This, then, is how you should pray…

This is part one in a three part series on The Lord’s Prayer by Dr. George Parsenios, Sessional Professor of New Testament at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. This article is republished with the permission of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Our Father, 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. For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Woman Praying, Catacombs of Priscilla, Roma

Woman Praying, Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome

Why is this called “the Lord’s Prayer”? It was given to us by Jesus, the Lord. The Old Testament associates the name “Lord” with the one God of Israel (Deut. 6:4), and New Testament authors apply the title “Lord” to Jesus in order to proclaim his divine identity. Paul says that every tongue should confess that “Jesus is Lord” (Phil. 2:11) and Thomas calls Jesus “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). The Lord’s Prayer appears in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. The version in Matthew is better known, and is also the one used in the prayer life of the Church. This brief exposition will proceed, therefore, verse by verse through Matthew’s version.

“Our Father, who art in heaven”

The Lord’s Prayer is not addressed to “my” but to “our” Father. Individual Christians are not lone believers who have “personal relationships” with “my” God. True fellowship with God requires fellowship with other true believers (I John 1:3-4). Tertulian makes the matter plain when he says, “We cannot call God our Father unless we call the Church our Mother.”

Christ with Sts Pter and Paul, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome

Christ with Sts. Peter and Paul, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome

The Father is “in heaven.” The entire Lord’s Prayer can be read in light of this phrase. If the Father is “in heaven,” the dominant concern of the Lord’s Prayer is that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We look forward to that future day when Christ will return, making all things new. The Lord’s Prayer is defined by this future hope in two related ways. Some parts of the prayer call for Christ to return quickly and for God to complete his work in the world. Other petitions focus on the time up until Christ comes, praying for glimpses of heavenly life even now on earth.

These twin concerns–the heavenly future and the earthly present–lie behind even those phrases that seem concerned with other things, like the next petition, “Hallowed be thy name.” Asking God to make his name hallowed, or holy (agiastheto), is specifically a call for God to renew the world. In Ezekiel 36:23, God complains that his name has been profaned among the nations and that Israel has caused his name to be derided and mocked. When he promises to correct the errors of all humanity, God says, “I will hallow (agiaso) my name.” Praying for God’s name to be “hallowed” will thus lead us also to pray the next petition: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

“Give us this day our daily bread”

Loaves and Fish, Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Rome

Loaves and Fish, Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Rome

As St. Cyprian notes, this verse can support several literal and spiritual interpretations. In one sense, the petition reminds us how to live as we await the return of Christ. If our focus is on the arrival of God’s heavenly reign, we cannot be anxious about life on earth. Jesus says, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ …Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31-33). We thus request only enough bread for “this day.” From another perspective, life in heaven is often characterized as a great banquet (Matt. 22:1-14). Praying for bread, in this sense, is equivalent to praying for Christ to return, in order that we might enjoy this heavenly banquet now, on “this day.” From yet another perspective, Jesus tells us that he is himself the “bread of life” (John 6:51) which we share when we partake of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist (John 6:53). To ask for daily bread in this sense is to pray to be worthy of regular participation in the Eucharist.

1 Comment

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One response to “This, then, is how you should pray…

  1. Mark Caponigro

    This is a valuable little commentary on some verses of the Lord’s Prayer. Most noteworthy right away is that the Greek Orthodox scholar George Parsenios should wish this time to overlook the vast riches of Greek Patristic exegesis, and instead to quote from the two earliest Christians writing in Latin, neither from Italy, both from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, one of the largest Latin-speaking centers in the empire after Rome itself: the learned layman Tertullian, ca. 200 CE, accomplished rhetorician, who was the inventor of a Christian Latin vocabulary, after Greek authors had been writing lots for a long time, including in Rome itself; and toward the middle of the same, 3rd, century, the saintly bishop and martyr Cyprian, leading his flock in a time of persecution from without and schism within, and little support from his brother bishop of Rome, himself the model of “diákrisis,” discretion, according to the Desert Fathers the mother of all the virtues.

    And then either Mr. Parsenios or his video editor chose images from the Roman catacombs as illustrations — remarkable!

    The true power of the Lord’s Prayer is revealed when we understand it to be an eschatological prayer, an expression of impatience or disappointment with the world as it is, with all its systemic evils, a cry of those in distress calling for the end of this world in fact, and of course for its replacement by the true, utterly good and philanthropic world that the apocalyptic God of the prophet Daniel has in store. (By contrast, we should make a point of avoiding moralizing interpretations, e.g. thinking “your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven” means “I am a bad person, because I am not behaving heavenly enough.” No, that’s not at all what Jesus was saying in the Sermon on the Mount.)

    In this connexion, note the hápax legómenon in the verse about our (something) bread: “epioúsion” occurs only here in ancient Greek literature, so we don’t know exactly what it means. Is it “daily bread”? — but this word is not exactly what you would use to say that in ancient Greek, even though the common translation of the Roman church, “panem nostrum cotidianum,” means that, and that has come to dominate (of course..). More likely it’s “tomorrow’s bread,” indicating the bread that is to be eaten when the Kingdom comes, “tomorrow” meaning “sometime soon, we hope.” The Vulgate approved by Saint Jerome has a fascinating Latin neologism, “supersubstantialem” — and one can’t do more than simply to anglicize it, “supersubstantial,” which for us may mean one thing or another, but in the Neoplatonic intellectual atmosphere of the 4th century was much more suggestive.