In Luke’s gospel, the “Our Father”, like so much else in Jesus’ teaching, is occasioned by a request from his disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). This should get our attention, because it is typical of Jesus’ method of revelation that, instead of going around announcing, “Hey! I’m the Messiah!” he appears to leave so much of revealing himself to the initiative of others. Half of his sayings are replies and rejoinders to things somebody else said or asked. Even the great and shocking revelation of his identity as the Christ, the Son of the living God is made, not by him directly, but through the apostle Peter. The disciple makes the great confession; Jesus then confirms it by telling Peter that flesh and blood has not revealed it to him, but “my heavenly Father” (Matthew 16:17). In both cases—the revelation of the “Our Father” and the Messianic Revelation—had the disciple not made the request or plucked up the guts to make the shocking confession, we might never have received the revelation. That should stagger us, because it points to the first thing we should realize about prayer: that we do it at all.
Of course, psychologically, prayer is perfectly understandable. There’s no big shock about weak flesh crying out to the heavens for some sort of help in making it through this vale of tears. And if we were all pagans, there would be no great surprise in the idea of our trying to wheedle and cajole the various clashing egos and agendas of Olympus into playing favorites with us or scheming against other gods and humans in order to obtain some desired outcome to our plight.
But Christians do not believe in such a deity. We believe in a God who is omnipotent, all-knowing and all-loving. And that raises a huge question: namely, what’s the point of prayer to such a God? We can neither tell him anything he does not know, nor urge him to love more than he already does (a candle may just as well command the sun to shine more brightly), nor we can add one particle to his infinite and endless happiness by our praise. So we are pretty much the definition of a kind of Cosmic Fifth Wheel. In light of such a God our prayer—and indeed our very existence—is utterly superfluous. We are, in the words of Robert Farrar Capon, “radically unnecessary.” If it comes to it, God not only doesn’t need us to pray, he doesn’t need us to do anything. He doesn’t need us to exist at all!
And yet Jesus teaches us to pray and makes his actions, in a certain sense, so dependent on ours that his very instruction on prayer is given because we ask him to tell us how to pray. Why this seeming passivity on the part of him who is Pure Act?
The answer is found in the immense gulf between Jesus’ reference to God as “my heavenly Father” and his instruction to us to refer to God as “Our Father”. Jesus uses the term “my Father” in a way that make clear that he enjoys by nature a relationship with God that we do not enjoy. God the Father is the Father of Jesus the Son. Jesus shares his divine nature. He is of the same “God stuff” as the Father. We are not. We are creatures not sons, related to God, if you will, as a statue is related to its sculptor, not as a son is related to his Father. Moreover, to complicate matters, we are creatures in rebellion. Evil has distanced us from God in ways that merely creatureliness never could.
Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that distinct relationship when he tells us things like “You are from below, I am from above” and when he takes for granted the fact that he is without sin and entirely pleasing to the Father while we are sinners, etc. To be sure, his teaching, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, insists that we must call God “Father”. But the whole point of this language is to make clear that this is shocking and revolutionary. Occasionally, in the Old Testament, one of the prophets will speak of God as the Father of Israel. Now and then, a psalmist will posit a Father/Son relationship between God and some dignitary such as a Davidic king. But Jesus makes this the absolutely normative relationship between his followers and his Father. In doing so, he makes clear that this is permissible only because he has authorized and commanded us to enter such an intimate relationship with our “Abba”. The corollary is that without that authorization and command, it would be sheer impudence and effrontery on our part, much as Islam still feels it to be. In short, the clear implication of Jesus’ teaching is that, apart from him, we would have no right whatsoever to call God “Father”.
That comes as a shock to many people in our post-Christian culture, who take it as a natural right simply because the Christian tradition has, for so long, called God “Father”. And perhaps that shock is not a bad thing since the Christian revelation should shock. It tells us that, not because we are That Kind of Chap, but because of the Passion, Death and Resurrection, a radical change has been wrought by the God-Man in the relationship between God and Man so that we can, after aeons of estrangement, call God “Father”. It declares that after the Resurrection, the One who had hitherto referred to “my Father” in starkly exclusive terms now says to Mary Magdalene: “Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). When the second Adam ascends, humanity is planted squarely in the heart of heaven and God and man are now reconciled. God is no longer merely the Father of Jesus Christ the Son, but of all who believe in him. So, as the Church puts it in the Mass, we “dare” to say, “Our Father”. In the words of C.S. Lewis, we are given the right and duty to “dress up as Christ.”
That’s why prayer (and we) are not superfluous to God. For He who does not need either us nor our prayers is nonetheless the God who loves us. And, loving us, he not only utters us into being out of nothing, but raises us from there to become what St. Peter calls “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). And so, as Pascal observes, God instituted prayer in order to lend us the dignity of being causes—and, what is more, sons and daughters in the Son.
The grace which lends us our borrowed dignity is always prior. Every movement of the heart toward God, no matter how feeble and flickering, occurs because God was already at work in the mysterious depths of the human heart, moving us toward himself. That’s why, at the end of the day, it only appears that Jesus was passively revealing himself in response to others’ comments and requests. In fact, requests like “Lord, teach us to pray” and insights like “You are the Christ, the Son of the Blessed” occur, as Jesus himself said, due to the power of his heavenly Father at work in our hearts. As he says, we did not choose him, he chose us (cf. John 15:16). All of the struggles to understand the revelation of Christ, all the seeking, questioning, doubt and desire the apostles went through in their long, slow, stumbling walk after Jesus—all this was due ultimately not to “man’s search for God” but to the Good Shepherd who sought the lost sheep. At our very best and most pious, we are still in the position of the beloved who chases her Lover till he catches her. The apostles cried out “Lord, teach us to pray!” because God put the hunger for him in their hearts, inspired them to freely seek him, and then freely answered them. The prayer “Teach us to pray”, simply by being prayer and not a magic formula, assumed dialogue with God.
And yet, not merely one-on-one dialogue. The “Our Father” is, paradoxically, an incorrigibly public prayer (that’s why it’s the “Our Father”) to an incorrigibly intimate God (which is why Jesus tells us “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6).
What are we to make of a God who reveals himself to be secret, yet reveals this to the whole human race? Well, we cannot pretend that the Christian faith is some private, esoteric affair between Me ‘n Jesus. “Our” gives that the lie. To call the Father “Our” Father and not “My” Father is to say he is the God of the whole Church, not just of me. Why then the emphasis on secrecy?: Because God meets us as persons in all the intimacy of the soul. We approach him in secret because paradoxically, that which is personal is also that which is most universal. For personal things (falling in love, fear upon the sea, wonder at the stars, joy at the laughter of children) are not esoteric, they are common. But, because we are weak, we often cannot reveal ourselves as persons to God in public due to fear of What People Will Think or the distracting desire to impress them. So God calls us to private prayer in order that we may practice at being Persons, that in our public practice of the Faith, we may share that gift of personhood with others.
And it is, make no mistake, a public faith Jesus has in view when he establishes his Church. The notion that the Christian faith should be “private” in the sense that it should be neither seen nor heard in the public square is as unintelligible to Jesus as it was to the Jewish tradition out of which he came. To be sure, acts of piety (prayer, fasting, almsgiving) should not be done in order to gain the praise of human beings. But that’s not because “faith is a private thing”. It’s because our public witness to the Faith must not be compromised by even so much as the appearance of a faith that is offered in sacrifice, not to God our Father, but to Public Opinion. It is precisely because the Church is a visible body of believers and a sacrament to the world of the mercy and love of God that it must not be tainted by the mercenary attempt to leverage our “spirituality” into something calculated to win acclamation for ourselves.
Winning acclamation for Our Father is another thing entirely. That is why Jesus offsets the exhortation to do our acts of piety privately with another, less noticed command to make our faith a very public thing indeed:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
Precisely the point of this teaching is that glory is good, so long as we give it to God our Father and don’t divert it to ourselves. That’s why Catholics are unabashed in public worship: Because the Mass is not all about us, but about the worship of God the Father in and through Jesus the Son.
That’s why the “Our Father” has always had pride of place at Mass. Here supremely, we live out what Jesus instructs us to do in the “Our Father” by entering into the total and perfect self-offering of his Son. Once again, we “dress up as Christ” and ride his coattails into Heaven by being joined with his life, death, and resurrection, first in the sacrament of Baptism and most profoundly in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We give him our little, broken, creaturely life and he gives us his “spirit of Sonship” whereby we cry “Abba, Father”. And because we are now sons and daughters in the Son, we participate in the life of the Blessed Trinity to such a degree that God, in his Providence, actually takes our prayers into account as he continues his single ongoing act of Creation and Redemption. He chooses to make our prayers matter, for we pray as his own children. And because we are children, we can enter into prayer, not in the muck sweat of a half-panicked fear that a capricious deity might let us starve if we don’t get some magic formula recited just right, but in the confidence that Jesus himself had in his heavenly Father. It is this confidence that suffuses the “Our Father” and steers us, not to a prayer of petition (which is often the first form of prayer that we think of) but to the recognition that he is in heaven—of which more next time.