- Christ Church - https://christchurchwindsor.ca -

Lenten Programme on The Lord’s Prayer II

Dear Friends of Christ Church,

I regret that we are not able to meet at the present time owing to the precautions belonging to the Covid-19 outbreak. I will continue to post the Lenten reflections and sermons. Please keep safe but be not afraid.

In Christ,

Fr. David Curry

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.

And so it begins. “God himself taught us this prayer,” Thomas Aquinas observes, making clear the connection between Christ and God for “He who with the Father hears our prayer, did himself teach us how to pray.” It is, he says, the “most perfect” and the “most preeminent” of prayers. It is quite simply the prayer that underlies all prayer and without which our prayers are less than truly prayers. Aquinas makes the point that “if we are praying appropriately and correctly, then whatever words we may be using we are not saying anything other than what is laid down in the Lord’s Prayer.”[1] [1]

All prayer in some sense or another has its ground in the Lord’s Prayer. Simone Weil, a modern writer in her work “Waiting on God,” notes that “the Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer which is not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change … taking place in the soul.” At issue is the challenge of paying attention to each word. She is, we might say, ‘the philosopher of attention’ whose voice is especially needed in our age of distraction and inattention. To ponder the Lord’s Prayer is to learn to pay attention to God and to his word. “Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it,” Jesus says to us in our despair and desolation.

Praying the Lord’s prayer attentively is the subject of our Lenten programme. Following in the footsteps of Origen, the great early Patrisic biblical theologian, Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century emphasizes the intimate nature of the Lord’s Prayer. “Many things [in the past[ were said in praise of God, But we do not find that the people of Israel were taught to address God as ‘Our Father’… With regard to Christ’s people, however, the Apostle says, ‘We have received the spirit of adoption whereby we cry Abba, Father and that not of our deserving, but of grace.’ This, then, we express in the prayer when we say Father, which name also stirs up love. For what can be dearer than sons and daughters are to a father?” The Lord’s Prayer is grounded in the understanding of God as Trinity.

To begin with “Our Father’ is to begin with praise, Aquinas teaches, but such a beginning also corrects what he calls three errors that are absolutely fatal for the life of prayer. What are these three errors?

The first is that God is not concerned about us and so it is a waste of time to ask God for anything. Yet we noted last week that God wants us to want what he wants for us, our good, and so prayer has to do with our active engagement with the will of God. The second fatal error is that since all things are known and fixed by God, there is no point whatsoever in praying. This also is countered by the idea of our active participation with God and his will and by realizing the folly of collapsing eternity into time, or contingency into necessity. The third error goes to the opposite extreme; it is the presumption of thinking that the providence of God can somehow be altered by our prayers, as if we could make God will what we want. The counter is about our learning to will what God wants.

Simone Weil highlights how the Our Father contains all possible petitions. Prayer in its simplest sense is about asking but as Aquinas wisely observes and Weil would completely agree, the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are really all about the glory of God and the human hope of glory (Fr. Paul Murray, Praying with Confidence, Aquinas on the Lord’s Prayer). The seven petitions can be divided or distinguished in terms of those themes. The first three petitions relate entirely and completely to the glory of God; while the remaining four petitions speak to the human hope of enjoying God’s glory. This focus on God’s glory and our hope for enjoying God’s glory add to the special and unique character of the Lord’s Prayer even as it illuminates what is implicit in all prayer however incoherent and garbled, even if our prayer is “with sighs too deep for words.” This emphasis on the glory of God corrects the narcissisms of our contemporary world. It is not about us; it is about God, God for us and in us.

What are the seven petitions that make up the Lord’s Prayer? The first three, directed to the glory of God, are, first, “Hallowed be thy name”; second, “Thy kingdom come”; and third, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, the focus of the first three petitions is on God in his majesty and truth, God in his glory. The remaining four petitions speak more directly to the human condition but only as grounded in the first three petitions. They are about our hope in God; specifically, beginning with the fourth petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The fifth is “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them who trespass against us.” The sixth is “lead us not into temptation” and the seventh is “deliver us from evil.”

There is a certain rightness to this order. As Aquinas suggests, not only is prayer “in some way the interpreter of desire such that we can only rightly pray for what we can rightly desire but we are also taught to pray in the right order.” This connection between the Lord’s Prayer and our desire will be highlighted for us in the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer in the instruction on the Lord’s Prayer which is called “The Desire” (BCP, p. 550).

Our endeavour this evening will be to consider, however briefly, the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, but before embarking on that study something needs to be said about “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Heaven is not a place, for God cannot be contained within corporeal space. God’s essential greatness is signalled in the phrase “who art in heaven” to indicate the greatness of his power and his transcendence – his being beyond – and yet His immanence, his being close to us. God is above all and yet in all things in heaven and earth as the very principle of their being. In other words, the very first words of the Lord’s Prayer open us out to the grandeur of God and give us confidence in his power and goodness. Only on that basis can the petitions follow as the forms of rightly ordered prayer, of rightly ordered desire. For as Aquinas says in his lectures on the Gospel according to St Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer contains “all that we can desire.”

“Hallowed be thy name”. To hallow is to make holy or to acknowledge what is sacred. Are we hallowing God’s name? Is not God’s name always holy? As a host of theologians have argued, this first petition is simply about the desire that God’s name be recognised as holy by all people. It has very much to do with how we come to think the divine reality. To know the name of God is to have a hold of the nature of God, albeit imperfectly, as in “a glass darkly” but still as something known in some way or another, partly by the light of reason and more fully through the light of revelation.

Jesus, in other words, makes manifest the nature of God. “No one has ever seen God,” John tells us, “but the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known,” literally exegeted him. This belongs to the profound idea that God is not a Deus Absconditus, a hidden God, however much he is beyond our comprehension by definition. The knowledge of God is something which God seeks for us and for our good. To hallow God’s name is to glorify God by our lives. Once again, it is about the intimate connection between God and us. To hallow God’s name by the quality of our lives means that God is glorified through us. In hallowing God’s name, we are ourselves being sanctified in spite of ourselves and our daily sins.

The second petition is “Thy kingdom come.” This petition follows the same logic as the first. God’s kingdom by definition exists from eternity. What we seek here has to do with the reign of God in us but because of our sins we are not always subject to God. “I like a usurped town, to another due,” as John Donne memorably writes in “Batter my heart three-person’d God.” In our sins we are enslaved not to God who is our freedom but to the devil. “Divorce me, untie or break that knot again/ Take me to you, imprison me, for I/ Except you enthrall me, never shall be free.” It is a wonderful and holy paradox captured in the Prayer Book Collect for peace, that our freedom is and can only be found in our service to God, “whose service is perfect freedom” (BCP, p. 11). We are praying in this petition that sin may no longer rule us but that God’s grace and kingdom, an image of Christ himself, may rule and move in us. Our highest good, the Summum Bonum, our ultimate happiness, is found in God and in his kingdom. It is an image, too, of redeemed humanity. To pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ is our Christian vocation to be holy, to be members of the communion of saints, those whose wills have been made perfect in the will of Christ.

The third of the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” John Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed preacher of fourth century Constantinople, observes how this petition follows logically upon the preceding petition: “having taught us first to desire heavenly things by saying, Thy kingdom come, now he bids us, before we come to heaven, to make this earth into heaven.” This raises the question that I am sure has been percolating away in your minds. How exactly do we know the will of God? We don’t, of course, at least not perfectly but this petition signals a right desire for wisdom, itself a gift of God. Once again, Aquinas helps to unpack this petition for us. There are three things which we rightly seek: first, eternal life; secondly, to keep God’s commandments; and thirdly, to be restored to the truth of our human dignity; in short, to be made worthy of God. The chief end of man, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism so wonderfully puts it, is “to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.”

This petition signals our desire that God’s will rules and defines us on earth as in heaven; in other words, now. God and his kingdom and truth is not some imaginary ‘pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by’. In prayer we seek to live the will of God in whatever place and circumstance we are in. Our parishes are to be the outposts of the kingdom of heaven. And so we rightly pray that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Fr. David Curry
Feast of St. Joseph,
March 19th, 2020
Lenten Programme on the Lord’s Prayer II

[1] [2] Paul Murray, Praying with Confidence: Aquinas on the Lord’s Prayer, Contiuum International Publishing Group, 2010. As this helpful work indicates, there are several sources for Aquinas’ observations about the Lord’s Prayer: his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard; Article 9 in question 83 of his Summa Theologiae II.II; his lectures on St. Matthew’s Gospel; his Compendium of Theology; and his Sermon-Conferences at Naples. His Catena Aurea provides a useful collection of texts from the Fathers which contribute to his thought.