The Pater Noster Church, Jerusalem, Israel, https://www.go-telaviv.com/monastery-jerusalem.html
[Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name….”
Today’s Mass has the other version of the Lord’s Prayer. The better known one is to be found in Matthew 6:9–13, which is the traditional version familiar to everyone, though with many variations in the translation from the original Greek. It is the central Christian prayer, given to us by Jesus himself, and in its way sums up the whole Christian message. That is why the Pater Noster (Our Father in Latin) Church in Jerusalem has the prayer displayed in dozens of languages, as seen above. It is located where tradition has it Jesus first proclaimed the prayer. Luke’s version goes this way:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread;
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us;
and lead us not into temptation.
It is tempting to suggest that these verses are the essence of the prayer. In some way they echo the 10 Commandments. First allegiance is to God in both versions; there is a petition for sustenance, then a plea for forgiveness, suggesting breaches of one or more of the commandments, then the enigmatic “lead us not into temptation” which Pope Francis has talked about, suggesting that it means a plea for protection against evil. Note that Jesus tells us it is fine to ask God for essentials such as daily bread and forgiveness, but that praise and thanksgiving come first. But the readings expand on the petitionary nature of prayer, and what one should do in asking God for blessing. Which inevitably leads us to the challenge of unanswered prayer. Who has not experienced that? Jesus is definite in today’s gospel that prayer is answered, “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” So what is the response to that? Are all our prayers answered? In my experience, and almost certainly yours, the answer is no, they are not. Firstly, of course, certain prayers are unacceptable. Prayers to win the lottery, for example, are not appropriate. Any prayer which is not God-related cannot expect an answer. But what of prayers for a child who is dying, or a prayer to end persecution or war? In some cases, the cause is human, and so the solution will be human also, as in the case of war. But a completely innocent child dying is something else. That is where challenge to faith comes in, as we are asking for something utterly removed from any human cause or cure; such suffering is hard to understand or accept and being helpless in the face of it is well nigh impossible to accept. God is the only recourse, and if nothing happens, and the child dies, there lies the deep challenge to faith. Why didn’t God use divine power to save the child? It is just about the deepest mystery we experience, because there is no readily acceptable explanation.
One “explanation” is the appeal to the freedom God has given us, and to all creation. God established our universe in all its diversity and grandeur, set it in motion, and, it seems, basically stood back. Hence we are able to define ourselves and our lives, decide and choose in complete freedom, unlike the rest of creation, governed by absolute laws of physics. Hence non-human mammals must nourish their offspring, nothing is faster than light, microscopic life takes advantage in whatever environment it finds itself, and so on. Hence we see disease and suffering in our human bodies when invaded by such destructive viruses obeying the inexorable law of freedom within those laws. So we pray in that circumstance for God to suspend the very divine laws initiated at creation. Sometimes, very rarely, that has happened, something we call a miracle. On the other hand, our own unique human freedom can – and has – tackled such destructive threats to our health and has made progress in many areas. In other words, we are using our own God-given powers to deal with the sometime unhappy consequences of the same divine laws under which we all live. There are still many problems, but progress continues to be made. In the meantime, we must live with our failures to solve all these problems, bearing in mind our rock solid belief in life conquering death.
Expanding on that last thought I move to a quote from Christian literature, namely The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. This is the passage, spoken by a senior devil to his apprentice: “Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” It refers to Jesus on the cross having begged God to have removed this dreadful death from him, the agony in the garden, but the prayer was not granted. He was utterly innocent, had done no wrong, yet was condemned to a monstrous and unwarranted punishment. That can be transferred to an innocent young child too, equally completely undeserving of a terrible fate. In Jesus’ case, he conquered death itself by succumbing to death, the Christian answer to mortality in all its manifestations. Death is not the end, this says. It is rather, a change. Life conquering death is at the heart of the Christian message, the reason we persist even in the face of terrible suffering. In the Christian tradition we have a solid belief that life can conquer all, hence we can face the worst that can be thrown at us. Ultimately we will survive all the evil that may come our way. Hope and faith, consequently, are the weapons in our armory, with love as the driving force. Is it possible that the human Jesus was surprised when he awoke from death on that first Easter Sunday? All evil was passed and irrelevant; life was supreme for all time. This is from the Preface for Christian Death from the Mass of the Resurrection: “In him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.” This, then, is the meaning behind the final line of the Our Father: “…and lead us not into temptation.” – where we might be protected from the temptation to abandon faith in God when some terrible situation comes upon us. It is there that our Christian faith and hope will triumph.
The Hope of Resurrection, Murrumbeena Uniting Church.