Pope Benedict’s Reflections on the Our Father
By Father Seán
Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five ; Part Six; Part seven; Part eight; Part nine
Pope Benedict has recently published a book entitled Jesus of Nazareth, where he relates Jesus Christ to our own times, and outlines how he thinks we should understand his presence in our lives.
This is a work on which the Pope has laboured over many years before he became Pope, and he now has published his first volume of what is intended to be a larger work.
This volume covers the public ministry of Jesus from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. His intention is to deal in later volumes with the Infancy of Jesus, and His Passion Death and Resurrection. In his first Volume he covers many of the miracles of Jesus, many of his sermons and his prayer. Central to his prayer was the Our Father, and it is on this universal prayer that we will focus in the coming weeks, hoping to the best of our ability to reflect the thoughts of the Holy Father.
In introducing this treatise on the Lord’s Prayer the Pope Benedict has interesting reflection on the nature of prayer. St. Matthew introduces the Lord’s Prayer with a few warnings against false forms of prayer. Firstly it must not be an occasion for showing off before others. Rather prayer must have a discretion that is essential to the nature of love. We must be aware of God’s personal love for each of us, but also realise that there is a community aspect to prayer. This is the very reason why the Lord’s Prayer uses the plural “we” or “us” throughout. The second false from of prayer is the “chatter, the verbiage, that smothers the spirit.”
Our relationship with God should not be momentary asking or thanksgiving, but should “be present as the bedrock of our souls” Prayer really is being in silent inward communion with God. In the mind of the Pope, everything that happens in our lives should be related to the permanent presence of God with us.
The Our Father is always a prayer of Jesus, and communion with him is what opens up this prayer for us.. We pray to the Father in heaven whom we know through his Son. And that means that Jesus is always in the background during the petitions, as we will see more clearly as we go through the petitions in the weeks ahead.
“Our Father who art in heaven”
In his reflection on the Our Father Pope Benedict begins with a quotation which says: “The Our Father begins with a great consolation: we are allowed to say “Father” This one word contains the whole history of redemption. We are allowed to say “Father” because the Son was our brother and has revealed the Father to us; because, thanks to what Christ has done, we have become once more the children of God.
The problem for very many people today is that their experience of fatherhood is in many cases either completely absent or obscured by inadequate examples of fatherhood. We must therefore allow Jesus to teach us what father really means. For Jesus, father is the source of all good, the measure of perfection of all people. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” The love that the father has for us and endures to the end. Christ fulfilled that love on the Cross by praying for his enemies. We call God “father” because he is the source of all love, and in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus invites us to become children of this all-loving Father.
We should reflect on the parts of the New Testament where Jesus elaborates on the Fathers love and generosity. “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” “If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!'” The gift that God gives us is the gift of himself, and this means that prayer is really a recognition of this truth. God’s gift of himself to us is the “one thing necessary” Prayer is a way of gradually purifying and correcting our wishes and of slowly coming to realise what we really need: God and his Spirit.
How to we recognise the Father, whose love and presence with us is the “one thing necessary”? Pope Benedict sees the answer in the person of Jesus Christ who is the mirror and the perfect image of the Father, for Jesus tells Philip “to see me is to see the Father.” When we call God our Father we recognise that he is our Creator, but also in the person of Jesus our Redeemer too. This is because Jesus is the image of God, of one substance with the Father, the “new Adam”.
The Pope concludes that to be able to call God our Father is a summons to us: to live as a child of God, as a son or daughter. The word father is an invitation to live in awareness that we are children of God. It also frees us from the delusion of false emancipation from all guidance in the living of our lives. Adam believed that in eating the forbidden fruit he and Eve would become “as gods”, and hence be able to live their lives free from the need for God. Through calling God our father we see not a dependency on God, but rather a relationship of love that sustains our existence and gives it meaning and grandeur.
Note: The reflections of the Pope on the great prayer of our faith are deep, but I think with reflection they can enrich our understanding of what we say each time we recite the words Jesus gave us. The title of the book is “Jesus of Nazareth” by Pope Benedict XVI, and it is widely available in most bookshops. -
Hallowed be thy Name
The first of the petitions of the Our Father asks that the name of our God be hallowed, reverenced, held in awe by all who see him as our Creator and loving Father. The background to God’s name is traced by Benedict back to the encounter Moses had with God in the burning bush. When Moses asked “Who are you” he was reflecting the concern of the Jews that their God should have a name, as had the false gods of the surrounding pagan tribes.
God’s answer to Moses was “I am who I am”.
In answering in this way God was declining to be named like the pagan gods all around his people. At the same time he was not refusing to give any name, but his answer made it clear to Moses and the people that he was the all powerful God, the only God, and incomparable to the false gods of their neighbours. This is the origin of the great reverence the Jews had for the name of God, and in fact they never uttered the name “I am who I am”.
Benedict understands God as giving a name – I am who I am – because a name establishes a relationship with another person. God’s response was a statement of his infinite love for his people and his desire to care for them and protect them. So when we pray that his name will be hallowed we are recognising his presence to us and his eternal love for us, and asking that this relationship will grow stronger.
Perhaps we might also question our own attitude to the name of God, whether according to the Second Commandment we refrain from ever taking that name in vain. We might also ask whether our reverence for God’s name should also extend to Jesus Christ his Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. Is our lack of respect for the name of Jesus a startling contradiction of our prayer “Hallowed be thy name”?
When we pray the Our Father, we must therefore pause and reflect on the deep historical reasons why we so respect the name of God, and examine the ways in which we abuse that name thoughtlessly so often.
Thy Kingdom come
Pope Benedict says of this petition of the Our Father that "these words establish an order of priorities for human action, for how we approach everyday life". With this petition we acknowledge the primacy of God. Where God is absent, nothing can be good. Where God is not seen, humanity and the world fall to ruin.
The coming of God's kingdom is not meant to bring us a utopian situation where we will share a Land of Plenty, provided we are devout or are somehow attracted to the Kingdom of God. What Jesus does is establish an absolutely decisive priority. To pray for the coming of the kingdom means that we pray that his will is accepted as the criterion for all our actions. God's will establishes justice, and part of justice is that we give God his due homage and reverence. The pope reflects that when God offered Solomon the privilege of making a request that God would grant. Solomon did not seek wealth, fortune, honour , the death of his enemies, or even long life. Instead Solomon asks for a "listening heart", the ability to discern between good and evil. The petition "Thy Kingdom come" is asking that we may order our actions in a just way, with a listening heart.
Finally the Pope suggests that the Kingdom is Jesus Christ in person. The Kingdom is present wherever he is present, and the request for a listening heart becomes a request for communion with Jesus. What is requested in this petition is the true following of Christ which is communion with him and makes us one body with him.
"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"
Two valuable reflections come to us from Pope Benedict's writing on this petition of the Our Father. The first is that where God's will is done is heaven. The essence of heaven is oneness with God's will. Earth becomes "heaven" when and insofar as God's will is done. Hence we pray that his will may be done "on earth" as in heaven.
Our second reflection is how can we know God's will. Benedict recognises that God's will can easily be obscured, or hidden under the ash of all the prejudices that have piled up within us. In spite of all the obstacles the will of God is written in our hearts, and needs to be clarified for us through our reading of the Scriptures and reflecting on them. The Law of Moses (summed up in the Ten Commandments) have been enhanced and enriched by the teaching of Jesus, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus himself is the one who perfectly fulfils the will of God. When the disciples once remind him that he needs to eat he answers: "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me" The perfect carrying out of the Father's will is Jesus' giving of himself on Calvary for our sake. In this sense we can think of Jesus as heaven in the deepest and truest sense of the word, because in him and through him God's will is wholly done.
When we pray this petition of the Our Father we pray that we may come closer and closer to Jesus, so that God's will can conquer the downward pull of our selfishness and make us capable of the lofty height to which we are called.
"Give us this day our daily bread"
The first point Pope Benedict makes on this petition is that even though the Lord asked us to focus on "the one thing necessary" (seeking the Kingdom of God), he also acknowledges our earthly needs. While he says: "Do not be anxious about your lives, what you shall eat", he nevertheless invites us to turn our care to God. Bread is the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands, but the earth bears no fruit unless it receives sunlight and rain from above. This recognition of God's goodness is the perfect foil to the pride which allows us to think that we achieve great things through our own efforts. It is only when we acknowledge that we rely on the goodness of God for everything that we can become great and free and truly ourselves. God will not refuse us the good things that he alone can give.
The Pope goes on to quote St. Cyprian in his reflections on this petition. We pray for our bread. We pray in the communion of the disciples, in the communion of the children of God, and for this reason no one may think only of himself. In praying for our bread we pray for bread for others. St. John Chrysostom emphasises that "every bite of bread in one way or another is a bite of the bread that belongs to everybody, of the bread of the world. Cyprian also remarks that anyone who asks for bread is poor. So our prayer presupposes that we have left behind the riches of the world for the sake of faith, and no longer ask for anything beyond what we need to live.
The last point in the Pope's discourse is the word daily. Benedict sees the word as really referring to the supernatural Bread of the Eucharist, as promised in the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Also, when the Jews gathered the manna in the desert, they collected only enough for the day. So our daily bread is the supernatural Bread of Life which we receive in Holy Communion as often as we come to Mass. In our receiving the Body of Christ we ourselves become the Body of Christ
Lastly, the Pope again quotes St. Cyprian who says that the Eucharist is in a special sense "our" bread, the bread of Jesus' disciples. We pray according to Cyprian that our bread, Christ, be given to us every day so that we who remain and live in Christ may not depart from his healing power and from his body.
Part seven -
And forgive us our trespasses
“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”
The opening reflection of Pope Benedict on this petition of the Our Father” is that every instance of trespass whether in relation to God or in relation to other people, involves some kind of injury to truth and to love and is thus opposed to God who is love and truth. Trespass leads to guilt and guilt calls forth retaliation. The result is a chain of trespass in which the evil of guilt grows ceaselessly and becomes more and more inescapable.
In this petition Jesus is telling us that guilt can be overcome not by retaliation, but by forgiveness. God is a god who forgives, because he loves us; but forgiveness can only penetrate and become effective in one who is himself forgiving. The Pope reflects that forgiveness is a theme that pervades the Gospel. He reminds us of Christ’s injunctions that when you bring a gift to the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, you must leave your gift before the altar: first go and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. This going our to meet your brother and making your gesture of reconciliation is the prerequisite of true worship of God We should also remember that God himself stepped out of his divinity in order to come toward us to reconcile us. Benedict also reminds us of the story of the unforgiving servant, who having been forgiven a huge debt by his master, refused to cancel a trivial debt owing to himself. This leads to the conclusion that whatever we have to forgive one another is trivial in comparison to what God has forgiven us.
Pope Benedict seeks to probe deeper into an understanding of what forgiveness is. He takes his line from the realisation that guilt as an objective force has caused destruction that must be repaired. Forgiveness is therefore, not just a matter of ignoring, of merely trying to forget. Forgiveness exacts a price firstly from the person who forgives. He must overcome the evil done to him; he must burn it interiorly, and in so doing renew himself.
Last time we dealt with the petition “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” In his final thoughts on this petition, Pope Benedict reflects on the fact that God allowed the forgiveness of our sins to cost him the death of his own Son has come to seem quite alien to us today. That the Lord “has borne our diseases and taken upon himself sorrows seems no longer plausible today. This is partly due to the trivialisation of evil, in which we take refuge despite the fact that we treat the horrors of recent history as irrefutable pretext for denying the existence of God, and slandering his creation, the human race.
Pope Benedict also quotes Cardinal Newman who reflected that while God created the whole world out of nothing, he could overcome our guilt only by bringing himself into play through his Son Jesus Christ.
The petition for forgiveness is more than a moral exhortation. It is a reminder to us of the God who allowed forgiveness to cost him descent into human hardship and death on a Cross. It calls us to thankfulness for that intervention, and then, with him to work through and suffer through evil by means of love. No matter how much we forgive, we can never match the generosity and love of God in loving us. Only though the example of the God of suffering on the Cross can we truly find grace to forgive those who trespass against us.
" Lead us not into temptation "
Pope Benedict reminds us that God certainly does not lead us into temptation. We are helped to understand this by reflecting on the temptations of Jesus before he began his public ministry. He was “led out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil” The Letter to the Hebrews emphasises how we understand the temptations of Jesus: For, because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” ……. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are. Yet without sin”
Pope Benedict goes to the Book of Job to underline the distinction between trial and temptation. It is customary for us to see Job as the great exemplar of patience and endurance in the face of great suffering. In fact the Book of Job is all about trust in God and his providence in every trial and disappointment that comes our way. It depicts Satan as challenging God to allow misfortune to overwhelm Job, because, as Satan says, his virtue is solely due to his prosperity, which God has heaped upon him. The reaction of Job however, is that God gave him many good things, and he has a right to take them away. Rather than being angry and turning against God, Job upholds God’s right to bring misfortune on him. The Book of Job sees the trials of Job as a purifying experience leading to a profound oneness with God’s will. Love always involves a process of purifications, renunciations, and painful transformations of ourselves.
What we are saying when we ask “lead us not into temptation” is that God will not overestimate our strength to resist temptation, that he will be close to us with his protecting hand when temptation becomes too much for us. Temptation also comes to keep us humble, to save us from forming too high an opinion of ourselves.
When we pray this petition, we must be ready to take upon ourselves the burden of trial that is meted out to us. On the other hand, the object of the petition is to ask God not to mete out more than we bear, not to let us slip from his hands. St Paul has assured us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond you strength, but with the temptation will also provide the means of escape, that you may be able to endure it”
Father, ‘deliver us Lord from every evil…………..’
Pope Benedict’s treatise on the Our Father concludes with some obsevations on the final petition of the prayer: “Deliver us from evil”
Firstly, he tells us that “evil” and “the evil one” (Satan) are one and the same idea. He reflects that in the era of the Roman emperor, Christians were faced with persecution unless they conformed to the demand for emperor worship. The evil from which they sought to be free was very real, very immediate and very threatening. Today, the Pope sees a similar all embracing evil. On one hand we have the forces of market, of traffic in weapons, in drugs, and in human beings – forces that weigh upon the world and ensnare us all irresistibly. On the other hand we also have the ideology of success, of wellbeing, that tells us: “God is just a fiction, he only robs us of our time and of our enjoyment of life Don’t bother with him! Just try to squeeze as much out of life as you can”. The Our Father in general, and this petition in particular is telling us that it is only when you have lost God that you have lost everything; then you are nothing but a random product of evolution. So long as the dragon cannot wrest God from you, your deepest being remains unharmed, even in the midst of all the troubles that threaten you. This is why we pray from the depths of our soul not to be robbed of our faith which enables us to see God and binds us to Christ.
The Pope again, as so often in reflecting on the Our Father quotes St. Cyprian again who says: “When we say ‘deliver us from evil,’ then there is nothing further left for us to ask. Once we have asked for and obtained protection against evil, we are safely sheltered against everything the world and Satan can contrive. What could the world make you fear if you are protected in the world by God himself?”
Pope Benedict concludes by reflecting on the prayer which we say in Mass at the end of the Our Father, ‘deliver us Lord from every evil…………..’
This embolism is an extension of the final petition of our great prayer and gives a humanity to it, as we ask the Lord to free from evil not only ourselves, but the many individuals and peoples that suffer from the tribulations that make life almost unbearable. We may also see this extension of the final petition as an examination of conscience for ourselves, as an appeal to collaborate in breaking the predominance of “evils” The central point is that “we be freed from sins”, that we recognise evil as the quintessence of “evils’ and that our gaze may never be diverted from the living God
This concludes our series on the petitions of the Our Father as placed before us by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict. All this material is an attempt at summarising his treatise from his book “Jesus of Nazareth” later on we hope to occasionally include material on the Pope’s reflections on some of the parables of Jesus. Can we finally recommend that you get a copy of the Pope’s book, recognising that your own perusal of it will bring you far greater insights than any attempts at summarising the Pope’s profound thoughts on our greatest and best prayer.
Msgr. Sean Heaney, P.P.
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