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This Update presents excerpts from Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, which explore the meaning of the Our Father.

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Praying the Our Father With the Pope
From Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI

The words of the Our Father are signposts to interior prayer, they provide a basic direction for our being, and they aim to configure us to the image of the Son. The meaning of the Our Father goes much further than the mere provision of a prayer text. It aims to form our being, to train us in the inner attitude of Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5).

Our Father, who art in heaven

We begin with the salutation “Father.” Reinhold Schneider writes of this in his exposition of the Our Father: “The Our Father begins with a great consolation: we are allowed to say ‘Father.’ This one word contains the whole history of redemption. We are allowed to say ‘Father,’ because the Son was our brother and has revealed the Father to us; because, thanks to what Christ has done, we have once more become children of God.” It is true, of course, that contemporary men and women have difficulty experiencing the great consolation of the word father immediately, since the experience of the father is in many cases either completely absent or is obscured by inadequate examples of fatherhood.

We must therefore let Jesus teach us what father really means. In Jesus’ discourses, the Father appears as the source of all good, as the measure of the rectitude (perfection) of man. The love that endures “to the end” (Jn 13:1), which the Lord fulfilled on the Cross in praying for his enemies, shows us the essence of the Father. He is this love. Because Jesus brings it to completion, he is entirely “Son,” and he invites us to become “sons” according to this criterion.

Hallowed be thy name

The first petition of the Our Father reminds us of the second commandment of the Decalogue: Thou shalt not speak the name of the Lord thy God in vain. But what is this “name of God”? When we speak of God’s name, we see in our mind’s eye the picture of Moses in the desert beholding a thornbush that burns but is not consumed. At first it is curiosity that prompts him to go and take a closer look at this mysterious sight, but then a voice says to him: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6).

But in the world of Moses’ time there were many gods. Moses therefore asks the name of this God that will prove his special authority vis-à-vis the gods. In this respect, the idea of the divine name belongs first of all to the polytheistic world, in which this God, too, has to give himself a name. But the God who calls Moses is truly God, and God in the strict and true sense is not plural. God is by essence one. For this reason he cannot enter into the world of the gods as one among many; he cannot have one name among others.

God’s answer to Moses is thus at once a refusal and a pledge. He says of himself simply, “I am who I am”—he is without any qualification.

The process that was brought to completion in the Incarnation had begun with the giving of the divine name. When we come to consider Jesus’ high-priestly prayer, in fact, we will see that he presents himself there as the new Moses. What began at the burning bush in the Sinai desert comes to fulfillment at the burning bush of the Cross. God has now truly made himself accessible in his incarnate Son. He has become a part of our world; he has, as it were, put himself into our hands.

How do I treat God’s holy name? Do I stand in reverence before the mystery of the burning bush, before his incomprehensible closeness, even to the point of his presence in the Eucharist, where he truly gives himself entirely into our hands? Do I take care that God’s holy companionship with us will draw us up into his purity and sanctity, instead of dragging him down into the filth?

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Thy kingdom come

With this petition, we are acknowledging first and foremost the primacy of God. Where God is absent, nothing can be good. Where God is not seen, man and the world fall to ruin. This is what the Lord means when he says to “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33). These words establish an order of priorities for human action, for how we approach everyday life.

This is not a promise that we will enter the Land of Plenty on condition that we are devout or that we are somehow attracted to the Kingdom of God. This is not an automatic formula for a well-functioning world, not a utopian vision of a classless society in which everything works out well of its own accord, simply because there is no private property. Jesus does not give us such simple recipes. What he does do, though—as we saw earlier—is to establish an absolutely decisive priority. For “Kingdom of God” means “dominion of God,” and this means that his will is accepted as the true criterion.

Jesus is the Kingdom of God in person. The Kingdom of God is present wherever he is present. By the same token, the request for a listening heart becomes a request for communion with Jesus Christ, the petition that we increasingly become “one” with him (Gal. 3:28). What is requested in this petition is the true following of Christ, which becomes communion with him and makes us one body with him.

Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven

Two things are immediately clear from the words of this petition: God has a will with and for us and it must become the measure of our willing and being; and the essence of “heaven” is that it is where God’s will is unswervingly done. The essence of heaven is oneness with God’s will, the oneness of will and truth. Earth becomes “heaven” when and insofar as God’s will is done there; and it is merely “earth,” the opposite of heaven, when and insofar as it withdraws from the will of God.

But what is “God’s will”? How do we recognize it? How can we do it? The Holy Scriptures work on the premise that man has knowledge of God’s will in his inmost heart, that anchored deeply within us there is a participation in God’s knowing, which we call conscience (cf., for example, Rom 2:15). But the Scriptures also know that this participation in the Creator’s knowledge, which he gave us in the context of our creation “according to his likeness,” became buried in the course of history. That is why God has spoken to us anew, uttering words in history that come to us from outside and complete the interior knowledge that has become all too hidden.

Give us this day our daily bread

The fourth petition of the Our Father appears to us as the most “human” of all the petitions: Though the Lord directs our eyes to the essential, to the “one thing necessary,” he also knows about and acknowledges our earthly needs. While he says to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat” (Mt 6:25), he nevertheless invites us to pray for our food and thus to turn our care over to God. Bread is “the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands,” but the earth bears no fruit unless it receives sunlight and rain from above. This coming together of cosmic powers, outside our control, stands opposed to the temptation that comes to us through our pride to give ourselves life purely through our own power. Such pride makes man violent and cold. It ends up destroying the earth. We have the right and the duty to ask for what we need. We know that if even earthly fathers give their children good things when they ask for them, God will not refuse us the good things that he alone can give (cf. Lk 11:9-13).

In his exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, Saint Cyprian draws our attention to two important aspects of the fourth petition. He has already underscored the farreaching significance of the word our in his discussion of the phrase “our Father,” and here likewise he points out that the reference is to “our” bread. Here, too, we pray in the communion of the disciples in the communion of the children of God, and for this reason no one may think only of himself. A further step follows: we pray for our bread—and that means we also pray for bread for others. By expressing this petition in the first-person plural, the Lord is telling us: “Give them something to eat yourselves” (Mk 6:37).

Cyprian makes a second important observation: Anyone who asks for bread for today is poor. This prayer presupposes the poverty of the disciples.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

The fifth petition of the Our Father presupposes a world in which there is trespass—trespass of men in relation to other men, trespass in relation to God. Every instance of trespass among men involves some kind of injury to truth and to love and is thus opposed to God, who is truth and love. How to overcome guilt is a central question for every human life; the history of religions revolves around this question. Guilt calls forth retaliation. The result is a chain of trespasses in which the evil of guilt grows ceaselessly and becomes more and more inescapable. With this petition, the Lord is telling us that guilt can be overcome only by forgiveness, not by retaliation. God is a god who forgives, because he loves his creatures; but forgiveness can only penetrate and become effective in one who is himself forgiving.

“Forgiveness” is a theme that pervades the entire Gospel. We meet it at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in the new interpretation of the fifth commandment, when the Lord says to us: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23f.). In so doing, we should keep in mind that God himself—knowing that we human beings stood against him, unreconciled—stepped out of his divinity in order to come toward us, to reconcile us. We should recall that, before giving us the Eucharist, he knelt down before his disciples and washed their dirty feet, cleansing them with his humble love. Whatever we have to forgive one another is trivial in comparison with the goodness of God, who forgives us. And ultimately we hear Jesus’ petition from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

If we want to understand the petition fully and make it our own, we must go one step further and ask: What is forgiveness, really? What happens when forgiveness takes place? Guilt must be worked through, healed, and thus overcome. Forgiveness exacts a price—first of all from the person who forgives. He must overcome within himself the evil done to him; he must, as it were, burn it interiorly and in so doing renew himself. As a result, he also involves the other, the trespasser, in this process of transformation, of inner purification, and both parties, suffering all the way through and overcoming evil, are made new. At this point, we encounter the mystery of Christ’s Cross.

And lead us not into temptation

God certainly does not lead us into temptation. In fact, as Saint James tells us: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one” (Jas 1:13).

When we pray the sixth petition, we are saying to God: “I know that I need trials so that my nature can be purified. When you decide to send me these trials, when you give evil some room to maneuver, as you did with Job, then please remember that my strength goes only so far. Don’t overestimate my capacity. Don’t set too wide the boundaries within which I may be tempted, and be close to me with your protecting hand when it becomes too much for me.”

It was in this sense that Saint Cyprian interpreted the sixth petition. He says that when we pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” we are expressing our awareness “that the enemy can do nothing against us unless God has allowed it beforehand, so that our fear, our devotion and our worship may be directed to God—because the Evil One is not permitted to do anything unless he is given authorization.”

And then, pondering the psychological pattern of temptation, he explains that there can be two different reasons why God grants the Evil One a limited power. It can be as a penance for us, in order to dampen our pride, so that we may reexperience the paltriness of our faith, hope, and love and avoid forming too high an opinion of ourselves. Let us think of the Pharisee who recounts his own works to God and imagines that he is not in need of grace.

When we pray the sixth petition of the Our Father, we must therefore, on one hand, be ready to take upon ourselves the burden of trials that is meted out to us. On the other hand, the object of the petition is to ask God not to mete out more than we can bear, not to let us slip from his hands.

But deliver us from evil

The last petition of the Our Father takes up the previous one again and gives it a positive twist. The two petitions are therefore closely connected. In the next-to-last petition the not sets the dominant note (do not give the Evil One more room to maneuver than we can bear). In the last petition we come before the Father with the hope that is at the center of our faith: “Rescue, redeem, free us!” In the final analysis, it is a plea for redemption.

Notwithstanding the dissolution of the Roman Empire and its ideologies, this remains very contemporary! Today there are on one hand the forces of the market, of traffic in weapons, in drugs, and in human beings, all forces that weigh upon the world and ensnare humanity irresistibly. Today, on the other hand, there is also the ideology of success, of well-being, that tells us, “God is just a fiction, he only robs us of our time and our enjoyment of life. Don’t bother with him! Just try to squeeze as much out of life as you can.” These temptations seem irresistible as well.

The Our Father in general and this petition in particular are trying to tell us that it is only when you have lost God that you have lost yourself; then you are nothing more than a random product of evolution. This, then, is why we pray from the depths of our soul not to be robbed of our faith, which enables us to see God, which binds us with Christ. This is why we pray that, in our concern for goods, we may not lose the Good itself; that even faced with the loss of goods, we may not also lose the Good, which is God; that we ourselves may not be lost: Deliver us from evil!

These excerpts are from Jesus of Nazareth by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Translated into English by Adrian J. Walker. Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. ©2007 by Liberia Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano. © 2007 by RCS Libri S.p.A., Milano, English translation © 2007 by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Next: Creationism—What’s a Catholic To Do? (by Michael Guinan, O.F.M.)

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