Do you pray this prayer daily? Do you pray it at all? Do you agree with its wording, punctuation and phrasing? Is it a model of prayer? Is it to be repeated verbatim? Do you use the exact words used here? Where is it and should it be used in public and/or private prayer? What does it mean? Is it the “Our Father,” “Pater Noster” or “Lord’s Prayer”?
The prolific Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth, England offers us an answer to these questions and many more. The above quoted translation is his. The book provides an even handed description and explanation of the prayer given by the many theologians, preachers, liturgical texts, and catechisms since its original composition. It is a fascinating account well worth reading even though it is, at times, overly detailed and repetitive. It is a summary of scholarship dealing with the prayer along with a professional evaluation of what the best choice is at this time.
Cyprian, in the third century, was the first to call it dominica oratio. It was, by then, part of the Christian communities’ ways of life that could be found as a whole (Matthew 6: 9- 12; Luke 11:2-4) or in part (John 17) in holy scripture. Matthew’s version, with both an “amen” and doxology, is found in the Didache, is certainly a reflection of the liturgical tradition of the Christian communities. These are the foundational texts for Stevenson’s discussion and the Church’s prayer life. Matthew’s version in particular is the basis for theological analysis, liturgical celebration, preaching, teaching, and private utterance. We find the prayer in so many places within the tradition: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Rosary, Holy Office, and standing alone for meditation, for marking the major hours of the day, and for replacement of the Office, medieval plays, and past and present songs. The Lord's Prayer has become the Church’s prayer.
But what does it mean that this prayer is Jesus’ prayer? How have we, the church, understood it over the centuries? Certainly it is a reflection of his gospel message. Many would claim that it reflects ancient Jewish prayer forms and the Semitic language itself. It is the prayer given by a Jewish rabbi to his followers. But is it really Jesus’, the Lord's, prayer? We are not absolutely sure. If it isn’t, however, it should be.
As we have prayed the prayer over the centuries it has taken on the cares, concerns and context of those who pray. Looking back and gathering all those cares, concerns, and characteristics together, we see a variety of interpretations and ways of praying.
“Father” is seen as creator, as the one who adopted us in baptism, as loving parent, as the one we address together with Jesus who prays through us. “Heaven” is seen as the place above the clouds, as the place beyond the last perfect circle of planets and stars, as another dimension of a multidimensional world, and as a place of rest before the Kingdom breaks through in the new creation at this world’s end. “Hallowing" the Father’s name is found in lives dedicated to God’s service, in sacramental worship, as an act only performed by the baptized, as not capable of being uttered by sinful people but only by those joined to the sinless Jesus, a hallowing only capable of being done by the Father himself, as a proclamation of the end of the world at the beginning of God’s kingdom. The “kingdom come” may be the end of the world, one’s future life in heaven, one’s present experience of God’s reign, the church, the establishment of a Christian nation.
I cannot provide a survey of all things mentioned in the prayer nor can I do justice to the many ways Stevenson demonstrates that the church has prayed this prayer. Nor to the way it can and should be prayed by those who are not Christians (Father as creator). I can suggest that you read the book and that it will enrich your praying of it. I can hope too that Church authorities will allow the diversity of the past to remain in the present and to not narrow its meanings to only one doctrinal truth.