who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation…
But deliver us from evil.
Everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer. The version (above) quoted in the Gospel of Matthew (6: 9-13) is probably the best known 5 verses in all of Judeo-Christian scripture. Yet when Roman Catholic children learn this prayer, they don’t call it the “Lord’s Prayer”; they call it the “Our Father” in recognition of its opening words and its focus on the person and activity of our father, God.
The prayer consists of three main sections…followed by a surprise ending. The first section concerns the identity of God and the nature of our relationship with him; the second section has an eschatological focus while the third section is concerned with every day social relations. We are so familiar with this prayer that we may not always notice these sharp thematic breaks.
Let’s look at each section individually. First, we learn that God is “our father” – not just the father of the cosmos or of Israel (per Deutero-Isaiah) or of Jesus the Christ, but the father of everyone, our father, and not just ‘the maker of heaven and earth’ as he is called in the Nicene Creed.
The role of father is very different from the role of creator. As creator, God establishes the conditions necessary for existence, including our existence; he is the ground of our being. But as our father, God enters into a personal relationship with each of us. Like all fathers, he is concerned to provide for us and protect us (more about this later).
Next we learn that our father is transcendent (“in heaven”)…and therefore eternal: he is not subject to the corruption and death characteristic of immanent, spatiotemporal reality.
Finally, we acknowledge that God’s name is holy. In the ancient world, a person’s name was not just ‘her handle’. A name also defined the person’s role in society; in God’s case, it defines his role in the universe (which is God’s ‘society’).
This is why Moses (Exodus 3) was so concerned to learn God’s name. He knew the Israelites would ask and would not follow him until they knew. In the language of philosophy, a name is ‘essential’, not ‘accidental’.
God does not disappoint. He tells Moses that his name is YHWH (“I am who am”). Obviously, this is a name that can apply to one and only one entity. Only one being can be Being itself. Therefore, God’s name is holy (or “hallowed”): it is by definition unique. Therefore, God is by definition unique. Polytheism is an oxymoron. Also, God is by definition transcendent: logically and ontologically, Being transcends beings.
The second stanza of the prayer is eschatological. While the first stanza reveals the ‘primal’ state of things, this stanza presents the ‘ultimate’ state of things: (1) his kingdom comes; (2) his will is done; (3) things on earth are as they are in heaven.
Revelation 22:13 – “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” The first stanza of the Our Father ‘reveals’ the Alpha while the second stanza reveals the Omega.
But just as the first stanza failed to detail God’s role as father, so the second stanza provides no hint of how we are to get from Alpha to Omega. Rightly so! These stanzas are visions, not road maps. It is the third stanza that fills in the details.
The third section of the Our Father is concerned primarily with the socio-temporal realm. We have seen the Alpha and the Omega, now we learn about the rest of ‘the alphabet’, i.e. everything in-between.
Recall earlier that we said that as ‘father’ God has a care to provide for and protect his ‘children’. Here that care is spelled out; it is specific and material: provide for me (feed me), forgive me, protect me (lead us not into temptation, i.e. do not expose me to risk)! What child has not uttered these same petitions at one time or another to his own father? What loving father has not granted these petitions (when appropriate and to the best of his ability)?
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matthew 7: 9-10)
In this section of the prayer we learn that our relationship with God and his eschatological vision for the universe are relevant, not only to the transcendent, but also to immanent. We learn something else: we are co-creators with God of both temporal and eternal reality.
We ask God to give us ‘our daily bread’; but we can be God’ agents by giving ‘bread’ to those in need around us. This is an example of what we now call ‘the corporal works of mercy’.
Likewise, when we “forgive those who trespass against us”, we also do the work of God; and the work we do in God’s name is marked in heaven: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained”. (John 20: 23)
Forgiveness is an example of what we now call ‘the spiritual works of mercy’.
Finally, “Lead us not into temptation…” This refers to the level of care God has for us and that we in turn should have for each other.
Paul wrote: “If there are prophesies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing…So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13: 4 – 13)
The first stanza of the Our Father corresponds to the theological virtue Paul calls ‘faith’. One is reminded of a verse from an ancient Irish poem, Be Thou my Vision, sometimes attributed to St. Dallan (6th century): “Naught be all else to me save that Thou art.”
The second stanza expresses the theological virtue of ‘hope’; and the third, of course, ‘love’. If it is true that “the greatest of these is love”, that underscores the central importance of our role as co-creators with God.
How are we to understand the relationship among the first three stanzas of the Our Father (and by extension, the relationship among the three theological virtues)? We may view them as distinct and ordered stages of ontological process: primal, social (spatiotemporal) and eschatological.
Or we may see them as three different manifestations of the same ontological reality. They may offer us, not different, but complementary views of Being. They may present a single ontological reality from three different perspectives.
Now for the finale! Earlier I promised you a “surprise ending” (remember Bruce Willis’ movie, The Sixth Sense). Well, here it is:
“But deliver us from evil!”
Really? That’s your surprise ending? We knew it all along! (But did we understand it?)
At first glance, this ‘petition’ actually seems repetitive; and in a way it is. After all, didn’t we already pray for that when we asked God to provide for us and protect us? But something much deeper is at work here.
While neither Jesus (fully human) nor the Evangelists knew the Second Law of Thermodynamics, they were keen observers of the natural world. They were also familiar with texts like Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity…What is crooked cannot be made straight, and you cannot count what is not there…” They understood the universality of mortality.
Today we understand ‘change’ as ‘entropy’ and we know that every natural process works to increase the overall entropy of the universe. Entropy is a measure of disorder. When a human organism is alive, it exhibits a great deal of ‘order’; when it dies, for the most part that order dissipates and entropy is increased.
Likewise the cosmos: “In the beginning…the earth was without form or shape (maximal disorder)…Then God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…God then separated the light from the darkness (order)…Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate one body of water from the other’ (order)…the water under the sky was gathered into its basin and dry land appeared (order)…God created mankind in his image…male and female he created them (order).” (Genesis 1: 1 – 27)
Whether you prefer the model of creation known as ‘Genesis’ or the model of creation known as ‘Big Bang’, it is clear that order per se is the primary product of the creative act.
Then, call it Original Sin or Thermodynamics, entropic process begins. As entropy increases, order decreases. At some time in the far distant future, the universe will reach or approach a state of maximal entropy; all order will be lost and, effectively at least, the universe will cease to exist. “You cannot count what is not there.” (Ecclesiastes 1: 15b)
Order then is denotatively synonymous with Being and therefore also with Good. Then where does that leave evil? If order is good, then entropy (disorder) must be ‘evil’. Of course, this is not in the first instance intentional or subjective evil; it is purely objective evil. Entropy is ‘evil’ only because it erases being, which is intrinsically good. But that is the reality of our temporal world.
At the level of organisms (like us), the ultimate expression of entropy is mortality, death. According to Stephen Hawking, no friend of theology, entropy is just another word for time (and vice-a-versa). Time is the true “destroyer of worlds” (Bhagavad Gita). From the perspective of a purely temporal world, death not only terminates our existence…it erases it!
The only intellectually honest emotion then is despair. Unless…reality also has a transcendent (eternal) aspect (or dimension)! The opposite of faith is not doubt, which is unavoidable, but despair. It is said that despair (not doubt) is the ultimate ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’; and it is only sins against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven. Stands to reason: there can be no forgiveness where there is no hope.
The finale of the Our Father asks God to deliver us from evil. It cannot be a ‘throw away line’; it is the climax of the greatest 5 verses ever written. What then can it mean? We are asking God to free us from the ‘inevitable’ ravages of entropy. We, like the Psalmist, are asking God not to let our existence be ‘erased’. We are simply asking for eternal life!
It is this final line, the climax, that links the three stanzas together. It ties the salvation, and ultimately the reality, of the spatiotemporal world to the primal and eschatological nature of God.
Critics of Christianity sometimes say that they can embrace the third stanza of the Our Father but not the first two. “Deliver us from evil” makes it clear that there is no third stanza without the first two.
It is appropriate that this portion of the prayer be phrased as a petition. After all, eternal life is the ultimate gift, the ‘pearl of great price’, the difference between being and nothingness (sorry, Sartre). But spoiler alert: we don’t need to pace the floor on Christmas Eve worrying that Santa won’t bring us what we asked for…because it’s already purchased and delivered (and not by Amazon).
The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus has delivered us from evil, once and for all. And if we wish, we can re-experience that deliverance everyday in the Sacrament of Eucharist. When we receive the body and blood of Christ at Mass, the transcendent reality (eternity) enters our bodies and we enter eternity (the glorified body of Christ). The topology of the Sacraments is different from that of every day experience: all action is reciprocal.
In the ontology of the Our Father, everything that happens in the temporal realm is real; and at least to the extent that it can be made consistent with God’s values, everything is preserved eternally. The terrible pall of certain and impending mortality evaporates.
One way to read the Lord’s Prayer is as a gloss on the famous Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd (‘our father’); there is nothing I lack (‘daily bread’)…He guides me along right paths (‘lead us not into temptation’) for the sake of his name (‘holy’). Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (the temporal world), I will fear no evil, for you are with me (‘deliver us from evil’)…I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (‘on earth as it is in heaven’).”