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‘Lord, teach us to pray’

Retrieving the richness of the prayer that Jesus taught us

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The Lord’s Prayer, popularly called the Our Father, was given to us by Jesus Christ himself. In response to the petition of the apostles, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1), the Lord endowed his Church with his short but powerful prayer. As such, it is the oldest prayer of the Christian faith, and — as odd as it might sound — it is oftentimes one of the most neglected.

Since many of us learned the Lord’s Prayer while we were still learning to talk, it’s easy to have taken the prayer for granted. Growing up in the Faith, it’s a part of our spiritual patrimony that has always been with us. The idea that somehow we don’t understand the prayer, or that we may have overlooked its depths, is almost insulting. And yet, as we make an act of humility and look into the prayer, we begin to see a structure and inner logic of the prayer that we have perhaps missed, forgotten or not fully appreciated.

As homilists and catechists look for ways to help the faithful appreciate the immense gifts given to us in Jesus Christ, it might prove surprisingly helpful to return to the spiritual bedrock of our faith and to dissect and explore the richness of the Lord’s Prayer.

The invitation given to us by God our Father to accept and reciprocate his love is fully developed in the prayer. Throughout the tenets of this great prayer, which follow the awe-inspiring salutation, the tender care and affection of God for each of us is on complete display. In this systematic way, we can see throughout the prayer how deeply God loves us and wants to bless us.

Children of God, Not Orphans

Before his passion, death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus solemnly promised us: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him” (Jn 14:18-21).

In this promise, the Christ — who conquers evil and dispels darkness — teaches us that those who love him, and keep his commands, will not be orphans. When he accomplishes his saving work and departs, those who obey him will be “in him” and dwell with the Father. The Lord also tells his followers that he will send the Spirit to guide them. The conditional aspect of this promise cannot be overlooked or taken for granted.

The Lord indicated that the divine family, and the blessings that come with divine fellowship, will be given to those who love him and obey him. In short, the graces will be given to those who truly want them.

The evil one, who is also called the devil (which means “accuser”) or Satan (which means “adversary”), offers us an easier life. The fellowship he offers has no blessing but is consumed with egotism, power, vanity, wealth and pleasure. It calls for no obedience other than to one’s own whims and fantasies. It’s a glamorous offer, the spiritual equivalent of flashing lights, loud music and egocentric celebrations. Rather than love of God and neighbor, we are offered a life of conceit and self-absorption.

Which of these ways of life do we want? Are we willing to accept the fatherhood of God and the abundance of his blessings?

Internal Structure

For those of us who have said “yes” to the fatherhood of God, our task is to deepen our relationship with him and grow in our love and trust of him. As a help to us in this process, Jesus — Our Lord and older brother in the family of God — has entrusted his prayer to us.

Our Father
The Lord’s Prayer, from around 1876, is ornately illustrated with biblical scenes. Contributor: Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo

The Lord’s Prayer contains a spiritual portrait of Jesus’ entire life. Throughout the prayer, he reveals to us how we are to live as a son or daughter of God. Whenever we pray it, therefore, we should always remember that we pray it through, with and in Jesus.

In Jesus Christ, the prayer provides an interior path for us to follow in our love of God. The path described in the prayer provides us with seven tenets, or signposts, along the way.

After the earth-shaking salutation “Our Father,” the prayer moves into a threefold declaration of praise and a fourfold series of petitions. The two portions of the prayer reflect the two tablets of the Ten Commandments: the first pertains to our adoration of God; the second pertains to what we need from God and how we are to interact with our neighbors.

The first portion of the Lord’s Prayer consists of his glory: “thy name,” “thy kingdom” and “thy will.”

The second portion of the Lord’s Prayer consists of our poverty: “give us”; “forgive us”; “lead us”; “deliver us.”

As we can see, therefore, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us what we should desire. It guides us to recognize the process of sequence by which things should be desired.

Our Father

The Lord’s Prayer begins with a beautiful salutation: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

In using this greeting, the Lord Jesus uses the plural pronoun our. In doing this, he indicates that we are together with him in God’s family. As the Lord is the Son of God by nature, so we become sons and daughters of God by grace. As adopted sons and daughters, we are also siblings to the Lord Jesus and so heirs with him in glory (cf. Rom 8:14-17).

Jesus’ declaration of God’s fatherhood also shows us that the Eternal God lives forever as Father. This is not a metaphor or symbol. This is not a title that we invented, or that we impose upon him. In the infinitely perfect life of the Most Holy Trinity, the First Person is — and has always been — and will always be Father. The All-Powerful One and the All-Compassionate One has revealed himself to us as Father.

The power he holds is synonymous with his paternity. He is Father just as he is love. He has freely chosen to give us this intimate disclosure of himself as Father and so unveil himself to us as he truly is. And so, it’s important for us to put first things first and to acknowledge what has always come first: God is Father. We are not forcing him into any human standard or social construct. By his own revelation, God dwells forever as Father.

Who Art in Heaven

As we pray with Jesus and hail “Our Father,” we also announce that our Father dwells in heaven. This declaration is both an assertion of God’s sovereignty — he is All-Holy — as well as of our belonging — he calls us to be with him in heaven forever.

Truly, God lives in the abode of glory, far above us in majesty, but his home is also our eternal home as he walks with us and calls us to be with him. And so, when we pray that God dwells in heaven, we are reminding ourselves of our final end and of our everlasting homeland.

As every family has a father, so every family has a home. Our Father is the Ancient of Days, the All-Holy One, and our home is heaven. Heaven is the presence of our Father, who dwells in majestic light, eternal majesty and infinite glory. It is our true homeland, and our Father “who art in heaven” calls us to be with him. Our life on earth is a time of blessing and preparation. It is the path that can lead us to accept our Father’s invitation and to dwell with him in the everlasting joys of heaven.

Eternal Belonging

When we address our Father in heaven, the pronoun our indicates that we have a place in God’s family and, therefore, we have a place in his home. This means our whole life has been arranged and designed in such a way as to help us prepare well for heaven. It means that whatever happens to us in this world as we seek to love God, we have an eternal homeland waiting for us in heaven (cf. Rom 8:28-30).

Heaven, therefore, will be a place of reconciliation and homecoming. If traveled according to his law of love, then after our life’s journey, God will welcome us home (cf. Jn 14:23). As such, in heaven we’ll share in his glory and partake in his divine nature. We will participate in the joy of God’s Trinitarian life (cf. 2 Pt 1:4). St. John the Apostle describes this union between God and those in heaven: “They will be his people and God himself will be with them [as their God]” (Rv 21:3).

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Read more of Father Jeffery Kirby’s book “Thy Kingdom Come” (TAN, $16.95), which offers spiritual insights into the Lord’s Prayer. It explores the distinct petitions we ask of God: why the beauty of heaven is a model for us on earth; the interconnection of God’s name, his kingdom and his will; and how God seeks to protect and deliver us from the evil one. It is a helpful guide and practical resource.

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As we are fulfilled in heaven by sharing in the communion of life and love within the Holy Trinity, we will also see others who have been perfected by God’s grace. This means that we will also participate in God’s union with Mary, the angels, our canonized saints and all the holy ones in heaven. This further means that we will be reunited with all our loved ones who are in heaven! And so, we will see and dwell forever with beloved spouses, missed parents or children, esteemed family members, and close friends who have been mourned and missed in this life. We will see them again, rejoice with them and praise God with them into eternity.

This is the reality and beauty of our belonging to God in heaven.

God our Father calls us to be with him into eternity. He invites us to prepare well in this life. As we pray in the words that the Lord Jesus — our older brother and the firstborn of all creation — taught us, we must realize the depth of what it means to declare that our Father dwells in heaven. This assertion is not only a declaration of his majesty, but also a declaration of our call to be with him in paradise forever.

Do we zealously desire to go to heaven? Will we follow God’s path of love and allow his grace to make us fit to be with him in heaven?

Hope and Boldness

As we step back and look up, we realize that we are the children of God. We see clearly that our Father dwells in heaven and that we are called to be with him. This awareness compels us to give a new direction to our lives. Our new identity as the children of God and our new destiny for heaven pose a challenge to our hearts. We have to change. We need to reorient ourselves.

As our new identity and destiny cry out for fulfillment, we find a spiritual groaning and drive within our souls: We want God to be the true Father of our lives. We want to be open and teachable sons and daughters. We hope in the reality of heaven. We allow grace to work in us and transform us. We conduct ourselves in ways that could lead us into the joys of heaven. (cf. 2 Cor 5:2; Phil 3:20; Heb 13:14)

The acceptance of God as our Father, and heaven as our home, fills us with great hope and joy. They show us the frailty of evil and darkness and give us filial boldness, which is the fortitude of children who know they are loved and protected, to live holy lives and to fight for goodness, whatever the cost.

When our Father is in our heart, and heaven is in our sight, all things are possible (cf. Mt 19:26). We are willing to take risks, to be daring and to labor for the kingdom of our Father. In imitation of the Lord Jesus, we are willing to give a constant “yes” to all that he asks of us (cf. 2 Cor 1:20) and to surrender all that we are to his glory.

Will we give this “yes” to God? Will we live in the awareness of God as our Father and heaven as our home? Will we boldly live the meaning of the salutation contained in the Lord’s Prayer?

FATHER JEFFREY KIRBY, STD, is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Indian Land, South Carolina. He is the author of the recent book “Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord’s Prayer in Everyday Life” (Saint Benedict Press/TAN Books).

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A Relationship with the Father

“Jesus does not give us a formula to repeat mechanically. As in every vocal prayer, it is through the Word of God that the Holy Spirit teaches the children of God to pray to their Father. Jesus not only gives us the words of our filial prayer; at the same time he gives us the Spirit by whom these words become in us ‘spirit and life.’ Even more, the proof and possibility of our filial prayer is that the Father ‘sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”’ Since our prayer sets forth our desires before God, it is again the Father, ‘he who searches the hearts of men,’ who ‘knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’ The prayer to Our Father is inserted into the mysterious mission of the Son and of the Spirit.”

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2766

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