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On the Lord's Prayer

Do we understand this text that we pray every day? Having come across some personalized variants of the Lord's prayer that seem to have missed the Lord's point, Amelia turns to the words of the Holy Fathers to clarify what the 13 phrases in the prayer actually mean.
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 the evil one.
— Matthew 6:9-13

The Lord's Prayer is the most widely used prayer among Christians. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics are taught to pray its text at least three times a day. Most Protestants also are taught to include it in their daily prayers. In nearly all Christian traditions and denominations, the Lord's Prayer is a standard part of most, if not all, church services. Although certain sectarian groups reject the Lord's Prayer entirely, all mainstream Christians regard it with the utmost reverence.

We all know the text of this prayer, but do we understand what these highly important words mean? If we do understand them, do we say them prayerfully, or are they just empty words that roll off of our lips? In the Holy Scriptures, Christ God warns us against precisely that—against reciting "vain repetitions," which aren't prayers but only meaningless speech for the sake of speaking. In fact, He presents this warning immediately before teaching us, via the Lord's Prayer, how we ought to pray instead.

I recently came across several "personalized" versions of the text. While I see nothing wrong with praying to God in our own words about whatever's in our hearts at a particular moment, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of rewriting God's Word and still calling it God's Word. These versions I saw were no longer the Lord's Prayer; they had become So-and-so's Prayers. The new prayers were nice, but unfortunately they missed the point. The Lord's Prayer is a lesson for us on how to pray; the people who rewrote it according to their own itemized lists of needs (but still called it the Lord's) clearly didn't understand the lesson.

It got me thinking. A lot of us probably don't understand the lesson. Or the warning about vain repetitions.

Not only would a proper understanding of the Lord's Prayer make our recitation of it more meaningful, but it would improve our Christian views on life in general. And so, according to the interpretation of the holy fathers, the following is an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and what we’re supposed to learn from it.

Our Father.

In Old Testament times, no one would have dared to address God as Father. Through Christ, however, our broken relationship with our Father Creator is redeemed. Saint Maximos the Confessor writes: We have the grace of adoption and call him “Father,” not because He created us, but because he has given us rebirth and regeneration by the saving work of His Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.1

Also, Saint John Chrysostom explains that by addressing God as our Father, we acknowledge the many blessings inherent in this Father-child relationship: For he who calls God Father, by him both remission of sins, and taking away of punishment, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption, and adoption, and inheritance, and brotherhood with the Only-Begotten, and the supply of the Spirit, are acknowledged in this single title.2, emphasis added

We should note, however, that we don't say my Father; we say our Father. Saint Cyprian tells us that this is our instruction to pray not only for ourselves but for everyone.3 He adds: The God of peace and the Teacher of concord, who taught unity, willed that one should thus pray for all, even as He Himself bore us all in one (ibid.).

Who art in heaven.

Acknowledging that God is in heaven (or, translated literally, "in the heavens") indicates that God is omnipresent; just as the heavens surround us no matter where we are, God is also everywhere at all times. Saint John Chrysostom clarifies that this doesn't mean God is confined to heaven; it means that the person praying, by acknowledging that his Father God is in the heavens, directs his own heart and thoughts toward heaven.2

Saint Gregory of Nyssa adds: The path that leads human nature toward heaven is none other than flight and detachment from worldly evils … The distance between the divine and the human is not physical … It is free choice that leads a person to go wherever his desire inclines him. Because no physical labor is necessary to make the choice of what is good—and free choice can be followed by success in whatever one chooses—it is possible for you to occupy heaven immediately upon putting God into your mind.4

Hallowed be Thy name.

The Old Testament makes it clear that God's name is holy and should never be taken in vain. The Jewish custom was to avoid even mentioning God's holy name so it wouldn't accidentally be defiled in speech. In the New Testament, however, our Lord Jesus Christ invites us to call upon God even as our Father. This petition in the prayer is meant to remind us that God's name is to be reverenced and kept holy.

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem notes, however, that it isn't our prayer that makes God's name holy in and of itself; our prayer makes God's name holy within us: Whether or not we call God's name "holy," it is holy by its nature. But since that name is at times profaned among sinners, as it is written: "Because of you my name is constantly blasphemed among the gentiles" (Isaiah 52:5), we ask that God's name be hallowed among us. Not that it should become holy as though it were not previously holy, but that it may become holy in us when we are sanctified and act in a manner worthy of its holiness.5

Thy kingdom come.

This petition means two things. Perhaps the more manifest understanding is that Christians look forward to the coming of the next life; we pray that this difficult earthly life, which is wrought with sin and suffering, will be replaced by the promised heavenly and eternal Kingdom. In this sense, this part of the prayer is a literal request for the Second Coming of Christ and the renewal of all Creation.

But this prayer also has an inward spiritual implication—we're also praying that God's kingdom will come via the Holy Spirit and dwell within us.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa explains how this petition leads to spiritual transformation of our souls: If God's Kingdom comes upon us, all those things which dominate us collapse into nothingness. Darkness cannot endure the presence of light. Sickness cannot exist when health returns. The evil passions are not active when freedom from passions takes hold. When life reigns in our midst and incorruption holds sway, gone is death and vanished is corruption.4

Thy will be done.

We're often inclined to pray for what we want—the things that would make life easier or more pleasant, but this is the opposite of how the Lord teaches us to pray. We pray, instead, Thy will be done. We're asking that God's will rather than our own be fulfilled.

Saint Cyprian points out that our reason for praying this isn't because God needs our permission to perform His will; neither is it because we have any real power to resist God's will. The real reason is because of our weakness and our subjection to temptations: Since we are hindered by the devil from obeying with our thought and deed God's will in all things, we pray and ask that God's will may be done in us.3

Saint Nilus of Sinai adds that a prayer of this nature will welcome attacks from the evil one. His advice is that we be patient, humble, and courageous as we pray for God's will to be performed in us.6

On earth, as it is in heaven.

This earthly life is characterized by passions that stand in the way of fulfilling God's will. In heaven, there aren't any such passions. Saint Philaret of Moscow writes: In heaven the holy angels and saints in bliss, all without exception, always, and in all things, do God's will.7 What we pray here is for the same to take place, through God's help, on earth.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa elaborates: The transcendent life is passionless and pure, whereas the wretchedness of this life is engulfed by all kinds of sufferings and hardships. It is evident, then, that the heavenly way of life, pure from every evil, is accomplished by the good will of God. For where evil does not exist, every good must necessarily abound. But life on our side, having fallen from communion with heavenly blessings, has at the same time fallen from the divine will too. It is for this reason that we are taught in the prayer to purify our life from evil in such manner so that God's will may direct our lives without hindrance and in the likeness of the heavenly way of life.4

Give us this day.

We know that the words "our daily bread" are to follow. Because the word "daily" implies that we'll need this bread every day, why does the Lord not simply say, "Give us our daily bread"—why does He add the words "this day?"

According to Saint John Chrysostom, the reason is because we often get ahead of ourselves. Christ God adds the words "give us this day" as a reminder that we don't know what tomorrow will bring: So that we may not, beyond this, wear ourselves out with the care of the following day. For that day, the intervals before which thou knowest not whether thou shalt see, herefore dost thou submit to its cares?2 In other words, the Lord is telling us to be concerned with only one day at a time.

Also, the words "this day" imply that we need to ask again today for what we asked and received yesterday. Saint John Cassian explains: When it says "this day," it shows that it must be taken daily and that yesterday's supply of it is not enough if we have not been given of it today as well. Our daily need for it warns us that we should pour out this prayer constantly, because there is no day on which it is not necessary for us to strengthen the heart of our inner man by eating and receiving this.

Our daily bread.

Here, bread has two meanings. In the more literal sense, bread is a metaphor for all our material needs. It's a simple prayer, as Saint Gregory explains: When we say to God, "Give bread," we do not ask for delights, riches, and flowery robes. We do not seek the beauty of gold, the glow of precious stones, and vessels of silver. We do not request an abundance of land, the command of armies, superiority in war, and governance over nations. We do not desire horses, cattle, and herds of other grazing animals. We do not aspire to possess a host of slaves, pomp in the marketplace, and acclamation by setting up monuments or public portraits. We do not yearn for silk garments and musical ensembles. We ask for none of these by which the soul is distracted from the divine and noble cares. We pray only for bread.4

However, we need more than simply food for our bodies, which sustains the present life; we also need food for our souls, which will sustain us throughout eternity. Christ God teaches us that He's the bread of life and that whoever comes to Him will never hunger (John 6:35). We receive this bread of life through the mystery of Holy Communion, through the holy Church, and through a holy spiritual life.

And forgive us our trespasses.

Forgiveness is one of the most prominent themes of the New Testament. When Adam fell from grace, he passed along sinful tendencies to each of us; mankind has longed to be released from these tendencies since the fall. This release is possible only through the mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but we have to ask for it, and we have to ask for it continually.

The need for such continual prayers for forgiveness is often overlooked by many Christians, especially those who believe that salvation is achieved through a one-time acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. However, because Christ has taught us in the Lord's Prayer to pray for forgiveness daily, He shows us that daily repentance and forgiveness of sins isn't only possible but also necessary.

In the words of Saint John Chrysostom: It is perfectly clear that He introduced this rule of supplication, as knowing, and signifying, that it is possible even after [baptism] to wash ourselves from our offenses; by reminding us of our sins, persuading us to be modest; by the command to forgive others, setting us free from all revengeful passion; while by promising in return for this to pardon us also, He holds out good hopes, and instructs us to have high views concerning the unspeakable mercy of God toward man.2

As we forgive those who trespass against us.

Just as we desire forgiveness from God, God calls us to forgive as well. The New Testament clearly warns that God will have mercy upon those who are also genuinely—not superficially—merciful to others (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:35). This part of the Lord's Prayer reminds us of our responsibility not only to ask forgiveness but also to practice it. Saint John Chrysostom points out that the devil is the one truly to blame, not those who have trespassed against us, for the devil is the one who motivated and helped them to do so.2

Moreover, Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite explains that these words highlight the futility of holding grudges: And let no one say: So and so wronged me greatly, and I cannot forgive him. For if we considered how many times a day, how many times an hour, how many times each moment we commit faults against God, and He forgives us, we would see how incomparably greater our faults are than those of our brothers.9

And lead us not into temptation.

God's will is never for us to fall into sin; inclinations toward sin are from the devil. However, God allows us to struggle against these inclinations to make us spiritually stronger and, sometimes, as a means of "burning off" our sins now rather than in eternity.

We pray, here, for God not to lead us into situations in which we’d be tempted, through our own limitations, beyond our ability to resist. We pray that God will keep us from whatever and whomever He knows would have a powerful evil influence over us, one that we wouldn't be able to escape because of whichever particular passions are most troubling for us. This petition is to ask God to save us, essentially, from ourselves. Saint John Chrysostom notes that these words should greatly humble us.2

One unnamed monk writes: We ask Him to preserve us from all that confuses our spirit and from temptations that are beyond our strength to reject. If we encounter on our earthly path trials and temptations sent for our purification from sin and spiritual fortification, then we ask God to send us His timely help. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (I Corinthians 10:13). For because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:18).10

But deliver us from the evil one.

The Lord Jesus isn't being redundant here. As Saint Cyril of Jerusalem explains: If the words "Lead us not into temptation" mean never to be tempted, the Lord wouldn't have added: "But deliver us from the evil one." The evil one is the devil, the adversary, and we ask to be delivered from him.5

The devil is our enemy. More correctly, perhaps, he's God's enemy. As such, the devil wants to see us fall. While we need to ask God to deliver us from specific temptations, we also need to ask to be delivered from the devil, the father of all temptations. While we need to ask God to deliver us from wicked and deceitful people, we also need to ask Him to deliver us from Satan, the father of lies, who inspires wickedness and deceit in others.

For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

This final text, a doxology, is something that most Christians attach to the end of the Lord's Prayer. While these words may not follow the Lord's Prayer in the Gospels, our Holy Tradition and other Church texts teach us to conclude with them.

As Saint Philaret of Moscow points out, we've just asked God for many blessings and mercies; it is only appropriate to follow our requests with an expression of the honor that we owe Him. Moreover, the doxology reassures us that because the eternal Kingdom, power, and glory belong to God, our prayers will be answered.7

These words, according to Saint John Chrysostom, both encourage us and raise our spirits, by bringing to our remembrance the King under whom we are arrayed, and signifying Him to be more powerful than all.2

Glory to God for all things!

[1] Father Theodoros Zisis: The Lord’s Prayer Interpreted according to Saint Maximos the Confessor.
[2] Saint John Chrysostom: Homilies on the Lord's Prayer.
[3] Saint Cyprian: On the Lord's Prayer.
[4] Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Lord's Prayer.
[5] Saint Cyril of Jerusalem: First Mystagogical Catechesis.
[6] Saint Nilus of Sinai: Texts on Prayer.
[7] Saint Philaret: Catechism of Saint Philaret.
[8] Saint John Cassian: On the Lord's Prayer.
[9] Saint Nikodim the Hagiorite: Concerning Frequent Communion.
[10] Saint Tikhon Monastery: The Lord's Prayer.