There are treasures hidden in plain sight in the world and in our faith. The Our Father is one such storehouse of awe that is so familiar, so up-close to Catholics that – perhaps – we seldom pause and behold it for what it truly is. Non-Christians know the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but even to us who would claim to profess its efficacy, do we always pray it with an awareness of its power?
In the New Testament, we first come across the prayer in Matthew’s Gospel 6:9-13 as part of the longer Sermon on the Mount. An abbreviated version appears in Luke 11:2-4 , as an exchange between Jesus and the Disciples on His journey to Jerusalem.
Ubiquitous and recognizable as it may be, the Lord’s Prayer rests on two presuppositions that, when themselves examined, should inspire wonder and deep reverence every time we pray.
1. Christ definitively reveals the Father
To be fair, we can say that prior to the life of Christ, the Jewish people had as accurate a concept of God as was possible for limited mankind, absent the fullness of Divine Revelation. But it was the miracle of the Incarnation and Jesus’ teachings, death and Resurrection (not to mention the subsequent unfolding and development of theological doctrine from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church) that revealed to mankind this uniquely filial-paternal relationship that is not understood in any other faith tradition.
Pope Benedict XVI dedicates an entire 40-page chapter (ch. 5) to the Lord’s Prayer in Volume I of his Jesus of Nazareth series, and countless saints and Doctors of the Church have written extensively on its riches. He quotes Reinhold Schneider on pg. 135: “The Our Father begins with a great consolation: we are allowed to say “Father.” This alone, from the first two words of the prayer, ought to make us pause.
Indeed, St. Teresa of Avila expands upon this astonishing relationship in her spiritual masterpiece The Way of Perfection – both that God is our Father, and that we share Him as a father with Jesus, Himself! (emphasis, mine):
2. It is the most perfect prayer
Here it is, chanted in the Aramaic, the language Jesus Himself would have spoken it in His Sermon on the Mount. Think about that. The voice of God, the lips of God, the Alpha and the Omega Incarnate, spoke these audible words in the flesh to human ears… the prayer that man ought to use in his feeble attempts to pray to God.
Imagine the infinite chasm that exists between us creatures and God, our creator. How could / can we ever hope to bridge that gap? And, yet, there’s a natural longing written on man’s heart to grasp for Him, even when we deny or reject Him. Even before we knew He was One. Even before Christ died for us. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us (and the Evangelist, Matthew preserved for us) this perfection of prayer, such that we need not wonder if we’re doing it right. We are given a form to which we must conform our hearts and minds. In other words, we don’t have to make it up. We don’t have to harbor the insecurity of attempting to bridge infinity on our own.
The late, brilliant, holy Fr. John Hardon, S.J. said, “The perfection of the Our Father is unique because it comprehends everything which it behooves us to ask of God as either necessary or useful for salvation. Its seven petitions have been variously compared to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, to the seven Sacraments, and to the three theological and four cardinal virtues of the New Law.”
He cites St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa (II-II, Q. lxxxiii art.) in presenting the prayer’s perfection:
“The structure of the Our Father is perfect. For since prayer is an interpretation of our desires, we should only pray for those things which are proper for us to desire. Now, in the Lord’s Prayer what we are asking for from God is everything that we may lawfully ambition. It is, therefore, not only a catalog of petitions but also, and especially, a corrective for the affections […] We are also directed to heaven accidentally, by the removal of obstacles that stand in the way. There are three such obstacles to beatitude; (1) sin, which directly excludes a man from the kingdom of God. Therefore we pray: Forgive us our trespasses; (2) temptation, which leads us into sin. Hence our sixth petition: Lead us not into temptation; (3) temporal evils, the consequence of sin, which make the burden of life too heavy. Consequently, our final petition: Deliver us from evil.”
The everyday things – our spouses, our parents, our bodies, our ability to express ourselves – we rely on them so automatically that we forget that they are tremendous and unmerited gifts. Sometimes what helps me is to imagine not having a thing (a person, a faculty, whatever) I take for granted.
What if you had to start from scratch?
We take for granted this “basic” prayer, many of us uttering it daily, but let’s resolve to live it and pray it with heightened spiritual awareness, that we ourselves might be more fully human versions of ourselves. Let us look at it with a fresh set of eyes, and speak it to our Lord with renewed hearts for the awesomeness that is His Fatherhood, communicated to us in full by Jesus Christ.
*We also love this hauntingly beautiful rendition of Psalm 53 which Fr. Seraphim and his choir performed for Pope Francis’s visit to the country of Georgia. It was apparently misidentified as the Our Father by news outlets.*