***What is prayer? How do we pray? In the Gospel of St. Matthew (chapter 6) Jesus addresses these questions and expresses to his disciples some very new and different ways of understanding prayer. First, Jesus uses negative examples (verses 5-8): "Do not pray as the hypocrites do…" he tells them. Don't make a public spectacle of your prayer and piety. In fact don't even use very many words, the essence of prayer is not the words we speak to God. What then is it? "When you pray, pray in this way, Our Father…"
***What follows is perhaps one of the most important, beautiful and misunderstood prayers in the history of Christianity: "The Lord's Prayer." For what is most striking and important is that this prayer is rooted in Jesus' understanding of the Kingdom come. The Lord's Prayer is a Kingdom Prayer, and its placement at the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer and before the distribution lifts that up before the faithful in a profound way. For, as we pray this prayer in our weekly Eucharistic celebrations we are again reminded that the Kingdom of Heaven is not off in the distance, in Jesus it has come into our midst! Our receiving of the bread and wine of the Eucharist is the first and primary experience of the Kingdom come. And from this Eucharistic foundation then all that we Christians do and say reflect the Kingdom come. Our prayers are not just a bunch of florid words addressed to God. Our prayers are not bargaining or inducing God to do us a favor. Our prayers are not isolated from the other dimensions of our lives, nor are our prayers isolated from other people. All of human life is an integrated whole. Prayer permeates our lives. As we feed the hungry we are in prayer; as we comfort the suffering we are in prayer; as we oppose violence and injustice in any form we are in prayer; as we fight against racism we are in prayer; as we heal the sick we are in prayer. In short, whenever our lives reflect the Kingdom which is come in our Saviour, we are in prayer. And this action prompts the words we use in prayer (not the other way around).
***It seems to me that this understanding of prayer which Jesus expresses in the Lord's Prayer is something that we Christians need to take to heart. Too often prayer is used as an escape from the harsh realities of the human life (the dimension of the Kingdom which has not yet come), as an anaesthetic to dull the pain of the world, as a magic formulae to induce God to perform tricks and do favors for "me." Often times prayer becomes substitute action. "When the captain of a ship in distress says that the only thing to do is pray, the cry goes up for the chaplain: 'Are things that bad?' Thus, God is brought in when intelligence cannot do anything, or can no longer do anything. In place of the independent secular action at our disposal, prayer has a role in certain emergency situations, but only as an illusion, a flight, a substitute action when we are not capable of real action or not willing to engage in it.”
***"An incident in B. Brecht's Mother Courage illustrates how little credibility prayer has when it is viewed this way. When the peasants were helpless against advancing soldiers, the dumb Kattrin was urged to pray. Nothing could be done to prevent the shedding of blood. The peasants were weak and had no weapons; they had nothing upon which to rely. They were in God's hands, only he could help. But the dumb Kattrin, instead of praying, began to beat the drum in order to awaken the inhabitants. She was shot down, but the city was ready to resist… The drumming of Kattrin shows that devout and subjectively genuine prayer can be an excuse for those who will not become involved. If we ask many Christians what they did for the Jews during the holocaust, the most mendacious answer is: 'We prayed for them."
***The Lord's Prayer of Jesus makes it clear that this is not enough. Words do not substitute for action. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, "Only the one who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants." Prayer in action precedes prayer in words. Only those who respond to Jesus' call to pick up their cross and follow may address God with words. This is a gift of the Kingdom, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come into our midst. Jesus is "Emmanuel" - God with us.
***The "Lord's Prayer" reflects this profound promise, hope and challenge of the Gospel. This is why the corporate praying together of the "Lord's Prayer" has always been a part of the celebration of Holy Communion. For receiving the Sacrament is the "first act" of prayer - the first experience of God's presence, from which flow all other actions. Furthermore, it is to be cherished. In the early church, "The Lord's Prayer" was given as a gift to the newly baptized. Up to that point of Baptism, the prayer was withheld and kept in secret. Why? "It was one of the spiritual treasures which were reserved for Christians as a precious part of their spiritual heritage and was not to be profaned," but rather held in reverence. And not only that, but its understanding of Christian life is so radical that it can only be understood by those who have been made a part of the body of Christ. Only those who have tasted of the Kingdom can see the full promise of the Kingdom as set forth in this prayer.
***And so, as we ponder the prayer our Lord taught us and with our brothers and sisters of all ages we pray: Make us worthy, O Lord, that we may joyfully and boldly venture to call upon thee, Heavenly Father, as Father, and say: Our Father… Amen.
Quotations from "The Lord's Prayer", by Jan Milic Lochman. Published by Eerdmans, 1990.
The closing prayer is from the Eastern Orthodox Eucharistic liturgy of St. Chrysostom.
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