30 March 2011

Lenten Catechesis on the Our Father

It is a remarkable privilege that God has given you, to call upon Him in prayer. All the more so, in that He has given you the very Words with which to approach Him. Such prayer is not by your own design, nor a matter of personal choice or invention. Rather, it is a gift of Divine grace, that God is your dear Father, that you are His dear child, and that He has given you both the invitation and the means to come boldly before Him. All of this in and through Christ Jesus, and given to you in the waters of Holy Baptism.

From the earliest days of the Church, the Our Father — along with the Apostles’ Creed — has had a special relationship to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Catechumens in the early church would receive and learn these two Chief Parts of the Christian faith during Lent; then, at their Baptism during the Great Vigil of Easter, they would confess the Creed as they were immersed in the water, and afterwards (by virtue of their Baptism) they would pray the Our Father for the first time, together with the whole congregation of the Church.

To be sure, it is only by our Baptism into Christ, the Son of God, that we are given the privilege of approaching the Lord God Almighty as Our Father, just as dear children ask their dear fathers here on earth, but, thankfully, with more confidence than we could ever have in any human father.

Because we pray to our Father in virtue of our Baptism into Christ Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer — like all Christian prayer, properly understood — is never “private” prayer. There is no such thing as a “private Christian” or “private Christianity.” Even when you take it to the Lord in prayer in the solitude of your own home, you do so as a member of the Body of Christ, as a member of His Church of all times and places. It is always our Father, and never simply my Father.

The use of the Our Father, in particular, along with other standard prayers (such as Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers and the historic rites of the Liturgy), is a confession of this “catholicity” of the Church and of your connection to it. The Our Father is part of our common language as Christians, that is, the special language we all speak as fellow citizens of our Father’s Kingdom. For the Words we use — even before we begin to “understand” them intellectually — these Words that God has spoken and given for us to pray and confess — are Words that every Christian has received and speaks, a confession of the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all.

The catholicity of the Our Father is demonstrated in the special importance attached to the Fifth Petition (“forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”), which Jesus reiterates in His teaching of the Our Father. Since you pray in communion with the entire Church — in the unity of Christ Jesus — your relationship with others (especially your fellow Christians) is an integral part of your prayer. And, as a Christian, that relationship is defined chiefly by forgiveness.

You come before the Lord in prayer with repentance and a humble recognition of your own sins; for you know that of yourself you are not worthy to stand in His presence, and that you do so only by His tender grace and mercy. Each and every prayer that you bring to Him, therefore, presupposes and depends upon His forgiveness. And in this confession of your sin, in your reliance on the mercy and free forgiveness of your gracious Lord, you therefore pledge and commit yourself heartily to forgive and gladly to do good to those who trespass against you.

Along the same lines, you are given to pray the Our Father as a kind of discipline, as part of your Christian discipleship, because it lifts your heart and mind above and beyond your own selfish cares and concerns to pray for the whole Church, for all the baptized children of God, for all your brothers and sisters in Christ, wherever they may be in His vast Kingdom. For all that you pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, you pray not only for yourself, but for all who call upon God as their Father, and for all whom He would call to be His children.

Indeed, the Our Father is truly an all-encompassing prayer. It includes (along with forgiveness) everything you need for this body and life, and for the life everlasting; nothing is excluded. There is no situation or circumstance for which the Our Father is not most ideally suited, nothing you might face which is not addressed in these seven Petitions.

Whenever you find yourself at a loss for words (as Saint Paul affirms that none of us know how to pray as we ought), you are given recourse and refuge in this Prayer that your Lord Himself has taught you to pray. Although your heart and mind are never as pious or as focused as they should be in this life on earth, your lips are thus guided by the Words of God Himself. So also does the Holy Spirit pray with you in these Words of Christ, as He is always praying for you, in your sinful weakness.

When you pray and intercede for others, too — for your family and friends, for the Church, for those who are sick — again, the Lord’s Prayer is always most appropriate, a prayer for all seasons.

Certainly, you should never feel that you have nothing to say, nor worry that you aren’t being “creative” or “clever” enough. “When you pray,” says Jesus our Lord, “say this”: “Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name. . . .”

Accordingly, the Lutheran Church has always included the Our Father in all of her orders of service —whether simple or elaborate, both short and long alike. What is more, Dr. Luther teaches in his Small Catechism that fathers should include the Our Father in the daily prayers of the household and family: first thing in the morning, and at night before bed, and both before and after every meal.

In short, as God’s own dear child, you do as Saint Paul writes; that is, you cry out, “Abba! Father!” to your Father in heaven. “Abba,” as some of you have probably heard, was the Jewish equivalent of “Daddy,” or even the infant cooing of “Dadda.” Thus, in following Luther’s guidelines — praying the Our Father eight times a day — you are not unlike an infant or toddler, learning how to speak, babbling “Dadda, Dadda, Dadda,” over and over throughout your day, with the grateful affection of a little child for the very dear Father Who loves you and cares for you. Perhaps you have heard my own Katharina’s version of this, as she often greets me with: “My Daddy, my Daddy, my Daddy.”

In praying this dear prayer, the Our Father, with your own children, and by teaching them to pray in this way, you pass on more than just a single prayer. You actually teach them how to speak the Word of God with the language of faith. You teach them the most basic pattern of true worship.

In fact, the Our Father encompasses the entire scope of Divine Service and Christian worship in a nutshell. It is the gracious Word of Christ to you and to His Church on earth, and so it is His work and His good gift. For this precious thing is not of our own fabrication or design, nor is it anything that any of us could have thought up or imagined. Like all Divine Service, it comes to you from God. And when you pray in this manner, it does not cease to be His Word and His work in you. Not that your praying is the Gospel or a means of grace, but the Words themselves, with which the Lord Jesus opens your lips to call upon the Father in His Name, they are a gift of pure Gospel and grace.

Your praying of the Our Father, on the other hand, is a genuine good work of faith, a sacrifice of repentance and thanksgiving, and an act of worship in Spirit and Truth (that is to say, the worship of the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, by means of His Word of Truth).

How appropriate it is, therefore, and how richly multifaceted the Our Father is in its use within the Lutheran Liturgy. In Matins and Vespers, it is part of that daily (morning and evening) sacrifice of prayer that rises before the Lord as the holy incense of faith. In the Service of the Word, it is the summary and conclusion of any and all other prayers, covering all for which the Lord would have us pray. Prior to the Words of Institution in the Divine Service, it is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, offered in grateful anticipation of the Words and the Gifts of Christ Himself about to be received.

Where the Our Father is prayed, according to the ancient practice of the Church Catholic, that is, immediately prior to the Distribution of the Holy Communion, it there serves as a petition that He would (by His Word and Holy Spirit) lead all the communicants to recognize the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine, and that He would grant us to receive this Bread of Life and this Cup of Salvation with thanksgiving, in true faith, and to our abundant blessing. Not only that, but it also confesses that He does do all these things (and more).

As Luther indicates repeatedly in the Small Catechism, God answers your petitions even without your prayer. Just as He has promised, “Before you call, I will answer; and while you are yet speaking, I will act.” Thus, everything you pray for in the Our Father — which includes all that you need for your body and soul — is already granted freely and fully, by His grace alone in Christ Jesus.

Christian prayer is not a button or a cord that you push or pull for service from the Lord, as though He were a household servant instead of your dear Father in heaven, or as though He were not already (even without your prayer) daily and richly providing you with all good things — solely out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you. Surely He gives daily bread to all people, even to the wicked, and He causes His sun to shine and His rain to fall on both the evil and the good. But pray that He would grant you grace to see His fatherly hand in all these things, and so cling to Him by faith alone, trusting not in yourself but in Christ and His mercy.

Finally, dear son or daughter of God, pray the Our Father — and do so with confident faith in Christ — because He Himself has commanded you to pray in this way, and He has promised to hear you.

Pray to Him, therefore, as He has taught, in much the same way that you go to Church and receive the Holy Sacrament: not because you “feel” like it (but also and especially when you don’t!); not because you thereby do some great “favor” for the Lord; and certainly not as though you were somehow worthy of yourself to stand before Him. But pray to Him because He has commanded you to pray, and because He has promised to hear and answer your prayer in Christ Jesus, and because you need His gracious mercy and forgiveness every day of your life.

Thanks be to God that you have it without measure in His Son: your Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. To Him alone be all honor and glory and praise, both now and forever. Amen.

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