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Week One: “Our Father Who are in Heaven, Hallowed Be Your Name”
In giving his disciples a specific way of praying (see Matthew 6: 7-13 and Luke 11: 1-4), Jesus was inviting them to live in communion with him and one another. And in this prayer he drew them into the very heart of his own life and mission. St. Cyprian of Carthage, a third century bishop and martyr, wrote an early commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. In his reflections he says, “My dear friends, the Lord’s Prayer contains many great mysteries of our faith. In these few words there is great spiritual strength, for this summary of divine teaching contains all of our prayers and petitions.” In his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI echoes the sentiments of Cyprian: “The meaning of the Our Father goes much further than the mere provision of a prayer text. It aims to form our being, to train us in the inner attitude of Jesus (cf. Phil. 2:5)” (Doubleday, 2007, p. 132).
This prayer indeed “aims to form our being, to train us in the inner attitude of Jesus.” When we pray the Our Father we enter into the world of Jesus and into the depths of his relationship with God and with the people he encountered in his life. We begin to see life, God, others and ourselves through his eyes. Praying these words with attention entails a training in vision.
And so we call out to God, “Our Father in heaven.” Commentators underline the fact that Jesus teaches us to begin with the word “our.” As the eminent Scripture scholar John Meier reminds us, “we experience God’s fatherhood not as isolated individuals but as members of the church, the family of Jesus the Son” (Matthew, Glazier, 1980, p. 60). Benedict XVI suggests that this word “our” requires us to “step out of the closed circle of our ‘I.’ It requires that we surrender ourselves to communion with the other children of God.” The pope goes on to affirm that when we say “our” “we say Yes to the living Church in which the Lord wanted to gather his new family. In this sense, the Our Father is at once a fully personal and thoroughly ecclesial prayer” (141). Jesus taught us to pray as people who are inherently relational beings. When we come to prayer we bring with us all of our relationships, those that are flourishing and life-giving as well as those that are troubled. We come to the Lord as people whose faith has been nourished and inspired by other significant believers. So, while the Lord’s Prayer is a deeply personal prayer, it is also the prayer of those who are called to strengthen our communion with the people whom God has put into our lives.
Calling out to God as “Father” points us to Jesus’ own unique relationship with the God he called “Abba.” Our relationship with God is completely dependent upon the relationship that he, the incarnate Son of God, had with the Father. Nevertheless, Jesus has offered us a participation in that unique relationship. Saint Paul reminded the Christians at Galatia about their share in Jesus’ bond with God: “As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal. 4: 6-7). Paul celebrates the freedom that disciples of Jesus enjoy in relating to this God who has shown us his human face in the person of Jesus.
Jesus’ intimate, familiar address of God was apparently shocking to his contemporaries. He was using the language of the home to address God. Scripture scholars suggest that “Abba” meant something like “my own dear Father.” It was an approach to God that blended reverence and familiarity. It signifies a God who is present in our midst. The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, writing from the vantage point of the poor of Latin America, puts it beautifully and succinctly when he says that the idea “is that God is here a father who cares for his children, that God has a heart that is sensitive to our problems, that his eye is always upon our sufferings, and that his ear is open to our cries” (The Lord’s Prayer, Orbis, 1983, 30). In reality, the God whom Jesus reveals is also marked by many of the characteristics we stereotypically associate with the feminine. This God contains and infinitely exceeds all of the perfections that we characteristically apply to fathers and to mothers.
As a seminarian, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend a semester in the Holy Land with a study group from Catholic Theological Union. The group lived in a place called Ein Karim, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Old City of Jerusalem is surrounded by walls that date back to the days of the Crusaders, and even earlier. One of the entryways into the Old City is through the Damascus Gate. I always enjoyed walking through the Damascus Gate and into the narrow streets of the Old City. There you would find a real cross section of the human race: Israeli families, Arab women in long dresses carrying water jars on their heads, tourists from every nation on earth, Western businessmen carrying their leather briefcases as they pursued their enterprise. The Damascus Gate was a wonderful place to watch people.
One day, as I made my way through the gate and into the crowded narrow street, I found myself behind a young Israeli couple walking with their two boys, who were about 4 and 6 years old. For just a few seconds, the youngest child fell behind his parents in that crowd. I could see that he suddenly became very frightened. Just then, he called out, “Abba.” His father immediately turned around, took his hand, and he calmed down.
That scene stopped me dead in my tracks. In Scripture courses, I had read the works of scholars about the significance of this word, but this experience in a crowded Jerusalem street impressed me much more than any of the books or articles that I had read. For that little boy, falling behind his parents in that crowd was a moment of grave danger; it was a “life and death” situation. He immediately called out to his parents in no uncertain terms. He called out in reverence for who they were and with trust that they would respond. And when his father offered him his hand, this child took his hand with confidence.
There is one place in the four Gospels in which the Aramaic word “Abba” is preserved in the text, which is otherwise written in Greek. It is found in Mark’s account of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In this poignant moment, Jesus’ self-understanding and his fidelity to his mission are put on the line. He must decide what he will do at this critical juncture. In his address of God as “Abba,” we hear his profound reverence for God and his respect for the will of God. He is striving with all his might to be obedient to the mysterious will of God in this hour of intense darkness. At the same time, we also recognize Jesus’ deep sense of closeness to God and his profound confidence in the God who is passionately involved in his life. It is from this stance of reverence laced with confidence that Jesus can say, “But not what I will but what you will.”
The words of the Lord’s Prayer invite us to enter into this retreat experience with a sense of dependence, reverence, and confidence. These are qualities that characterize the relationship with God exemplified by this prayer. Dependence has become something of a bad word in a culture that extols autonomy. We are aware of many forms of unhealthy dependence (or “co-dependence”) that can prevent us from flourishing as persons. As disciples of Jesus, however, we stake our lives on the claim that we are truly dependent upon God and that we want to grow in our awareness of this dependence. And we believe that this deepening realization is the path to freedom, to genuine autonomy and personal maturity. The great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner often reminded us that dependence upon God and genuine freedom grow in direct proportion. Our dependence on God is liberating rather than enslaving because God is the one who sets us free to be our best selves.
In this time of retreat, we also pray for a deepened sense of reverence for God and for all that God has created. We ask for a more contemplative stance before life. A seasoned spiritual writer once described contemplation as “a long, loving look at the Real.” In a time of retreat we “step back” and ask for eyes that are open to look at reality – the reality of our lives, of ourselves and of the God whose love is beyond our imaginings. It was this reverence before the Father that was evident in Jesus’ prayer in the garden.
And as we come before the Lord on retreat we are invited to place our confidence in the Abba-God who calls us to a relationship marked by intimacy. We can stand before God with the trust of that child in the crowded Jerusalem street. If we struggle with issues of trust in others, we might use this time of retreat to pray for the grace of deeper trust and confidence in God. It is only through this confident trust in God that we can hear the voice of God and seek to fulfill God’s will in our lives.
I invite you then to enter into this online retreat during the coming week. Take some time each day for prayer and reflection, using the recommended readings and directions listed below if they help you. Let us acknowledge our complete dependence upon God, knowing that through it we find freedom. Let us stand before the reality of God with a sense of reverence. And may we speak to God with confident trust in his presence and his love for us. When we adopt these attitudes, we enter into the mind and heart of Jesus himself.
Fr. Robin Ryan, cp
Suggestions for Daily Prayer:
Online Bible Resource
Monday – Read Galatians 4: 1-7. Ask God for the interior freedom you need to call out to Him with confident trust. Pray for the grace to recognize those things that may inhibit you from coming before the Lord as you are.
Tuesday – Read Matthew 11: 25-30. Listen carefully to Jesus’ invitation to bring your burdens to him. Speak to
Christ about the concerns and burdens you are facing and ask him for the rest you need.
Wednesday – Pray Psalm 131 (a couple of times – slowly). The psalmist speaks of the humility necessary to still one’s soul before God in an attitude of dependence. From this relationship arises hope. Spend some time in quiet with God, simply listening for God’s presence.
Thursday – Read Isaiah 49:7-17. The prophet speaks about the God who never forgets us. Though he uses maternal imagery, he reflects the character of the God whom Jesus addresses as “Abba.” What people and experiences in your life have contributed to an image of God like that described by Isaiah and by Jesus. What people and experiences in your life have obscured that image or placed it in doubt?
Friday – Read Mark 14: 32-42. Speak to the Lord honestly about any important decisions that you are facing in your life at this time. Ask for the grace to discern God’s will in those decisions.