After over 30 years of priesthood and active ministry, I should not be surprised, yet often am, at how the prayer, The Our Father, has a way of comforting people. For example, when standing around a hospital bed when a member of the family is close to death – inviting people to join in this prayer – sort of changes everything. At one level, loved ones experience this action is DOING something in an otherwise helpless situation. On another level, there is the comfort of the familiarity of the prayer and the very calling to mind of God as Father that touches people’s hearts. And on yet another level, turning to prayer changes our entire disposition and takes us to a different place.
At times during the Family Mass, I invite children to join me in the sanctuary as we say The Our Father. Of course, the kids love it and as they are holding hands I ask them, “If you and I have the same father what does that make you to me?” The children quickly conclude the answer is we are brother/sister to one another. Standing in our magnificent church with these beautiful children – that is a wonderful truth to celebrate!
Yet as we know, The Our Father is prayed by millions and millions of Christians. And it is fair to say there are many who do not look like me, share the same history, language, traditions, culture, beliefs or even vote as I do or support the same baseball team that I do! And there are those who may not even know how to pray this prayer. Does that mean that they are NOT my brother or sister? These two simple opening words, Our Father, which Jesus taught us, are radical, in every possible way! They push back against age old prejudices, discriminations, and divisions and demonstrate that God sees us all as brothers and sisters. It is not a coincidence the prayer came from the lips of Jesus himself.
There are so many deep and extraordinary truths buried in this prayer. Another phrase that I find both comforting and challenging is “Thy will be done …” When I first pray these words, it is comforting in that it implies that God has a plan for me – and because I often do not seem to have a plan – I’m glad God does! And yet when I really think about this part of the prayer, it means that God’s will is dominant, rather than my will. This is a big step and it may well give one pause! I think we usually say this part of the prayer easily, sort of sliding over the words and maybe not fully realizing it means each of us is asking God to help us put our own will off to the side and make His will the action plan of our lives. That is a big and very beautiful prayer – and its fulfillment will not happen overnight.
I love the part of The Our Father when we ask for forgiveness of our sins; that is a part I need to pray often. However Jesus has a contingency clause built into this petition – “As we forgive those who trespass against us”. This is a troubling condition! Forgiving another may be one of the most difficult tasks a person has to confront – most especially when the hurt seems to have been very serious and intentional. And yet there does not seem to be a way around this – God insists He is ready to forgive us, whatever, but when needed we need to take a forgiving step as well.
Arguably the most exquisite prayer in the entire Bible, The Our Father is both deeply comforting and powerfully challenging to all of us. At the same time our familiarity with the prayer may dull our appreciation for the richness and depth of Jesus’ words.
In this beautiful late winter, perhaps refreshing our familiarity with The Our Father is a wonderful undertaking and certainly the perfect prayer.