Today's Gospel provides the ultimate how-to with regard to prayer. There are very many books written on praying, books that teach us how to breathe, to center ourselves, to purge our thoughts, to imagine Jesus, to find our interior castle, etc.. These are all, to be sure, very good things. Yet, in today's Gospel, Jesus gives us a totally different kind of how-to:
This is how you are to pray:
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
they Kingdom come,
they will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Perhaps I misspoke a moment ago. I said that Jesus gave us a different sort of 'how-to.' I guess what I mean to say is that, rather than telling us how to pray, Jesus is giving us a totally new way of being human. Rather than a how-to, the Lord's Prayer is a how-to-be.
Think about it for a moment. Jesus lives within a culture where the name of God - YHWH - was not to be uttered. The YHWH who spoke to Moses, who led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, who remained faithful during exiles...with this God does Jesus presume tremendous familiarity. This Jesus-fellow has the audacity to refer to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, the architect and sustainer of all that was, is, and shall be, not in hushed tones or in reverential silence but, rather, as his Abba or daddy. Nor does he stop there for, in this prayer, he invites us to do likewise.
The Our Father, so easily rattled off, is a child's prayer. Not a childish prayer, mind you, but a child's prayer: a prayer offered by those who have been awakened to who we really are, who we have been created and called to be: children of God. We are encouraged to approach the Holy One not as if we had to put forth effort to change His mind about us. Instead, we approach Our Father in Heaven as one who loves us, who is creating us, and who calls us to deeper friendship. We find courage not in our rectitude or our own goodness but in God's love for us.
Lent can easily turn into a time for navel-gazing and reflecting on how bad we are or all of the silly things we have gotten ourselves involved with. I think this can be an important, indeed necessary, moment of self-critical reflection. Yet it must never obscure the fundamental realization of Lent: that God loves you as you are, that you are a child of God, and that there is nothing you can do to make yourself unlovable to the One who has made you. It is easy for us to despise ourselves, to think ourselves outside the realm of God's grace, and it is a moment of liberating joy to experience that even when we are at our worst, God still loves us and calls out to us.
Almost one week into our Lenten journey, let's remember that what Jesus provides for us in this prayer is not a simple supplication. He gives us a new way of living, as children of God, and in this we ought to find great courage and joy. To live as children of God, as sisters and brothers, walking together and helping to build the New Jerusalem...Amazing Grace, indeed.