The Our Father
We all know the Our Father, but do we know what we are saying when we say this prayer that Jesus gave us?
“Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), and so Jesus taught his disciples the Our Father. Tertullian, an ecclesiastical writer from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, said the Our Father is “the summary of the whole gospel.” It is the prayer of the Catholic Church. The early Christians prayed the Our Father three times a day. Today, we can still pray it three times each day, in the mass and with the morning and evening prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours. The placement of the Our Father within the mass was set by St. Gregory the Great around 600. The Our Father in Luke differs slightly from the prayer taught in Matthew (6:9-15); it is thought that surely our Lord must have repeated his lesson teaching us how to pray. The Our Father in St. Matthew’s Gospel is the one that we are all familiar with, and in English, it’s translation is from the time of Henry VIII. The following analysis of the prayer, which is found in all of the Catholic catechisms, is from the Council of Trent in 1564.
We have the courage to call God “Our Father” because Jesus brought us into his presence; he allowed us to consider ourselves sons and daughters. And once we consider ourselves children of God, then we want to act like children of God, living humbly and having a trusting heart. Not only are we children of God with Jesus, but with each other, and we pray that all of God’s children will be united.
“Who art in Heaven” means what God is, not where he is. God is majestic; he is everywhere, even in our hearts. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, but we are still pilgrims trying to get to Heaven because sin has exiled us.
So the Our Father starts with a greeting of sorts, and then it has seven petitions. The first three are God-centered, and the last four we are begging God for mercy, for forgiveness. The God-centered petitions are what we ask of him. “Hallowed be thy Name” – we acknowledge God’s holiness and honor him by being holy in our actions. “Thy kingdom come” – Christ’s return in glory and our continued and increasing call to holiness. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – that all men be saved by doing God’s will, which is discerned through prayer and reading scripture.
We say the final four petitions expressing our needs to God. “Give us this day our daily bread” – daily nourishment to see God’s goodness and act in accordance with it. We receive this in the Word of God and in the Body of Christ. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” – first we acknowledge that we are sinners and beg God’s forgiveness, but in order for our sins to be forgiven we must forgive our fellow man. How do we do that? Love, love our neighbor as ourselves, even love our enemies. This is not a love where you have to like the person too, but a love as God loves us. He wants all of us to get to Heaven. We need to live and love as Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:14-15; 5:23-24; Mark 11:25). “Lead us not into temptation” – we are asking God not to leave us alone and to help us distinguish between temptation to sin and a trial that allows for personal growth. We also need God’s help to avoid consenting to the temptation. “But deliver us from evil” – protect us, the whole human family, from Satan, the one who opposes God, and all the distress of the world. And finally, “Amen” – St. Cyril of Jerusalem said “At the end of the prayer, you say ‘Amen’ and thus you ratify by this word that means ‘so be it’ all that is contained in this prayer that God has taught us.”
For more detailed information on the Our Father see Part Four, Section Two in the Catechism. For an historical overview see the Catholic Encyclopedia. Fr. John Riccardo has an excellent talk on the Our Father, and Scott Hahn wrote a whole book about it, Understanding Our Father.