Thursday, 17 June 2010

Praying the Lord’s Prayer

Patrick Comerford

Matthew 6: 7-15

7 Προσευχόμενοι δὲ μὴ βατταλογήσητε ὥσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί, δοκοῦσιν γὰρ ὅτι ἐν τῇ πολυλογίᾳ αὐτῶν εἰσακουσθήσονται. 8 μὴ οὖν ὁμοιωθῆτε αὐτοῖς, οἶδεν γὰρ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὧν χρείαν ἔχετε πρὸ τοῦ ὑμᾶς αἰτῆσαι αὐτόν.

9 Οὕτως οὖν προσεύχεσθε ὑμεῖς:

Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς,
ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου,
10ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου,
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου,
ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς.
11 Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον:
12 καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,
ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν:
13 καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν,
ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

14 Ἐὰν γὰρ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν, ἀφήσει καὶ ὑμῖν ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος: 15 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, οὐδὲ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ἀφήσει τὰ παραπτώματα ὑμῶν.

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

‘Pray then in this way:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

‘For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’

The reading I have chosen for our devotional time this morning is the Gospel reading in the lectionary for Holy Communion today.

This time last week, I was facilitating two interest groups at the USPG Conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire, at which I was speaking about “Spirituality and Mission.”

In searching for resources for mission, at one point I pointed to the traditions of prayer within Anglicanism, including the offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer – especially the canticles, the mission-loaded language we find in all the rites of Holy Communion, and in prayer, including public prayer, the intercession, and – of course – the Lord’s Prayer.

Sometimes we miss out on the impact of the Lord’s Prayer because we are so familiar with it.

But in the public worship of the Church we often facilitate people missing out on the impact – particularly the mission impact – of the Lord’s Prayer when we privatise it.

How many of us were taught to pray the Lord’s Prayer as a private personal prayer as children, perhaps even saying it kneeling by our bedside, hands joined together, fingers pointing up?

So often, in the Liturgy, we encourage people to kneel for the Lord’s Prayer, as if this was now both the most sacred and the most personal part of the Liturgy, rather than asking them to remain standing and to continue in collective prayer.

Or, at great public events, including mission conferences I am sorry to say, we invite everyone present to say the Lord’s Prayer in their own first language, so that it becomes a private, personal prayer, detached from and ignoring where everyone else is at age stage in the petitions.

For those of us who have English as our first language, we notice how others finish a lot later than us – the Finns in particular, but even the Germans too. And each language has its own rhythms and cadences, so it sounds as if we are in Babel rather than praying together, collectively and in the plural.

Each of us is aware of the lengthy textual discussions we can have about the differences between the text provided by Matthew, and that provided by Luke, or about the meaning and application of different words and phrases in this prayer: for example what is the meaning of the word ὀφείλημα (opheilima) in the prayer: trespasses, what is owed, debts, sins? Or ἐπιούσιος (epiousias): daily, for tomorrow, beyond mere substance? Is πειρασμός (peirasmos) about temptation, trial, tests like those endure by Job, evil, an eschatological moment of judgment? Is πονηρός a reference to hard times, annoyances, hardships, perils, badness, what is evil or wicked, in terms of values or personified?

And what about the doxology at the end?

But those sorts of discussions and the privatisation of the Lord’s Prayer, even on Sundays, takes away from its mission impact and from the collective thrust of each of the petitions.

The teaching is delivered not to an individual but the same group that is listening to the Sermon on the Mount. God is addressed not as my but our Father, and each petition that follows is in the plural: our daily bread, our forgiveness, our debts or sins or trespasses, as we also forgive, do not “bring us” or “lead us,” deliver and rescue us.

And when we say Amen at the end, are we really saying Amen to the holiness of God’s name, to the coming of Kingdom, to the needs of each being met, on a daily basis, to forgiveness, both given and received, to being put on path of righteousness and justice, to others falling into no evil or into no harm?

As a prayer, it contains each of the five Anglican points of mission. But if we privatise it, we leave little room for its mission impact to grab hold of those who are praying, and leave little room for our own conversion, which is a continuing and daily need.

And so, let the kingdom, the power and the glory be God’s as we pray together:

Our Father ….

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was prepared for the opening of an academic staff meeting on 17 June 2010.