In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the Lord’s instructions to his disciples about how to pray. Its one of the few explicit sets of instructions we have from Jesus about how to pray, although we have plenty of instances from the Gospels of Jesus’s own prayers.
But today we have St. Luke’s account of the Lord’s own prayer – a.k.a. “Our Father” or “the Lord’s Prayer” – a specific and concrete prayer from the Lord’s own lips. “When you pray, say…” First of all, note that the Lord does not say “…IF you pray…” but “WHEN you pray…” So the first thing we might say is that for those who claim to love Christ and to be his disciples, prayer is not an option. And as I have often said: it is absolutely critical that every Christian have a definite rule of daily prayer. We must pray, and we must pray daily, and we must pray with discipline. Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading bear that out. (And I would add, in my view, Christians ought to pray the Lord’s Prayer daily – several times a day.)
“When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be thy name…” The text of this prayer is remarkable in the way that it begins. There are few, if any, prayers to be found in the Old Testament that address God as Father. While there may be many perfectly “normal” reasons for this, there is a very significant theological reason, and that is because mankind has sinned from the beginning, as Scripture bears witness beginning with the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis; and as our own experience ought to bear witness, if we are honest with ourselves. And sin means estrangement from God.
Somehow or other, in the course of world events, estrangement from God – and particular actions on our part that foster that estrangement – have become ubiquitous. So much so that it almost seems that sin is a normal part of what it means to be human. I have often heard this from half-thinking people wishing to object to what they regard as the Church’s slavish dogmatism about Jesus having been without sin. People say things like, “Jesus can’t have really been human if he didn’t sin.”
But in fact the truth is otherwise. And I want to highlight two elements to this truth. 1) Jesus could not have been the Son of God if he had sinned, because sin is by definition that which estranges us from God. As the formerly prodigal, but now penitent, son put it (in the parable of “The Prodigal Son”), after he had run off and squandered the inheritance he had received from his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I AM NO LONGER WORTHY TO BE CALLED YOUR SON; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15.18f).
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son” – or, to put it another way, “I am no longer worthy to call you my father”. Jesus can be said to be the son of God precisely and only because he did NOT squander the inheritance he received from his Father. He alone among men lived a life and died a death that was perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the Father, holy and righteous, entirely given to God in sincerity, love, praise, and thanksgiving; and loving all men perfectly and completely, even his enemies, because of the overflowing love of God that filled him.
Which brings us to the second thing that must be said: 2) therefore sin is NOT constitutive of what it is to be human. If it were, then the more we sinned, the more authentically human we would become. But that’s ridiculous. In fact, the opposite is true: The more holy we become, the more pure, righteous – in short, as we become more like Christ, at the same time we become more authentically human. To become holy is to become authentically human. And this stands to reason. It would be truly odd were we to say that being selfish, quarrelsome, and indulgent made us better persons. Jesus came to earth, as he said, in order to show us God (John 14.9). But he also came to earth to show us MAN, because sin has distorted for us BOTH the true image of God AND the true image of man. Sin distances us not only from God, but also from authentic humanity.
And so in the face of Christ, who is alone and at once both perfectly and completely God and perfectly and completely man (in Scriptural language: the “Son of God” and the “Son of Man”) – in the face of Christ, mankind discovers the mystery that to be truly human means to be truly divine. It means to be like Christ: to be sons of the living God (Romans 9.26).
Having understood this mystery, we are now in a position to return to the Lord’s prayer. “When you pray, say Father, hallowed be thy name.” Because in Christ we “draw near” (cf. Hebrews 7.25) to God, we are like the once-prodigal but now-penitent son who, though he is unworthy to call God “Father” – because he squandered his inheritance in a far land – yet by giving ourselves to Christ, and being willingly incorporated into his Body, we are reconciled to God, becoming the sons and daughters that he created us to be.
And this is the operation of grace. It is not because we grit our teeth and clench our fists and try hard to be good. It is rather because we allow Christ’s life to well up within us. We come to him acknowledging the truth of our willfulness and weakness, and we ask him to help us; we listen for his voice in prayer and in meditation on Scripture, and we do our level best to obey him, repenting when we fail. As Psalm 51 says, “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
It is through this kind of humble and honest encounter with Christ that we first learn to call God “Our Father.” And, as I have pointed out before, this too is why we are “bold” to say “our Father”. In the old Latin Mass, when the priest introduced the Lord’s Prayer he did so with the words “audemus dicere… Pater noster…” – “we are audacious to say ‘our Father’”.
Father John Hunwicke, the pastor of St. Thomas the Martyr in Oxford, has written well about the liturgical situation of the “Our Father”. Fr. Hunwicke says:
In their liturgy, Greek Christians “ask God to make us worthy, with parrhesia [apologizing for our boldness] and without condemnation, to dare… to call upon the God of Heaven as Father.
Lying behind… modern squeamishness is a feeling that Christianity should be a religion of soppy warmth. Indeed, there is in the world at large a belief that all men are brothers and that accordingly God, if there is a God, is the indulgent unjudgemental Father of all men… So why should there be anything bold or daring about calling him Father? Rather than being dangerous, it should be next door to a platitude. But this is not the religion of the New Testament. The Lord’s habit of regarding God as his father, Abba, [was] distinctive and unusual. The fact that the word is Aramaic suggests that it goes back to the Incarnate Lord’s infant linguistic habits. And permission is given to humankind to share this habit in as far, and only as far, as humans are incorporated into Christ by [faith and] Baptism and thus en Christo, [as] members of his Body, [as] Sons only in the sense that they are [sons] in the One Son. [The writer] Wayne Meekes (The First Urban Christians) attractively suggested that the Pauline converts actually cried Abba (Gal 4:6) as they emerged dripping from the regenerating, resurrecting, waters of baptism. Only because we thus share Christ’s Divine Sonship dare we, as the Byzantines put it, with parrhesia (standing on our two feet and looking him in the eye) call God Pater.
I would like to conclude by drawing our attention once more to the fact that it is the grace of God in Christ that gives us this filial relationship to God, that enables us to call on him, boldly, audaciously, daringly, as “our Father.” So how do we obtain this grace? How do we become sons of God and heirs with Christ of immortality and glory, and everything else that belongs to the only Son of the eternal Father? We, who have been baptized and have come to believe in Christ – we do obtain the grace of sonship by what spiritual writers have sometimes called “ongoing conversion of heart”. We do our best, and we daily, continually, and with sincerity and humility, listening for God’s voice in Scripture, seeking to discern him in the sacraments, and constantly calling on him, PRAYING to him, and asking him for mercy and for help. And I believe that this is what the Lord means by “good things” in the final verses of today’s Gospel reading. To ask God for good things is to ask him for those things that will conform us to the image of his only Son. And it is consoling to hear Christ conclude that if we know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11.13).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.