Pretty much every Christian of every denomination or lack thereof learns the “Our Father” — also called “The Lord’s Prayer” — at a young age. It is regarded as one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith. Indeed, as the prayer that Christ Himself taught us, it should have a place of importance in all Christians’ prayer lives. After all, Our Lord would not have given it to us had He not had good reason for it. Recently, this prayer had been running through my head, and I realized that, though its words may seem simple, they have great meaning for us all.
Here, in the very first two words of the prayer, Christ already teaches us something important. God is not a cruel, impersonal entity ruling over us according to His whims, but our Father. This is a change from the Old Testament, where as I understand it, God was distant from His people, since by the Fall man lost his destined closeness with God, and it was only with the coming of Christ that he was able to regain it. In fact, Jesus telling His followers that God is our Father helped to show His own purpose in coming in two different ways, first, that the temporary distance God kept with the Jews was over and He wanted a relationship with everyone, and second, telling us what this relationship should be, that we are not servants who fear an impossible-to-please judge, but God’s children.
This is not to say we should not still try to please God and obey His commandments; of course we should obey Him, but out of love rather than fear. This simple phrase “Our Father” tells us that God loves us as His children, and that correspondingly we should love Him as children love their fathers. Alternatively, since He is described simply as “Our Father” instead of the more specific “Our Heavenly Father,” perhaps it is meant to convey that we are to regard God as our true father, where earthly men are only images of Him.
…Who Art in Heaven…
This phrase has multiple different meanings. It could be interpreted as showing that our Heavenly Father is distinct from our earthly one, or, again, that our only real Father is He Who art in Heaven. After all, there is no possible way we could exist without Him, yet we could have existed with a different earthly father if that were His will. Additionally, remembering that the Father we are addressing is in Heaven (to put His existence in imperfect earthly terms) helps to remind us that He is greater than we—and, too, that we, as His children, are also destined for something greater than earth alone.
…Hallowed be Thy Name.
This part of the prayer shows further continuity with the Old Testament, where God’s Name was so holy that only the high priests were permitted to utter It, and only once a year. “Hallowed be Thy Name” shows that He is the same God Who saved the Jews, and His Name is still sacred, but now we, the laity, are not just permitted but instructed to speak It by His Son, another sign of the new relationship with God that Christ brought.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done…
Here is stressed the importance of obedience to God. This even better shows the reality that we are God’s children, since all good children should be obedient to their parents.
…On Earth as it is in Heaven.
This is a reminder that, although earth is not and will never be Heaven, we should continue to do our Heavenly Father’s will just as though we could see Him right in front of us. In fact, an ideal earth would be more like Heaven, because if all on earth were as God intended it, though it certainly would not be paradise because it would always have some level of sin, it would be a lot nearer to it, since a pivotal attribute of the goodness of Heaven is that every soul in it is perfectly conforming its will to God’s.
Give us This Day Our Daily Bread…
This continues with the paternal imagery, since it is typical of an earthly father to provide for his children’s needs, so it makes sense that the Heavenly Father would do the same. Some might also say this phrase refers to Heavenly food rather than earthly; that is, to the Body of Christ. That parallel also reinforces the idea of our Heavenly Father, because the only reason we have the Eucharist at all is because Christ perfectly obeyed the will of His Father. Additionally, the Eucharist is vital for eternal life in a way that earthly bread is not. In this way our Heavenly Father, with full cooperation of His Son, provides us with what we most need.
And Forgive us Our Trespasses…
It makes sense that a loving Heavenly Father would forgive His children when they offend Him. But, what this phrase helps to reinforce is that we must ask for His forgiveness.
It is not something to which we are entitled automatically, any more than children are entitled to forgiveness from their earthly fathers. In fact, thinking we are “entitled” to anything from our Heavenly Father is an offense, showing indifference and ingratitude to His generosity. Recognizing that we should ask in order to obtain forgiveness, although we do not and could never deserve it, shows at least the beginnings of the love that we should all have for our Heavenly Father.
As we Forgive Those who Trespass Against us…
Still, for Him it is not enough to just desire His forgiveness once, though He freely gives it. He wants to make us, His children, over in His own image, such that our wills may be
perfectly confined to His, just like Christ’s was, that we may also love good and hate evil. This is one reason why we are charged with forgiving those
who trespass against us.
And Lead Us Not into Temptation…
Of course a loving Father would not want us to be tempted… without good reason. Why, then, do we say “lead us not into temptation,” and what could such a good reason be? Well, as I understand it (I believe St. Faustina may have mentioned this in her Diary), when we successfully resist temptations, whether they are small or huge, we give Him greater glory than if there had
been no evil to reject. With that in mind, though there is no need to change the wording that Christ taught us, the entirety of our request might be more precisely phrased as “lead us not into temptation that we cannot resist.” After all, if my thinking is correct, temptations can bring us even closer to God than we would be otherwise, having given up the lure of an evil masquerading as a good for love of Him.
…But Deliver Us from Evil.
This petition might be the most important, since almost all the others share in it. For example, there is evil in failing to praise God’s Name, and a different kind of evil in a lack of daily
bread. The single phrase “deliver us from evil” encompasses them all. Aside from the fact that the Heavenly Father is the archetype for all earthly fathers, who should seek to keep their children from evil, if the Heavenly Father did not deliver us from evil we could never be His. Thus, we are not merely asking for freedom, though that is part of the petition. Most importantly, in “deliver
us from evil” we are asking to be His children, not by His desire alone as expressed in the words “Our Father,” but by our own wish, especially since the evil often comes from within ourselves as well as without. Once we allow Him to deliver us from evil, then we can become really, truly His, as He desires us to be.
The Our Father is a prayer of confession (“Our Father Who art in Heaven…”), praise (“hallowed be thy name”), and petition (“give us this day our daily bread… and lead us not into temptation”). By understanding the prayer we can better understand the God Who gave it to us. It makes sense that God the Father would want us to know and praise Him. But, remembering that the Son of God Himself instructed us with this prayer, it is mind-boggling that God would not only desire us for His own, but desire us to the point of wanting and teaching us to desire Him in return.
I’m sure there is much more that could be said about this seemingly simple prayer that I could not explain in such a short essay, but I will close with a suggestion. Next time you choose to pray The Our Father, instead of reciting it by rote, try to remember that the words hold a meaning deeper than their surface alone. Even though what I have said here is incomplete, the single most important thing to remember about the Our Father is that, like all true prayer, it is a declaration of mutual love between God and man. If we keep this in mind, our recitation of it can bear much fruit, whether we choose to say one Our Father or 1000.