Whenever Jesus gives a warning or a woe it’s good to pay attention. Today we hear a warning attached to a crystal-clear positive practice to follow. It is a rare and precious gift. The treasure of the Lord’s Prayer is so vast that Christians have been plumbing its depths since the very first days. It is a pearl of great price, and yet, in its ubiquity, perhaps it has lost its luster.
For as long as I can remember this prayer has formed the backdrop of my spiritual life. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it systematically. It was just in the atmosphere of the family and church community I inhabited.
And so, it usually takes some conscious effort for me to return to the words, the layers of meaning and desire expressed to revivify otherwise dulled, ambient noise.
I can recall encountering slightly different versions; sometimes we ask forgiveness for trespasses, debts, or sins. Sometimes the correct, or at least familiar word seemed really important and other times I was just happy that we were saying it together. And on some occasions hearing the prayer spoken in the various languages of the hearts of people from all over the world has risen like a beautifully rich fragrance to God.
Monks pray often. But as we learn many times over, quantity or frequency in themselves don’t equal quality or depth. Neither, as Jesus points out here, do length or verbal sophistication in themselves equal substance in the realm of prayer. Even when the phrases are full of meaning, such as those drawn directly from Scripture, it is possible to come to them with absence of mind or heart, and miss the meaning because something in us is missing.
The Christians at Corinth seemed to go weak in the knees for verbal sophistication. In this slightly odd snippet from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, I hear Paul’s sense of humor and his deep sense of irony. The Corinthians are distractible; they are flirtatious with other teachings, other teachers, and other “gospels” with finer phrases and finer reputations than Paul’s gospel, which can be a bit of a downer. Length and sophistication were these teachers’ specialty: in public prayer, in preaching, and in their long and impressive resumes. Paul was capable of great rhetorical sophistication himself, but the gospel he stewards is, first and foremost, treasure in a clay jar, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Rather than a super-apostle– a term heavy with irony – Paul is a kind of sub–apostle. He’s a messenger on a distinctly downward trajectory, whose “resume” includes only the most ridiculous, painful, and shameful things he has endured for the sake of the gospel. Rather than marrying up in the world, spiritually speaking, Paul has married down… and down and down. He has wedded himself to a Bridegroom Messiah who makes him look like a loser. And that is his greatest boast.
Several years ago, I found myself in a small, subterranean chapel within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. It had once been a cave. At some point, a modern church was built over it. The floor was littered with scraps of paper. On them people had written prayers, and then dropped them through a grille in the floor of the upper church, onto the floor of this cave chapel, where I stood with Sr Elspeth. Elspeth was an American. She had begun her religious life as a sister of the Order of Saint Anne, here in Arlington. The deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized it was to the contemplative life she was called. So, there she was, a Carmelite nun of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing me the cave, where tradition says, Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
Like many of the holy sites in Jerusalem, it is impossible to know if this is the place where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. None the less, this place has been hallowed by the memory of that occasion, as well as by the prayers of countless believers. Like this monastery chapel, the walls of that cave are soaked in prayer. You feel it the moment you enter.
Of all the prayers we pray, none is so universal, so loved, as the Lord’s Prayer. Wherever we go as Christians, we find others who love, and pray this prayer. We may be divided by language, culture, race, gender, economics, education, ecclesiology, or theology, but we are united by this prayer, and by praying it.
Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 6:7-15
Our first lesson, from the Letter to the Colossians, is sometimes called “the Creation Hymn,” how things came into being from the very beginning. The Son of God existed prior to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. What we experience in the human form of Jesus – using the language from Colossians – “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The Son of God had already lived forever, eternally, prior to his taking on human life as Jesus.
The best sense the Church has been able to make of this comes from experience. There is One God, the Creator of everything who, while remaining God, takes on human form: God the Son. This is Jesus, who grows, ministers, prays, dies, is resurrected, and returns to the life of God who has no beginning or ending. Jesus departs from earth. He ascends. He leaves us, not abandoned, but leaves us with another manifestation of the One God, whom Jesus calls “the Spirit,” the Spirit, another Person of the One God. It took the Church several centuries to find the language to try to describe the mysterious yet undeniable experience: that there is One God in Three Persons.
God took on human form in Jesus. How did God make this decision? I’m speaking here very anthropomorphically. How did God decide to become human? What was the “cost” to God to become human? The great Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, in his poem, “The Coming,” pictures God’s decision in a primordial conversation between God the Father and God the Son. The picture is of a desolated, hopeless, helpless earth.
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
“Let me go there.” And that was the decision.
God comes to us as a child of Bethlehem. We know him as Jesus, who grows up, like we grow up, and after many, many years, finds his voice and claims his power. He also prays. Jesus prays, enough so to catch people’s attention. This is God the Son in a very human way praying to God the Father. Very mysterious, and yet, clearly, this is what is happening… frequently.
The Gospel lesson appointed for today is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question how to pray. Jesus gives us what we call “the Lord’s Prayer.”[i] What I find most revealing in the Lord’s Prayer is the opening word, the plural pronoun, “our.”[ii]“OurFather.” Consider the context:
- Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and Jesus’ prayer envelopes his disciples as if he and they are all one: the 1stperson, plural possessive pronoun: our. How to pray? Jesus says we begin like this: Our Father…
- Jesus here regards his disciples not as his servants, but as his friends. They are his peers. They share the same prayer. He doesn’t say, “My Father,” or “Your Father.” He says, “Our Father.”
- The name Jesus uses for “Father” shows a very tender, childlike, trusting intimacy. A better, sweeter translation of the Greek word would be “Papa” rather than “Father.” “Our Papa in heaven.”
- Jesus speaks as a human being, as human as you and I are, and as full of as many wonders and needs as the rest of us. His prayer isn’t just “heavenly”; his prayer includes our need for food – for daily bread – and this isn’t metaphorical. This is table bread. This is about sustenance.
- Just prior to this – the preceding verse – Jesus has said, “Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.”[iii]So Jesus is teaching us to pray, but this is not about the dissemination of information to God. God already knows our needs. God is God. This is about our trusted and tender relationship to God.
- And the rest is history. I mean, our own history.
The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar, probably to most of us, perhaps too familiar to some of us for us to be mindful of its profundity. These are Jesus’ words, words which completely embrace us as if we, with Jesus, all belong to the same Father, the same Papa. You might inspiration for some meaningful meditation for Lent:
- Reflect on God’s “deciding” to become human, and its “cost” to God to be truly human and truly divine.
- Take R. S. Thomas’ haunting last line in his poem, “Let me go there.” Why? Why did God the Son say to the Father, “Let me go there?” Why did Jesus come?
- Why does Jesus pray? Jesus prayed and he presumed we would, also. He says to his disciples, “When you pray…” What does it mean to pray – to quote Jesus – when “your [heavenly] Father already knows what you need before you ask him.” So why is Jesus praying? Why are we praying?
- And lastly, where I began with the Lord’s Prayer, with the plural possessive pronoun, our: “Our Father.” What does that pronoun “our” invite in terms of your relationship to Jesus and the God whom he calls Father. And if you get in touch with some resistance within you – resistance to that kind of intimacy with God – then pray about your resistance.
[i]Matthew 6:9-15. See also Luke 11:2-4.
[ii]The Greek word (ἡμῶν) literally means “of us”: i.e., “Father of us.”
Clouds and darkness are round about him, * righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne [on earth as in heaven].
Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous * and give thanks to his holy [, hallowed] Name. –Psalm 97: 2, 12
If your prayer life is anything like my own, you will have found that our praying lives are often littered with ever shifting seasons, fresh insights, old wounds that continue to sting, and ever expanding and contracting horizons of the heart. Perhaps, too, you will have found that even the most familiar phenomena can take on new valences and, to our surprise, unveil themselves in a beautiful complexity to which we had previously been blind. The ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ from which our gospel pericope comes this morning, has often been for me a site of this very ‘unraveling of the familiar’—a place where the real limitations of our spiritual vision meet the scandalous, expansive, sometimes terrifying truth at the heart of all things.
For many of us, the words of the Lord’s prayer contain an inestimable, unqualifiable freight. These words—so dear, so familiar, so second-nature—stir the gaze of our hearts toward the One whom Jesus invites us to name “Our Father,” and articulate in six remarkably short petitions some of the deepest content of the “hope that is in us.” And yet, as with anything we live in close proximity to, the very familiarity of these words can sometimes obscure this prayer’s true power to transform us and its radical challenge that seeks to summon us beyond our illusory sense of self-dependence.
Isaiah 55: 6 – 11
Psalm 34: 15 – 22
Matthew 6: 7 – 15
Several years ago, Brother Robert and I found ourselves in a small, subterranean chapel on top of the Mount of Olives, within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. The chapel where we were had once been a cave, but over the centuries had been dug out and expanded, and then a newer, larger, modern church had been built over this cave chapel. The floor around the altar was littered with scraps of paper on which people had written their prayers, and then dropped through a grille in the floor of the church above us, down into this smaller cave chapel where Robert and I stood. We were there with Sr Elspeth, an American, who had begun her religious life as a Sister of the Order of Saint Anne here in Arlington, but the deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized that it was to the contemplative life that she was called, and so there she was, a Carmelite sister of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing Brother Robert and me the cave where tradition tells us that Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.