"Our Father who art in heaven"
The form of Christian prayer given us by Jesus Christ is so composed and arranged that before coming to requests and petitions certain words must be used as a sort of preface calculated to increase our confidence in God when we are about to address Him devoutly in prayer; and this being so it will be the pastor's duty to explain each of these words separately and with precision, so that the faithful may have recourse to prayer more readily because of the knowledge that they are going to commune and converse with a God who is also their Father. Regarding this preface, if we merely consider the number of words of which it is composed, it is brief indeed; but if we regard the ideas, it is of the greatest importance and replete with mysteries.
The first word, which, by the order and institution of God we employ in this prayer, is Father. Our Saviour could, indeed, have commenced this divine prayer with some other word, conveying more the idea of majesty, such, for instance, as Lord or Creator. Yet He omitted all such expressions because they might rather inspire fear, and instead of them He has chosen a term inspiring confidence and love in those who pray and ask anything of God; for what is sweeter than the name Father, conveying, as it does, the idea of indulgence and tenderness ? The reasons why this name Father is applicable to God, can be easily explained to the faithful by speaking to them on the subjects of creation, providence, and redemption.
Thus having created man to His own image a favour He accorded to no other living creature it is with good reason that, in view of this unique privilege with which He has honoured man, Sacred Scripture calls God the Father of all men; not only of the faithful, but also of the unbelieving.
From His providence also may be drawn an argument. By a special superintending care and providence over our interests God displays a paternal love for us.
But in order to comprehend more clearly the fatherly care of God for men, it will be well in the explanation of this particular point to say something regarding the guardian Angels under whose protection men are placed.
By God's providence Angels have been entrusted with the office of guarding the human race and of accompanying every human being so as to preserve him from any serious dangers. Just as parents, whose children are about to travel a dangerous and infested road, appoint guardians and helpers for them, so also in the journey we are making towards our heavenly country our heavenly Father has placed over each of us an Angel under whose protection and vigilance we may be enabled to escape the snares secretly prepared by our enemy, repel the dreadful attacks he makes on us, and under his guiding hand keep the right road, and thus be secure against all false steps which the wiles of the evil one might cause us to make in order to draw us aside from the path that leads to heaven.
And the immense advantage springing from the special care and providence of God with regard to men, the execution of which is entrusted to Angels, who by nature hold an intermediate place between God and man, will be clear from a multitude of examples with which Sacred Scripture supplies us in abundance, and which show that in God's goodness it has often happened that Angels have wrought wondrous works under the very eyes of men. This gives us to understand that many and equally important services, which do not fall under our sight, are wrought by our Angels, the guardians of our salvation, in our interest and for our advantage.
The Angel Raphael, the divinely appointed companion and guide of Tobias, conducted him and brought him back safe and sound; saved him from being devoured by an enormous fish; made known to him the extremely useful properties possessed by the liver, gall and heart of the monster; expelled the demon; repressed and fettered his power and prevented him from injuring Tobias; taught the young man the true and legitimate notion and use of matrimony; and finally restored to the elder Tobias the use of his sight.
In the same way the Angel who liberated the Prince of the Apostles, will supply copious material for the instruction of the pious flock regarding the striking fruits of the vigilance and protection of the Angels. The pastor need do no more than depict the Angel lighting up the darkness of the prison, touching Peter's side and awakening him from his sleep, loosing his chains, breaking his bonds, ordering him to rise, to take up his sandals and to follow; and then the pastor will point out how Peter was led forth out of prison by the same Angel, how he was enabled to pass without let or hindrance through the midst of the guard, how the doors were thrown open, and finally how he was placed in safety.
The historical part of Sacred Scripture, as we have already remarked, is full of such examples, all of which go to show the extent of the benefits bestowed by God on man through the ministry and intervention of Angels whom He deputes not only on particular and private occasions, but also appoints to take care of us from our very births. He furthermore appoints them to watch over the salvation of each one of the human race.
This teaching, if carefully explained, will have the effect of interesting and compelling the minds of the faithful to acknowledge and venerate more and more the paternal care and providence of God towards them.
And here the pastor should especially praise and proclaim the treasures of God's goodness towards the human race. Though from the time of our first parents and from the moment of our first sin down to this very day we have offended Him by countless sins and crimes, yet He still retains His love for us and never renounces His singular solicitude for our welfare.
To imagine that He has forgotten us would be an act of folly and nothing short of a most outrageous insult. God was angry with the Israelites because of the blasphemy they had been guilty of in imagining that they had been abandoned by providence. Thus do we read in Exodus: They tempted the Lord, saying: "Is the Lord amongst us or not?" and in Ezechiel the divine anger is inflamed against the same people for having said: The Lord seeth us not: the Lord hath forsaken the earth. These examples should suffice to deter the faithful from entertaining the criminal notion that God can ever possibly forget mankind. To the same effect we may read in Isaias the complaint uttered by the Israelite. against God; and, on the other hand, the kindly similitude with which God refutes their folly: Sion said: "The Lord hath forsaken me, and the Lord hath forgotten me." To which God answers: Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet will not I forget thee. Behold, I have engraven thee in my hands.
Although these passages clearly establish the point under discussion, yet thoroughly to convince the faithful that never for a moment can God forget man or cease to lavish on him tokens of His paternal tenderness, the pastor should still further confirm this by the striking example of our first parents. They had ignored and violated God's command. When you hear them sharply accused and that dreadful sentence of condemnation pronounced against them: Cursed is the earth in thy work, with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herbs of the earth; " when you see them driven out of Paradise; when you read that to preclude all hope of their return a cherub was stationed at the entrance of Paradise, brandishing a flaming sword turning every way; and finally, when you know that, to avenge the injury done Him, God had afflicted them with punishments, internal and external, would you not be inclined to think that man's case was hopeless? Would you not consider that not only was he bereft of all divine help, but was even abandoned to every misfortune? Yet, surrounded as he then was by so many evidences of divine wrath and vengeance, a gleam of the goodness of God towards him is seen to shine forth. For the Lord God, says Sacred Scripture, made for Adam and his wife garments of skins and clothed them, which was a very clear proof that at no time would God abandon man.
This truth, that the love of God can be exhausted by no human iniquity, was indicated by David in these words: Will God in his anger shut up his mercies? It was set forth by Habacuc when, addressing God, he said: When thou art angry thou wilt remember mercy; and by Micheas, who thus expresses it: Who is a God like to thee who takest away iniquity and passest by the sin of the remnant of thy inheritance? He will send his fury in no more, because he delighteth in mercy.
And thus precisely does it happen. At the very moment when we imagine ourselves to be utterly lost and altogether bereft of His protection, then it is that God in His infinite goodness seeks us out in a special way and takes care of us. Even in His anger He stays the sword of His justice, and ceases not to pour out the inexhaustible treasures of His mercy.
The creation of the world and God's providence are, then, of great weight in bringing into relief the singular love of God for the human race and the special care He takes of man. But far above these two shines the work of redemption, so much so indeed that our most bountiful God and Father has crowned His infinite goodness towards us by granting us this third favour.
Accordingly the pastor should instruct his spiritual children and constantly recall to their minds the surpassing love of God for us, so that they may be fully alive to the fact that having been redeemed in a wonderful manner they are thereby made the sons of God. To them, says St. John, He gave power to be made the sons of God . . . and they are born of God.
This is why Baptism, the first pledge and token of our redemption, is called the Sacrament of regeneration; for it is by Baptism that we are born children of God: That which is born of the Spirit, says our Lord, is spirit; and: You must be born again. In the same way we have the words of St. Peter: Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, by the word of God who liveth.
By reason of this redemption we have received the Holy Ghost and have been made worthy of the grace of God. As a consequence of this gift we are the adopted sons of God, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans when he said: Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: "Abba, Father." The force and efficacy of this adoption are thus set forth by St. John: Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the sons of God.
These points having been explained, the faithful should be reminded of all they owe in return to God, their most loving Father, so that they may be aware of the extent of the love, piety, obedience and respect they are bound to render to Him who has created them, who watches over them, and who has redeemed them; and with what hope and trust they should invoke Him.
But to enlighten the ignorant and to correct the false ideas of such as imagine prosperity and success in life to be the only test that God preserves and maintains His love towards us, and that the adversities and trials which come from His hand are a sign that He is not well disposed towards us and that He entertains hostile dispositions towards us, it will be necessary to point out that even if the hand of the Lord sometimes presses heavily upon us, it is by no means because He is hostile to us, but that by striking us He heals us, and that the wounds coming from God are remedies.
He chastises sinners so as to improve them by this lesson, and inflicts temporal punishments in order to deliver them from eternal torments. For though He visits our iniquities with a rod and our sins with stripes, yet his mercy he will not take away from us.
The faithful, therefore, should be recommended to recognise in such chastisements the fatherly love of God, and ever to have in their hearts and on their lips the saying of Job, the most patient of men: He woundeth and cureth; he striketh and his hands shall heal; as well as to repeat frequently the words written by Jeremias in the name of the people of Israel: Thou hast chastised me and I was instructed, as a young bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: convert me and I shall be converted; for thou art the Lord my God; and to keep before their eyes the example of Tobias who, recognising in the loss of his sight the paternal hand of God raised against him, cried out: I bless thee, O Lord God of Israel, because thou hast chastised me and thou hast saved me.
In this connection the faithful should be particularly on their guard against believing that any calamity or affliction that befalls them can take place without the knowledge of God; for we have His own words: A hair of your heads shall not perish. Let them rather find consolation in that divine oracle read in the Apocalypse: Those whom I love I rebuke and chastise; and let them find comfort in the exhortation addressed by St. Paul to the Hebrews: My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord; neither be thou weaned whilst thou art rebuked by him: for whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth, and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.... But if you be without chastisement, ... then are you bastards and not sons.... Moreover if we have had the fathers of our flesh for instructors, and we reverenced them, shall we not much more obey the Father of spirits and live?
When we invoke the Father and when each one of us calls Him our Father, we are to understand thereby that from the privilege and gift of divine adoption it necessarily follows that all the faithful are brethren and should love each other as such: You are all brethren for one is your Father who is in heaven." This is why the Apostles in their Epistles address all the faithful as brethren.
Another necessary consequence of this adoption is that not only are the faithful thereby united in the bonds of brotherhood, but that, the Son of God being truly man, we are called and really are his brethren also. Thus, in his Epistle to the Hebrews the Apostle, speaking of the Son of God, wrote as follows: He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: "I will declare thy name to my brethren. And long before this, David had foretold this of Christ the Lord; while Christ Himself thus addresses the women in the Gospel: Go, tell my brethren that they go into Galilee; there they shall see me. These words, as we know, He pronounced only after His Resurrection and when He had already put on immortality, thus showing that no one is at liberty to imagine that the bonds of brotherhood with us have been severed by His Resurrection and Ascension into heaven. Not only has the Resurrection of Christ not dissolved this union and love, but we know that one day, when from His throne of glory and majesty He shall judge mankind of all ages, He will call even the very least of the faithful by the name of brethren.
Indeed, how can we be other than brethren of Christ, seeing that we are called His coheirs? Doubtless He is the first begotten, the appointed heir of all things; but we are begotten in the second place after Him, and are His coheirs according to the measure of heavenly gifts we receive and according to the extent of the charity by which we show ourselves servants and cooperators of the Holy Ghost. He it is who by His inspirations moves and inflames us to virtue and good works, in order that we may be strengthened by His grace valiantly to undertake the combat that must be waged to secure salvation. And if we wisely and firmly carry on this combat we shall at the close of our earthly career be rewarded by our heavenly Father with the just recompense of that crown promised and held out to all those who run the same course. God, says the Apostle, is not unjust that He should forget your work and love.
How sincere should be the manner in which we ought to utter the word our, we learn from St. Chrysostom. God, he says, listens willingly to the Christian who prays not only for himself but for others; because to pray for ourselves is an inspiration of nature; but to pray for others is an inspiration of grace; necessity compels us to pray for ourselves, whereas fraternal charity calls on us to pray for others. And he adds: That prayer which is inspired by fraternal charity is more agreeable to God than that which is dictated by necessity.
In connection with the important subject of salutary prayer, the pastor should be careful to remind and exhort all the faithful of every age, condition and rank, never to forget the bonds of universal brotherhood that bind them, and consequently ever to treat each other as friends and brothers, and never to seek arrogantly to raise themselves above their neighbours.
Though there are in the Church of God various gradations of office, yet this diversity of dignity and position in no way destroys the bond of fraternal union; just as in the human body the various uses and different functions of our organs in no way cause this or that part of the body to lose the name or office of an organ of the body.
Take, for instance, one who wields kingly power. If he is a Christian, is he not the brother of all those united in the communion of the Christian faith? Yes, beyond all doubt; and why? Because there is not one God giving existence to the rich and noble, and another giving existence to the poor and to subjects. There is but one God, the Father and Lord of all; and consequently we have all the same nobility of spiritual birth, all the same dignity, all the same glory of race; for all have been regenerated by the same Spirit through the same Sacrament of faith, and have been made children of God and coheirs to the same inheritance. The wealthy and great have not one Christ for their God; the poor and lowly, another; they are not initiated by different Sacraments; nor can they expect a different inheritance in the kingdom of heaven. We are all brethren and, as the Apostle says in his Epistle to the Ephesians: We are members of Christ's body, of his flesh and of his bones. This is a truth which the same Apostle thus expresses in his Epistle to the Galatians: You are the children of God, by faith in Jesus Christ; for as many of you as have been baptised in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Greek nor Jew, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Now this is a point which calls for accuracy on the part of the pastor of souls, and one on which he should purposely dwell at considerable length; for it is a subject that is calculated both to strengthen and animate the poor and lowly, and to restrain and repress the arrogance of the rich and powerful. Indeed it was to remedy this latter evil that the Apostle insisted on brotherly charity and so often impressed it on the ears of his hearers.
Do not, then, forget, oh Christian, that when about to address this prayer to God, you ought to approach Him as a son to his Father; and hence in beginning your prayers and in pronouncing the words Our Father you should consider the rank to which God in His goodness has raised you when He commands you to fly to Him, not as a timid and fearful servant to his master, but willingly and confidently, like a child to its father.
In this remembrance and in this thought, consider with what fervour and piety you should pray. Endeavour to act as becomes a child of God; that is to say, see that your prayers and actions are never unworthy of that divine origin with which He has been pleased in His infinite bounty to ennoble you. It is to the discharge of this duty that the Apostle exhorts us when he says: Be ye therefore imitators of God as most dear children, so that what the Apostle wrote to the Thessalonians may be truly said of us: You are all the children of light, and the children of the day.
All who have a correct idea of God will grant that He is where and in all places. This is not to be taken in the sense that He is distributed into parts and that He occupies and governs one place with one part and another place with another part. God is a Spirit, and therefore utterly incapable of division into parts. Who will dare to assign to any particular place or circumscribe within any limits that God who says of Himself: Do I not fill heaven and earth? On the contrary, these words must be taken in this sense, that by His power and virtue He embraces heaven and earth and all things contained therein; but that He Himself is not contained in any place. God is present to all things, either creating them, or preserving them after He has created them; but He is confined to no place, is limited by no bounds, nor in any way hindered from being everywhere present by His substance and power, as is indicated by holy David in the words: If I ascend into heaven thou art there.
But though God is present in all places and in all things, without being bound by any limits, as has been already said, yet in Sacred Scripture it is frequently said that He has His dwelling in heaven. And the reason is because the heavens which we see above our heads are the noblest part of the world, remain ever Incorruptible, surpass all other bodies in power, grandeur and beauty, and are endowed with fixed and regular motion.
God, then, in order to lift up the minds of men to contemplate His infinite power and majesty, which are so preeminently visible in the work of the heavens, declares in Sacred Scripture that heaven is His dwellingplace. Yet at the same time He often affirms, what indeed is most true, that there is no part of the universe to which He is not present intimately by His nature and His power.
In connection with this consideration, however, let the faithful keep before their minds not only the image of the common Father of all, but also of a God reigning in heaven; and hence when about to pray, let them remember that they should raise heart and soul to heaven, and that the more the name of Father inspires them with hope and trust, the more should the sublime nature and divine majesty of our Father who is in heaven inspire them with sentiments of Christian humility and respect.
These words, furthermore, determine what we ought to ask of God in prayer; for every demand regarding the needs and wants of this life, if it have not some reference to the goods of heaven and if it be not directed to that end, is vain and unworthy of a Christian.
Let the pastor, therefore, instruct his pious hearers regarding this particular element of prayer, confirming his own words by the authority of the Apostle: If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth.