia, meaning being or substance. The word daily is valid translation, but the Church, at least since Jerome, has kept in mind an alternative translation: ‘super-substantial.’ (In fact, that’s how Matthew 6:11 reads in the Douay-Rheims.) Now what else could ‘super-substantial’ bread be but the Eucharist itself—bread whose substance has been ‘transubstantiated’ into Christ? So how on earth did some translators get day? That comes from focusing on epi- as fitting. In that sense, epiousios refers to whatever is ‘fitting’ or ‘sufficient for our substance,’ according to Theophylact, a Greek father. Still, this word cries out for seeing a deeper meaning. Other than the Our Father, epiousios does not occur anywhere in ancient Greek, ousia itself is a loaded word, and had the writer meant simply day, he would said so using the normal Greek term for it, kath hemeran. This is why the Church has stuck to its guns on the Eucharistic interpretation. (See the catechism and Jesus of Nazareth.)
5. Don’t test God: In the petition, lead us not into temptation, the word translated as temptation could also be rendered as test. This makes sense: temptation certainly ‘tests’ our faith—our commitment to leading holy lives that honor God. It also highlights another way of understanding the petition, according to Anglican scholar N.T. Wright. He connects it with the Old Testament accounts of Israel ‘testing’ God. In Exodus 17:7, for example, the Israelites gripe about not having any water, which Wright interprets as a demand that God prove His presence among them. It is to this episode that Deuteronomy 6:16 refers when it states, You shall not put the LORD, your God, to the test (New American Bible, Rev. Ed.). This attempt to ‘test God’ betrays a fundamental lack of faith and love, Benedict writes:
The arrogance that would make God an object and impose our laboratory conditions upon him is incapable of finding him. For it already implies that we deny God as God by placing ourselves above him, by discarding the whole dimension of love, of interior listening; by no longer acknowledging as real anything but what we can experimentally test and grasp. (Jesus of Nazareth, 37).
Unlike the Israelites, Jesus refused to ‘test’ God when tempted to do so in the desert. In rebuking the devil, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy. In 1 Corinthians 10:9, St. Paul urges us to do the same: Let us not test Christ as some of them did. So, while temptation can cover a multitude of sins, a specific one is the temptation to put God to the test. So, in this petition, among other things, we are asking God to preserve within us the supernatural virtues of faith and love.
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