There once was an Eastern Church spiritual adviser who suggested beginning the Our Father backwards.
We should begin with the last petition so that we end with Our Father, he said. Such is the pathway to Easter: from temptation in the desert to forgiveness and manna in the desert to our arrival in the promised land—so goes the thinking in an anecdote Pope Benedict XVI recounts in Jesus of Nazareth.
There is some sense to this: we often approach God in prayer in times of temptation, to seek deliverance, to ask for a simple need, whether it be daily bread or something else that, in the grand scheme of things, may seem equally mundane (a good grade, the arrival of a needed paycheck, a good day at work). But the Our Father seems to reverse the expected order.
This is intentional, write St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. Amid a disordered world, the Our Father, to paraphrase Aquinas, orders our desires as they “should be ordered.” We begin, then, not with our desire for daily bread or even deliverance, but with the divine. This, Augustine writes, should be our first and ultimately our only desire. Augustine quotes Psalm 27: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.”
Instead of the way of ascent then, from our daily tribulations and trials, we have the way of descent, from God down to us, according to Pope Benedict.
In this way, the Our Father does not gradually build to the grand truth. Instead, it whacks us over the head with it. And what is this truth? Something dramatically new has happened in history and in our lives that allows us to address God, the Creator of all things visible and invisible, the One who is all-powerful, the being who is Being itself, as “Father.” A new relation of being has been established that allows us to address God in the intimate language of children to their Father, fulfilling ancient prophecy (Isaiah, 63:16 and 64:8; 31:8-9). And, what’s more, something is happening to us too, we are now children of God, sons of the Father.
Of course, as this is prayer, there is a sense in which this word also expresses our longing: to be sons and daughters of God, to truly be able to call Him “Father.”
We are now left with these questions: What has happened to bring this state of affairs about? What must happen to bring this bold new beginning it to its ultimate fulfillment?
In English Our precedes Father. But both the ancient Greek and the Latin translation put Father first. Only after declaring God as Father for us do the ancient languages introduce what comes next: “our.” We do not read “my.” Our relationship to God is not all that has changed. How we relate to each other has also been radically altered as a result.
Our introduces a new reality, a special kind of family. As Pope Benedict explains,
In this sense, the word our is really rather demanding: It requires that we step out of the closed circle of our ‘I.’ It requires that we surrender ourselves to communion with the other children of God. … When we say our, we say Yes to the living Church in which the Lord wanted to gather his new family (Jesus of Nazareth, 141).
Still stunned by the first affirmation, the first word, of the Our Father, we are now challenged to profoundly rethink both how we relate to our fellow man and to our new “Father.” It’s a lot to take in.
Then suddenly before us is the widening chasm: Our Father who art in heaven. Yet here we are on earth. How can God be our “Father”? How is such intimacy possible? As Aquinas puts it in his commentary on the Our Father, “Some indeed have said that because of His great distance from us God does not care for men, and they cite these words.” Aquinas quotes one of Job’s accusers: “The clouds are his covert, and he doth not consider our things, and he walketh about the poles of heaven” (Job 22:14).
This heaven is a realm certainly unlike our own. It’s the land of God, the abode of angels and saints. The land where there is no death or mourning, where there is no need for light of the sun and moon because light itself is there (Revelation 21). It’s where the ones who are saved experience the joy of the beatific vision.
But the prayer circles back to its starting point, reaffirming that we can call God by name: hallowed be thy name. In three short clauses, then, we have been introduced to a new way of living, a new way of being related both to God and to each other. And we have had opened up before us a new vista of heaven, the land of God, and our home, presumably, as we have been taught to call him Our Father. The stage has thus been set for the great meeting of heaven and earth, for the unfolding of a cosmic drama.
And this is exactly where the Our Father is taking us.
We next pray: Thy kingdom come. Heaven, the land where God reigns supreme, is coming to us.
But we can be more specific as well. It’s not so much that something is coming as that Someone is. As Pope Benedict explains, “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.” (How else to explain Jesus’ repeated declarations that the “Kingdom of God is at hand?”)
The Our Father unfolds the meaning of this kingdom: Thy will be done. “Above all, though, what we hear in this petition of the Our Father is an echo of Jesus’ own passionate struggle in dialogue with his Father on the Mount of Olives,” Benedict writes in Jesus of Nazareth. He concludes: “And in this light, we now understand that Jesus himself is ‘heaven’ in the deepest and truest sense of the word—he in whom and through whom God’s will is wholly done.”
On earth as it is in heaven. ….
The Our Father has taken on an Incarnational dynamic, the drama of God becoming fully human, of heaven coming to earth.
Perhaps this is why Church has always heard Eucharistic undertones to the next petition: Give us this day our daily bread. In Greek the word daily is the farthest thing from the mundane-sounding translation we recognize. The word is epiousios. When we take away the prefix epi- (meaning upon or fitting) we are left with –ousios, the loaded Greek word for being or substance. While daily is an acceptable translation, we would not be out of bounds to also render this word as super-substantial, which certainly brings us into Eucharistic territory.
But is this reading too much into it? Augustine certainly didn’t think so. In one of his letters, he says daily bread could also refer to the “sacrament of believers” which is “necessary in order to obtain the felicity not of the present time, but of eternity.” Writing in Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict says it was the consensus view of the early Church that this was indeed a Eucharistic petition.
The interpretation has persisted through the history of the Church. In his commentary on the Our Father, Aquinas discerns a twofold meaning to this bread: first, the “sacramental Bread” and, second, the “Bread of the Word of God.” “Thus, in the first meaning, we pray for our Sacramental Bread which is consecrated daily in the Church, so that we receive it in the Sacrament, and thus it profits us unto salvation,” Aquinas writes, concluding with John 6:51, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.”
Give us this day our daily bread. This cosmic drama, this meeting of heaven on earth, has now come to us. It is offered to us. It has become a part of our very being. The great transformation of earth by heaven now ensues in a transformation of who we are.
And this brings us to the final petitions of the Our Father. We ask for forgiveness as we become partakers in the mercy of God, forgiving those who have wronged us. (“Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful,” Luke 6:36). We conclude by asking that we not be led astray from “Our Father” through temptation and we implore deliverance from evil.
Here is the fitting end to great cosmic drama of the Incarnation. We who can call God “Father,” who can address and honor him in heaven even as we remain on earth now have hope of deliverance from evil. How sweet it is that in our disordered world God comes to us first, calls on us to seek after Him first. Only then will “all these things be added” unto us (Matthew 6:33).
image: Image’s of the Lord’s Prayer in the Church of the Pater Noster, Israel / Shutterstock