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Lenten Programme on The Lord’s Prayer III

This is the third address in this series. The first is posted here [1] and the second here [2].

“Give us this day our daily bread”

Who are we asking? Our Father. Not our Lord. It is perhaps important to remember that all of the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are addressed to God as “Our Father.” As with the first three petitions, so too with the last four petitions. What we ask for we ask “Our Father.”

Origen already remarked on this unique and special feature of the Lord’s Prayer. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find any prayer addressed to God as Father. Augustine several centuries later also calls attention to this as does Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

The opening words of the “Our Father” carry over into all of the petitions and serve to ground our prayers in a kind of praise and wonder about God himself that acts as a counter to the ways in which we invariably seek to make God subject to ourselves. That, of course, is how we lose ourselves because we lose sight of God. “For many things are said in praise of God,” Augustine notes, “which, being scattered variously and widely over all the Holy Scriptures, everyone will be able to consider when he reads them; yet nowhere is there found a precept for the people of Israel, that they should say ‘Our Father,’ or that they should pray to God as a Father; but as Lord He was made known to them.” It suggests something intimate and important about the “Our Father” as belonging to the essential understanding of the Christian faith.

The seventeenth century Anglican Divine, Lancelot Andrewes, in his Holy Devotions, notes that the Lord’s Prayer begins with “a Father, not a Lord/ One being a name of love./ The other of dignity … One being, a name of Goodness, Comfortable … the other of Power, Terrible … Who then durst be so bold as to call the Father, but that Christ did command it?” The Lord’s Prayer is grounded in the Son’s love of the Father; his Father is “Our Father” at his bidding and command. We are bold to say, “Our Father.”

Jesus provides instruction about prayer and about persevering in prayer in many places such as in Matthew 7.9. “What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?” Christ’s first temptation, too, was about the manipulation of the world, about turning stones into bread. The image of “Our Father” reminds us of the essential goodness of God and about what he seeks for us, namely, not stones but bread. Why? Out of the love of the Father for the Son and in the power of the Son’s love for the Father; out of the bond of their mutual and indwelling love, we learn the deep love of God for us. Thus this fourth petition, which marks the beginning of the second set of petitions, concerns what we seek from God in terms of our lives here and now but only as grounded in the deep love of God himself and that love as turned towards us; in short, God’s love for us.

There is something all-encompassing about this fourth petition because it speaks precisely to what God seeks and provides for us both physically and spiritually. Having spoken already about our heavenly relation to God, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” whose name is to be “hallowed” in us, and whose “will” is to “be done on earth as in heaven,” we now turn more directly to the petitions which concern God in us.

It belongs to the richness of the scriptural images that there is more than one way of understanding these petitions. “Give us this day our super-substantial bread,” Cyril of Jerusalem says in his famous Catechetical Lectures delivered around 348 BC. He sees in the petition the way in which all of the needs of our lives are ultimately gathered into Christ and in a sacramental and eucharistic fashion, much like what we saw last Sunday (Lent IV). We are ultimately gathered into the Son’s thanksgiving to the Father and, ultimately, that is the highest and greatest provision for us in the journey of our lives. It means to be thankful for whatever befalls us out of sense of God’s will for our good. This is not naive and simple-minded. It is about a deep confidence in our heavenly Father.

The last four petitions “belong,” Augustine suggests, “to this temporal life,” but not as separate from God. With respect to this fourth petition, he allows for a range of interrelated interpretations. “Daily bread is put either for all those things which meet the wants of this life, … or, it is put for the sacrament of the body of Christ … or, for the spiritual food, of which the same Lord says, “Labour for the meat which perisheth not;” and again, “I am the bread of life, which came down from heaven.” It all belongs to the present time. “For whether by this same thing which is called daily bread be meant spiritual bread, or that which is visible in the sacrament or in this sustenance of ours, it belongs to the present time, which he has called ‘today,’ not because spiritual food is not everlasting, but because that which is called daily food in the Scriptures is represented to the soul either by the sound of the expression or by temporal signs of any kind.”

The Lord’s Prayer, like the Ten Commandments, distinguishes and unites our relation to God and to one another, to things eternal and to things temporal. They are united in God. Our daily lives belong to our life with God. As Aquinas indicates, God wants us to ask for the things necessary for life. “God provides us with temporal goods.” Temporal goods and the necessities of everyday life are necessarily part of our spiritual life. What is at issue is how we view the relation between temporal goods and the root of all good in God. To desire temporal goods is completely natural; they are natural goods, but as goods they come under God’s Providence and will for us. Yet because of our fallen state as sinners, there are problems about our desire for those goods.

Thus Aquinas alerts us to “five sins” which arise out of our desire for temporal things. Good as they are, we can desire them in a number of wrong ways, ways which the Lord’s Prayer corrects. First, there is the generic problem of inordinate love, loving things more than what belongs to the conditions and necessities of life. Bread is a basic staple, a symbol of what belongs to the sustenance of our lives and which is common to us all. Christ is not teaching us “to ask for delicacies” but more simply “for the bread which is common to all, and without which human life cannot be sustained.”

This sensibility contributes to the collective nature of our praying the “Our Father.” All prayer places us in a community of prayer; it is never entirely solitary. “Even the anchorite who meditates alone … Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his remarkable verse drama, Choruses from “The Rock,” the rock being one of the more dominant images of God especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here in the “Our Father” we are reminded that daily bread means our common bread, the bread that we break and share with others. We are companions with one another in our life with God. Companions is a word derived from the Latin which literally means ‘with bread,’ com panis. This petition reminds us that our daily bread is bread that is shared with others.

The second sin, as Thomas Aquinas indicates, speaks as well to that concern. It has to do with the ways in which we wrongly acquire our temporal goods, namely through violence, theft, or fraud, pertinent and relevant concerns in our age as well. In this petition we are asking for our daily bread, not the bread of others. He adds that if we are given temporal goods beyond our need, then “we share them with others.” Once again, the corporal or collective sense of prayer is emphasized.

The third sin has to do with our lack of moderation, in short, our excessive and possessive relation to the goods of this world, such as we have seen in the spectacle of the hoarding of goods in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. But “daily bread” doesn’t simply mean for one day or even one season; it has more to do with our anxieties about the future and our preoccupation and presumption about our needs without consideration for others. What is missing is temperance or moderation, a sense of self-control about the present and prudence with respect to the future. There is always the danger of being too careful, too full of the cares of this world and in a selfish way.

The fourth sin is also about a lack of moderation, namely, our gluttony, consuming far more than what we need. This goes to the contemporary problem of ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Gluttony is about superfluity, about more than what we need and more than what is good for us. In another aspect, it is about being defined by what we consume without recognizing the created order and God upon which all good things depend. In any event, this concern acts as a check on our greed and gluttony, upon the ‘culture of affluenza,’ we might say, which in turn ignores the poor and needy.

The fifth sin is simply our ingratitude. This recalls us to the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, to the sense of praise and honour towards God. At the heart of that sensibility is thankfulness to God for what we have received. This is the spiritual significance of saying grace at meals. In a way, this fifth sin is the most serious because it neglects the God from whom all good things, whether temporal or spiritual, do come. This brings us home to the real and deep meaning of this petition in its simple truth. It reminds us that all that we have comes to us from God.

Aquinas, like Augustine, recognizes that “bread” can be interpreted in various ways. The terms he uses are particularly instructive in relation to how the Lord’s Prayer speaks to the radical truth of our humanity in union with God in Christ. Bread, as referring to the basic necessities of life, as the image of the staff of life, as it were, he calls “bodily bread.” He allows, too, that “bread” as that upon which our lives radically depend may refer to the Godhead itself, or, equally to the divine teachings which he calls “the bread of wisdom.”

The story of the temptations of Christ tells us rather pointedly that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” Every word of God is bread to our souls. But, in line with Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechetical lecture more than nine hundred years before him, Aquinas states that bread here refers first and foremost to Jesus Christ, who said of himself “I am the bread of life,” particularly “as he is contained in the sacrament of the altar.” We are asking in this petition for “sacramental bread and for the bread of God’s word.” One cannot help but note the necessary and important connection and interrelation of word and sacrament.

While the fourth petition turns us towards our temporal needs and concerns, it does not do so at the expense of the three previous petitions. For where the word is preached and the sacraments celebrated, there we already participate in the things of heaven. It is only through sin that we ignore and deny that the world is God’s world and forget that we enjoy the things of the world by God’s goodness and grace. This is something which the theological reflections upon this petition constantly teach while reminding us of the corporate nature of the Christian Faith.

Andrewes notes that “it is not without some reason from our Saviour, that the words Mine, or I, are not to be found in this Prayer. Our, is a word of charity, and unity. It is not My Father, as if God were any mans peculiar, but our Father, the Father of all, as he properly is, through, and in Christ. Our prayers are most powerful with God, when we express in them a fel?low-feeling of the Necessities of our Neighbours, and Sympathize with them in their misery. This is Charity.”

Thus this fourth petition acts as a bridge connecting us to God and to God’s world and so to our lives with one another in the charity of God. Only so can we pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” For “what is more proper to Children,” Andrewes asks, “than to ask Bread of their Father? or what more necessary for them? And in this Petition we are to depend wholly upon his Providence; to acknowledge him the Giver of it only; and, lastly, We are Patiently to expect it from him.” It provides a strong foundation upon which to consider the remaining three petitions.

Fr. David Curry
March 26th, 2020
Lenten Programme III, 2020
Posted but unpreached owing to the closure of the Churches because of Covid-19.