The first words of the Lord’s Prayer are the most frightening: “Our Father in heaven.” I know many of us find these words comforting. I certainly have found it comforting to think of the heavenly God as my Father. However, as the prayer was actually prayed by the church throughout the ages, introductory and concluding words have been added. For example, in the original form in both Luke and Matthew, there is no “amen” at the end. Nevertheless, in very early church documents, we see an “amen” being tacked on to the end adding a kind of “so be it,” or “that’s the end” marker to the prayer.
But what I didn’t realize until recently was that another word was added to the beginning of the prayer, a word that was added about the same time as the “amen,” maybe before, a word that still precedes the prayer today in both the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and in the Roman Catholic Mass. What is that word? The verb is “to dare.” From the earliest days when the church began saying the Lord’s prayer, the church recognized that it is a daring thing to call upon God as “Our Father.”
In it’s contemporary form in the Roman Catholic Mass, the introductory phrase is in the form of an instruction that goes like this: “At the Saviour’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say.” (I am by no means an expert on the Roman Catholic Mass. There may be different forms out there nowadays, but this is the form of the introductory instruction I found in the “New English” Mass.) The Orthodox Divine Liturgy presents the introductory phrase not in the form of instruction, but in the form of prayer—as is typical in Orthodox Christianity, there is the prayer before the prayer. It goes like this: “And grant O Lord that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call upon you the Heavenly God as Father and to say.”
Dare. Why is it a daring thing to say the Lord’s Prayer? Why is it daring to call God “Our Father in heaven”?
Well to begin with, calling God His Father is what got Jesus crucified—at least according to John’s gospel. In John chapter eight, Jesus has a long dialog with the Jewish leaders about his Father and their father, and at the end of the conversation, the Jewish leaders try to stone him to death. It’s a pretty serious thing to say God is one’s Father. The Jewish leaders realized that, which is why they don’t take it lightly when Jesus called God his Father. To call God one’s Father is to claim to be God’s son or daughter, to claim to carry God’s DNA ( so to speak), to claim to be like God.
In the world in which Jesus lived, the expression “son of something” meant that one had the characteristics of the thing mentioned. For example, James and John were referred to as the “sons of thunder,” which meant that they had thunder-like characteristics. To call someone a son of the light or son of the day means that the person has no guile, is truthful, innocent, simple, has nothing hidden and is strait forward. And so, here’s the thing, here’s why from the earliest days the Church has understood that it is a daring thing to say this prayer. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, when we call on God as Father, do we at all resemble the One whom we are calling our Father? Or to put it another way, the Lord’s Prayer does not identify who “Our Father in Heaven” is. It is actually our lives that make that identification.
And it get’s scarier. (But hang in there with me to the end.)
In John chapter eight, the Jewish leaders make the claim that God is their father: “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God” (v.41). Jesus is pointing out to the Jewish leaders that they do the deeds of their father. Earlier they had claimed that Abraham was their father. But Jesus says that they cannot be Abraham’s children because they were seeking to kill Him, and because they did not want to listen to and receive the truth. Abraham was not a murderer. Abraham listened to and received the truth. Therefore, because the Jewish leaders want to murder and don’t want to receive the truth, they cannot be Abraham’s children. That’s when the Jewish leaders up the ante (so to speak) and go so far as to claim God as their Father. But Jesus points out to them that this is impossible because if God were their Father, they would love Him because He came from God. Rather, the fact that they intend to kill Him because He speaks the truth to them means that their father could not be God, could not even be Abraham, but because they intend to commit murder, and reject the truth, their father must be the devil.
And so, specifically referencing John chapter eight, St. Cyril of Alexandria and several other early Christian commentators, argue that whom we are actually addressing when we say the words “Our Father in heaven,” is largely determined by what our lives actually consist of. It is possible, these ancient fathers say, that instead of calling upon God when one says the words, “Our Father in heaven,” one could actually be calling on someone, something else. The question is, what are your intentions in real life? Are they murderous? Are they lecherous? Are they greedy, selfish, vain or self aggrandizing? If these things are the intent of someone’s heart when she or he prays the words, “Our Father in heaven,” then the one she or he is addressing is not God, for God is not the Father of such things. But rather whom she or he addresses is the devil, the father of murder and greed and vanity and of all such things.
Now let me take a moment shut down an escape clause that some of you might be thinking about. You might be thinking, “Well the prayer says, ‘Our Father in heaven.’ Certainly the devil is not in heaven.” Well popular “street” theology might consider that a good point, but really all you have to do is take a look at what the Bible actually says and what the Church actually teaches to realize that the word “heaven” is not the neat, tightly formed category that many of us like to think it is. It is not the realm where only God, the angels and the saints dwell. Rather St. Paul tells us (in Ephesians. 6:12, for example) that the heavenly realm is also the place of spiritual warfare, the place where demonic forces battle to lead us into destruction. And in the Old Testament, we are told in the book of Job, that when the “sons of God” (probably a reference to the angels) present themselves before God, satan is among them.
When we say “in heaven,” we are not saying that only God can be our father. When we say “Our Father in Heaven,” we are referring to our spiritual father as opposed to our biological father. In the conversation in John chapter 8, the distinction is made clear in Greek by making a distinction between being Abraham’s “descendants” (“seed” in Greek), biological offspring versus being Abraham’s children and thus rightly calling Abraham their father. Similarly, when we say, “Our Father in heaven,” we are making a distinction between our biological parents and our spiritual parent, our biological DNA from our spiritual DNA. But that then brings us back to this very painful and frightening question: whose spiritual DNA am I carrying?
This is a large part of the reason why the Lord’s prayer was a secret prayer in the early Church and why it was not taught to the catechumens until just a few days before their baptism: You don’t want people taking the prayer Jesus taught His disciples to pray, someone who is not a disciple, not a follower of Jesus, you don’t want this person to take the Lord’s Prayer and (perhaps because they think there is some magic in the words) to say the prayer to appease the Christian God yet actually be addressing, not the Christian God, but the devil and his demons. And the fathers warn us that it is not just the unbaptized who have to be careful in this matter. We who have been baptized must realize that even we, the covenant people of God, can fall away, can become what the New Testament refers to as false brethren, waterless clouds, and blemishes on the (Eucharistic) love feast. We too must, in the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:12, must “take heed lest we fall.”
I am not here trying to make a statement about “eternal security” nor to suggest that one can easily (or ever, for that matter) completely lose baptismal grace. That’s not my point, neither was it the point of the church fathers who warn us to be careful, be circumspect, when we say the words “Our Father in heaven.” The point is this: when we harbour devilish intentions in our hearts, whether we are baptized or not, when we (like the religious leaders in John chapter eight) have a righteous, religious, and respectable appearance yet reject the truth and harbour secret evil intention, then when we say the words “Our Father in heaven,” it is not God whom we are addressing. Rather it is the devil, the father of lies and the father of hatred, adultery, greed, self importance and all such wickedness.
Now that I’ve made you wonder whether or not you should ever say the Lord’s Prayer again, which is what I am hoping I have done, for that is what the fathers of the church wanted to do: they wanted those who said the words to this prayer to take them very, very seriously. They wanted them to examine themselves, examine their lives before they dared to say these words. So now that you are examining yourself, so now that you are looking at your life and you see blotches, bits of all of the wickedness I have mentioned, what do you do? Well, you do what the Church teaches you to do: you repent. You confess. You do your best to turn from the darkness that you see in your heart.
At issue here is not the fact that I have experiences of hatred or lust or selfishness in my heart. The issue is whether or not I embrace them or reject them. The issue is intention. Yes, I may have an adulterous or murderous thought, but do I confess this as sinful (confess to myself, to God, and somewhat regularly to my father confessor)? Do I reject these sinful impulses that war in my flesh (again to use a phrase from St. Paul), or do I cultivate them, do I allow myself to keep a dark little closet in my life where I tell myself that what I know is sinful and wicked is actually OK for me? Do I intend to continue nurturing this grudge, this hatred, this wicked desire or selfish ambition? If so, then perhaps it would be better if I did not to say the Lord’s Prayer—not, at least, until I can talk to someone about this hidden inner reality of mine, someone who can help me find my way to repentance.
To say the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray is a daring thing. We are saying something about ourselves, or at least about our intentions, our desire, what we want to be true about us. The Prodigal Son came to his senses and got up and started walking to his Father’s house even while he was still in the pig sty. Similarly, we too in this terribly broken world, we too come to our senses and turn to God as our heavenly Father. We turn to God as our heavenly Father long before we are cleaned up from the mess of the pigs. Our intention is to go to our Father’s house, even though we are far away, even though we are covered with the sinful messiness of the world. Still we get up and turn and start walking: that is our intention. And God, our Father in heaven sees and accepts that intention. And so, no matter how much you or I may struggle with life-long weaknesses and sinful tendencies that never seem to go away, still if our intention is not to embrace those sins, if we hate the temptations, the sinful impulses that never seem to go away, if our intention is to return to our Father’s house, then yes, we should say the Lord’s Prayer, and say it with a clear conscience. Then, as the Divine Liturgy teaches us, we can even boldly say to God, “Our Father in heaven.”