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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Lord’s Prayer Revisited

As you might remember, I’ve posted before about the Lord’s Prayer, including a very brief history and summaries of commentaries by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini and the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément. The BBC has now posted a series of reflections taken from a conversation with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the Lord’s Prayer. Before I give a few excerpts, I would like to invite you to share in the comments box your own experiences praying the “Our Father." Here, then, is Archbishop Williams:

The prayer as a whole is a prayer which I think tells us we stand in a very vulnerable place. We stand in the middle of a human world where God's will is not the first thing, the most automatic thing that people do. Where crisis faces us, where uncertainty is all around about tomorrow and where evil is powerfully at work.

To stand with dignity and freedom in a world like that, we need to know that God is Our Father. We need to know that whatever happens to us God is God, God's name and presence and power and word are holy and wonderful and that that glorious God has made us members of his family in a very intimate and direct way.

With that confidence, that kind of not childish dependence, we're actually free. We know that there is a relationship that nothing can break.

And again, you could turn to Saint Paul on that to the end of chapter eight of his Letter to the Romans: "I know that nothing, nothing can separate me from the love of God and Jesus Christ". And to begin that prayer "Our Father" is really to say what Saint Paul is saying. Here is an anchorage, you know the old hymn, here is an anchor that keeps the soul. Here is the anchorage that keeps us steady in this turbulent, difficult, nightmare world.

So the Lord's Prayer is a prayer that is utterly serious about the danger, the tragedy of the world.

When Jesus first teaches the prayer he says when you pray say "Our Father". So I think there is a very simple instruction there, these are the words that he gives to us.

But of course what the prayer does is to give us a kind of template for other sorts of prayer; it tells us that Christian prayer is always addressed to The Father. It's always prayer that is prayed from where Jesus stands.

So real Christian praying is standing with Jesus and saying to God the words that Jesus would say to God, Father. All prayer has to be like that for Christians.

And all prayer has to be aware of our frailty, aware of the ways in which our lives are at risk.

All prayer has to acknowledge our need of forgiveness and our need to forgive.

So it's not so much that there would be other ways of saying it, we say those words simply because Jesus told us to. But from that prayer we can get a model, an inspiration for the nature of all the prayers we ever offer.

"Hallowed be thy name" is one of those phrases that is most strange to us I think, isn't it? But I want to see it against the background of the Old Testament's idea that the name of God is something in itself immensely beautiful and powerful. The name of God is God's word, God's presence.

And to ask that God's name be hallowed, that God's name be looked upon as holy, is to ask that in the world people will understand the presence of God among them with awe and reverence, and will not use the name or the idea of God as a kind of weapon to put other people down, or as a sort of magic to make themselves feel safe. But rather approach the idea of God, the name of God, the word of God, with the veneration and humility that's demanded.

In the Jewish texts of Jesus' own day, the commandment about not taking God's name in vain, from the Ten Commandments, is often understood as uniting the name of God with a curse - using the name of God as a kind of magic word - and that's to trivialise the name of God, it's to bring it down to our level, to try and make God a tool for our purposes.

So "Hallowed be thy name" means: understand what you're talking about when you're talking about God, this is serious, this is the most wonderful and frightening reality that we could imagine, more wonderful and frightening that we can imagine.

All the more extraordinary that we should be able to approach God as Father.

"Thy will be done" of course is quite like "Thy kingdom come", it's a typical bit of Hebrew poetry, the parallel between the first and the second bit of the phrase.

We're praying there that the whole universe responds to the gift of God in the same kind of way.

We're praying that in the very elaborate version of the old Book of Common Prayer; just as the angels do God's service in heaven so we may reflect that service on earth.

And that's to say that all through the universe, God's glory and God's beauty is being reflected back to God by the stars and the planets, by the angels, by the plants and the animals around us. Things just being the way they are reflect God's glory, do God's will.

We human beings unfortunately have a kind of tone deafness about God's will; we have to learn to sing in tune with all this.

Somewhere, some other levels of reality, God's will is done. Here on earth, among us human beings, it isn't very much, and so we pray that we may be brought into tune, that we may not be the only ones singing flat in the great choir of the universe.


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