Thursday, July 25, 2013

We Dare to Say

Seventeenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

In the new translation of the Roman Missal, the Lord's Prayer is introduced with the words, "At the Saviour's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say..." The prayer itself is so familiar to us and because of our penchant to recite it in a hurried mechanical way; we often forget that the prayer is made up of a bold list of radical demands. In fact, the prayer has the audacity of making the following demands of God: we demand intimacy and familiarity with God’s person and name that borders on the contemptuous and blasphemous, we demand the coming of the kingdom, we demand the terra-forming of our trouble ridden earth so that it may become more like a trouble free heaven, we demand daily sustenance from on high, we demand that our sins be forgiven, and finally we demand shelter from temptation and deliverance from evil. If the school of hard knocks has taught us anything, it would be this: never make unreasonable demands, don’t expect the impossible. Well, for man all these may seem impossible; but for God, everything’s possible!

The current introduction by the priest to the Lord’s Prayer found in the most recent translation of the Roman Missal replaces the four options that were available in the earlier translations. The option that comes closest to the original Latin and the present translation is “we have courage to say.” A superficial reading may treat ‘courage’ and ‘dare’ as interchangeable. However, ‘courage’ and ‘daring’ are potentially quite different in meaning. ‘Courage’ does not necessarily invoke a feeling of humility, whereas ‘we dare to say’ inherently recognises our insignificance before the Father. We use the word ‘courage’ to imply some talent or accomplishment on our part, for example, we can say that we have the courage to speak publicly. But when we use the words, ‘we dare to say’, we humbly admit that it has nothing to do with us, in fact, it admits that it not anything which we can ever hope to accomplish. The words convey a profound sense of unworthiness, we are in no position to make any claims or demands.

The whole phrase places the Lord’s Prayer in a different light – it is no longer to be seen as a cry of entitlement, a demand made on God to fulfill our petitions and wishes.  But rather, it is prayer of humility by someone truly unworthy to even stand before the august presence of God, the one ‘who art in heaven,’ what more to address Him with the all too familiar moniker of ‘Father’ and make a series of demands of him.  The catechism tells us that “Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry . . . ‘Abba, Father!’ . . . When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?” It is by placing ourselves into the position of a child, calling God our Father, that we open ourselves to the grace by which we approach God with the humble boldness of a little child.

The adjective "Our" as used by us, does not express possession, but an entirely new relationship with God. God does not belong to us, rather we belong to him as his people, more importantly as his children. We are his and he is ours, for our sake. This new relationship is the gift of belonging to each other. We are a people bound together by the New Covenant that God has made with us through his Son in the Holy Spirit. While we are indeed individual persons, we are also persons in communion with each other because we have been baptised into communion with the Holy Trinity. It is reminder that unity of mankind is never a product of our machinations. It is wrought by God at the cost of the price paid by his Beloved Son. The "Our," however, excludes no one. We cannot pray 'our' without including every single person for whom Christ died. The Our Father erases all boundaries between us and them, between past and present. It calls us into the family circle, saints crossing elbows with sinners, rich with poor, criminal with law-abiding, powerful with victimised, living with dead. God's love has no bounds, neither should our prayer.

After the initial address, the Lord’s Prayer contains seven demands, or traditionally, seven petitions. The seven petitions can be found in both the Gospel of Matthew and our liturgical version of the prayer. It is interesting to note that the Gospel of Luke contains only five of those seven petitions. I’m not going to confuse you with a detailed exegesis of the differences between the Matthean and Lucan version of the prayer. Our consideration should encompass all seven petitions which we traditionally pray. The number ‘seven’ always symbolised perfection, thus the Lord’s Prayer perfectly summarises all that we need petition to the Lord in any form of prayer.  That is why St Thomas Aquinas calls it the ‘Perfect Prayer.’ Tertullian goes so far as to claim that the Lord’s Prayer is ‘summary of the whole gospel.’

We make seven demands in the Lord’s Prayer. The first three ‘draw us toward the glory of God’ and the last four ‘commend our wretchedness to his grace.’ The ‘more theological’ petitions, that God’s name be hallowed, that His kingdom come, and that His will be done, have already been answered in the person of Christ, but they also anticipate the coming of God’s glory at the end of time. The past, the present and the future, human history and time, collapses in this single prayer. The second series of supplications, that we be given our bread, that our debts be forgiven, that we be kept from temptation, and that we be protected from evil, concern our situation at this very moment in the world we live in. It reflects the situation of the Kingdom that is both ‘now’ as well as ‘not yet.’ The Kingdom has already been inaugurated in the person of Jesus Christ, but will only come to its perfection when he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. In the interim, we deal with the daily struggles of life: our economic, material, and spiritual daily sustenance; our relationships with our neighbour; our struggle with sin, temptation and evil.

The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer respect the priority of praise over petitions in our own behalf. We do not begin our prayer by making demands of him, our silly and sometimes trivial demands of him. Worship, adoration and praise must always take precedence. This is characteristic of love - to think first of the one whom we love. Take note that in none of the first three petitions do we mention ourselves. The first of the petitions of this prayer asks that the name of our God be hallowed, reverenced, held in awe by all who see him as our Creator and loving Father. It is name which we often misuse and abuse. It is name that often falls into disrepute by our sacrilegious and blasphemous behaviour and language. This first petition invites us to pause and reflect on the sanctity of the name, the sanctity of prayer. It is an invitation to revere the sacred, and thus it becomes an invitation to sanctification – as we proclaim the holiness of God and his name, we too grow in that same holiness.

The second petition calls the coming of God’s kingdom.  Here we are looking first to Christ’s return, but we are also praying for the growth of the Kingdom of God in our own lifetime. Pope Emeritus Benedict says of this petition of the Our Father that "these words establish an order of priorities for human action, for how we approach everyday life".   With this petition we acknowledge the primacy of God.  Where God is absent, nothing can be good.  Where God is not seen, humanity and the world fall to ruin. The coming of God's kingdom is not meant to bring us a utopian situation, a world free of suffering, pain or misery. What Jesus does is establish an absolutely decisive priority.  To pray for the coming of the kingdom means that we pray that his will is accepted as the criterion for all our actions. 

Thus the third petition flows from the second. To pray that the Father’s “will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” is to pray that our will be united to that of his Son so that we would fulfill his plan of salvation for the life of the world. The Kingdom is Jesus Christ in person. Jesus reminds us that those who ‘do the will of the Father’ are his mothers, his brothers and his sisters. When we pray this petition of the Our Father we pray that we may come closer and closer to Jesus, so that God's will can conquer the downward pull of our selfishness and make us capable of the lofty height to which we are called.

Thereafter we have the final four petitions where we present our wants to God. They go up from us in our present world: "give us...forgive us...lead us not...deliver us..." They are an offering up of our expectations which draws down the eyes of the Father of mercies. They ask that our lives be nourished and healed of sin. They concern our battle for the victory of life-that battle of prayer - that we may be made victorious in the struggle of good over evil.

Though we are asked to focus on the “one thing necessary” that is the Kingdom of God, Christ also acknowledges our earthly needs, thus we pray, ‘give us today our daily bread.’ This petition ultimately leads us to recognise God’s goodness who cares for our every need. This petition also presupposes that we have left behind the riches of the world for the sake of faith, and no longer ask for anything beyond what we need to live. Like the Israelites who left behind the security of their lives in Egypt and now depended solely on God’s providence to provide them with daily sustenance, we too are invited to depend entirely on God, to trust in his goodness and to commend our daily cares and concerns to his loving care. Ultimately, this ‘bread’ must mean more than material food which nourishes the body. St. Cyprian reminds us that the Eucharist is in a special sense "our" bread, the bread of disciples of Jesus. We pray according to Cyprian that our bread, Christ, be given to us every day so that we who remain and live in Christ may not depart from his healing power and from his body.

In the fifth petition we beg for God's mercy.  This is the one line that causes many to stumble praying the Lord's Prayer.  It ties God’s forgiveness of our sins to the extent of us forgiving those who have sinned against us. Why would Jesus make this association and link? St. John Chrysostom writes: “We cannot call God our Father in all sincerity if we harbour in ourselves a hardened heart.” But we must remember that the petition for forgiveness is more than a moral exhortation. It is a reminder to us of the God who allowed forgiveness to cost him descent into human hardship and death on a Cross. It calls us to thankfulness for that intervention, and then, with him to work through and suffer through evil by means of love. No matter how much we forgive, we can never match the generosity and love of God in loving us. Only though the example of the God of suffering on the Cross can we truly find grace to forgive those who trespass against us. If you have trouble forgiving, just think of how much you have been forgiven by God, and the price which He paid for you on the cross.

The sixth petition affirms our belief that God does not lead anyone into temptation. Perhaps the greatest temptation that underlies all temptations, is to trust in our own devices and resources rather than in God’s grace and strength. It is the temptation to build our own kingdoms rather than to promote the establishment of God’s. What we are saying when we ask “lead us not into temptation” is that God will not overestimate our strength to resist temptation, that he will be close to us with his protecting hand when temptation becomes too much for us. St Paul has assured us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond you strength…”

The last petition asking for deliverance from evil is not just a mini exorcism; it summarises what this whole prayer is about – the victory of the Kingdom of God over the Kingdom of Evil. It is a battle of cosmic proportions that already has a clear victor – God, and not Satan. But the battle continues to rage in the hearts of many men and women of this world, and cruelly expresses itself in the signs of injustice, suffering wrought by sinfulness, the culture of death, addictions, violence and oppression that we witness taking place around us. But whenever we pray this prayer, we realise, that this is not a battle where we are capable of winning on our own. This last petition reminds us that our lot is not one of despair. We are not defeated. God fights for us and more importantly he has already won the victory for us. What we see is not the ascendance of evil, but rather its death throes. In this petition we ask that we not be robbed of our faith which enables us to see God and binds us to Christ.

There is a Latin maxim that addresses the centrality and priority of prayer in the life, identity and mission of the Church; “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi”, the law of prayer reflects the law of faith which determines the law of life. How we worship and pray not only reveals and guards what we believe but guides us in how we live our Christian faith and fulfill our Christian mission in the world. As much as we are sometimes taken up with the spontaneity of the praying style of our Protestant brethren, and many of us too are tempted to venture into some innovative and creative explorations on our own, we must always remember that the best prayer, or as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, the most Perfect Prayer, is still the prayer not formulated by any human poet or creative genius but by Christ, the Son of God himself. In way, God provides us the words to speak to Him.

Thus, our ability to pray in this way can only come to us by the grace of God - it is only because our Saviour has commanded it and because we have been formed by divine teaching, that ‘we dare to say.’ There is no audacity in the tone of our voice or the content of our prayer. We take no credit for this prayer. All glory goes to God and to his Christ, Jesus our Lord. We are not the natural sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father. We have no right to address him by this familiar name. All our words seem banal and fall empty in the light of the pre-existent Word. But because of Jesus through baptism I have become an adopted child. The Father is revealed to us by his Son and we can approach him only through the Son. Because of Jesus, my prayer now derives an amazing and miraculous efficacy. For that reason we dare to call God “Our Father.” Through this prayer, the unapproachable God becomes approachable. The unknown God is made known. The Strange and unfamiliar God becomes familiar and a friend. The prayer unspoken has already been answered!

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