In our Sunday School class, which is a combined group of 7th, 8th and 9th grade students, we’ve decided to tackle the Lord’s Prayer because this is the one prayer that all Christians have in common: Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, we all pray The Our Father as our Lord taught us in the holy Gospel. It’s probably the most common and perhaps the most frequent prayer our kids are praying.
Naturally, at this age, we expect the kids to know the words — but it’s all too easy to recite something so familiar without questioning whether we really understand it, so we thought this would be a good time to delve into the meaning of this prayer. We planned to spend a single class on the topic, but in the end we spent three weeks covering it — and honestly, we could have spent much longer.
My teaching partner, David, had a great suggestion to open the class: we played the audio of Fr. Apostolos Hill’s sermon on the Lord’s Prayer (available on his Ancient Faith Radio podcast, Rain in the Desert) in which he talks about how great it would be to take lessons from the masters in special subjects — perhaps taking dance lessons from Fred Astaire, or physics lessons from Albert Einstein — and then considers that the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, and God Himself gave us a lesson in prayer. That alone is reason enough to sit up and take notice: this prayer is God’s own instruction in how to pray.
The other resource we drew upon heavily was a really well-done article on the OCA’s website; it’s a part of their Spirituality series and it’s entitled ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. It goes line-by-line through the prayer, summarizing the teachings of the Church in a simple, clear way. We printed up the article and headed into class, ready for anything. We adapted the subject matter somewhat for middle schoolers, but mostly we simply rephrased the article.
We took it one line at a time —
“Our Father, Who art in heaven”
Christ could have told us to pray, “My Father”, but He did not. Right from the beginning, we pray as part of a community (and the Holy Trinity is a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit — we approach this holy community as a community!) We refer not to our Creator or our Maker, but to our Father, boldly claiming a loving relationship with Him, because Christ allows us to do so. As we read in Galatians 3:26 “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (OSB)
“Hallowed be Thy name”
Now, of course, Hallowed means holy — but not all of our students knew this, so it’s a good thing to point out. But what does it mean to say, “hallowed be Thy name”? It’s surely a correct observation (yes, Lord, Your name is very holy!) but it’s also a call to action. We testify that His name is hallowed, and we hope to magnify and glorify Him by saying it. When the angels sing out, glorifying God, in their purity they are able to magnify God’s glory, for they are filled with His light and they shine it out to the world. We discussed the idea that it’s like we each have a mirror inside of us, and if that mirror is no longer filthy but has been polished by the sacraments and by love, when God’s love shines on us we can reflect it, magnifying it and spreading that light to the world. If we wish to make God’s name hallowed when we say it, then we too must be clean and bright, free from sin and iniquity and filth, so that we can reflect and even magnify God’s glorious name, hallowing it.
“Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
This line is not merely an observation that Christ will return, but is another call to action: when we say Thy Kingdom come, we are inviting the Kingdom in! Our native Greek speakers recognize this immediately, and had to explain to the English speakers that this is an invitation, like ‘Come, dear Kingdom!’ We are inviting the Lord to reign over us, asking to be made His servants. We invite servitude, that we might carry the Kingdom in our hearts. More than recognizing that the Kingdom will be here eventually, we are asking to become a part of the Kingdom today.
“Give us this day our daily bread”
Our daily bread is surely the food that we eat which sustains us physically, but it is also the bread that nourishes us spiritually. It didn’t take much prodding to get the kids to think of Holy Communion, and our Lord Who is the Bread of Life. We were delighted to hear our students talk about manna in the desert – the bread which God sent down to the Israelites when they were wandering and hungry – showing that God has been feeding His people for thousands of years. Surely, He is the One we should approach with our hunger, both physical and spiritual!
“and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”
This should be the most terrifying line of the prayer. We may not always stop to ponder its significance, but this line suggests that if we are not forgiving of others, we should not expect to receive forgiveness. He further clarifies it in the Scriptures — Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Our students recognized the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18: 21-25) right away — God has forgiven each of us so much, and if we cannot learn from that experience and feel merciful and forgiving to others, then the mercies we have received will fade away. We explained that it’s not that God is punishing us, it’s just that if we aren’t forgiving, we cannot receive forgiveness; somehow, the state of our heart is only open to forgiveness when we can humbly pass along forgiveness too.
“and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (the Evil One).”
First we clarified that God does not lead us to temptation, but that we are hoping He will lead us away, for we are here recognizing our weakness. Temptation can surely come from outside us, from demons and bad influences, but temptation also comes from within — our own weaknesses and insecurities may cause us to want to lash out or to steal or to run from consequences. Our weaknesses are our temptations, and in humility, we ask that God shield us and protect us, for we know that alone we are not strong enough to overcome all temptation, but through Christ Jesus there is nothing we cannot do. We ask deliverance from the Evil One or from all evil — in both cases, recognizing that Satan and his demons do attack us, and that persons who have willingly given themselves over to evil will cooperate with them and will hope for our destruction. We ask for God’s protection, recognizing both His strength and our own weakness.
After having worked our way through the prayer, we loudly announced that we had just one more thing in store for the class. The Big Reveal — the Shocking Conclusion. And then we delivered that final paragraph of the very good OCA article word for word, and rocked their worlds, for this amazing and wonderful prayer works its way backwards through your life:
Thus, as Archbishop Anthony of Sorouzh has explained, the Lord’s Prayer shows the whole meaning of the life of man. (cf. Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer) Delivered from evil, man is saved from temptation, in so doing he is merciful to all and receives the forgiveness of his own sins. Being forgiven his sins, by his mercy to others, he has all that he needs for life – his “daily bread”; and being nourished by God, he accomplishes His will. Having accomplished His will, God’s Kingdom is present, His name is sanctified and He becomes the Father of the one who shows himself to be in truth the child of God who can say “Our Father.”
The Lord’s prayer begins with our goal — becoming a child of God — and then slowly spins out through the path that carries us to that goal. When we read it backwards like this, we can see how it is a path that takes us home.
This is how we tackled the Lord’s Prayer in our classroom; in families, we might instead talk about one line at a time, as the mood may strike us. Information need not flood our kids all at once — indeed, it is better to let it quietly percolate, offering it to our children a bite at a time, that they might better digest it.
I pray that when our students say the Lord’s Prayer tonight, some piece of what they’ve learned in class will resonate with them, making that prayer experience just a little more beautiful, bringing them just another step closer to God. May God will it!