Over the next few Sundays, I plan to take a step outside of our usual practice of looking in depth at the Gospel each week in the homily. Instead, as we make our Lenten journey of penitence on our return to the Father’s house, we shall take a sojourn through the prayer known as the Our Father, and explore in a little more depth the prayer that forms the bedrock of our prayer to God.
This season of penitence is not just about keeping the rules of the fast. There is a danger of scrutinising the labels of food to ensure that it doesn’t contain any trace of buttermilk or hint of animal products but our custom of fasting and abstinence isn’t about this sort of legalism. Rather, it is about putting to one side our desire to satisfy our earthly wants so that we can allow our spirit to grow, and that means entering more fully into a life of prayer. In chapter 6 of St Matthew’s Gospel, the Saviour teaches the disciples how to pray immediately after teaching them the spirit of fasting and almsgiving. From this, we can reasonably conclude that prayer, fasting, and acts of charity go hand in hand.
At the heart of Christian prayer are these words taught to us by the Saviour, Jesus Christ. He commanded that, when we pray, we are to pray thus. For this reason, in the English-speaking world, many of our friends from Protestant traditions refer to this as “The Lord’s Prayer”. There is something very beautiful about this name that recognises its origins and sets it apart as special.
Of course, all prayer is the Lord’s, and this particular prayer is more commonly known in most languages around the world by its incipit, Pater Noster, Notre Pere, Pater Imon, Otche Nash, &c. In English we call it the Our Father but whatever name we call it, we recognise that, in this prayer, the Saviour sets out for us the basis and the model for all Christian prayer, for it contains elements of the different types of prayer that we offer:
- Addressing the God to Whom we are praying (Our Father in heaven)
- Praise of God’s qualities (hallowed by your name)
- Intercessory prayer, asking for the things we require (Give us today &c.)
- Confession and asking forgiveness (Forgive us our debts &c.)
- Doxology (offering of praise)
Today we begin our exploration with the opening words: “Our Father in heaven”.
The word father may conjure up many different thoughts, feelings, and memories for all of us. These things can be intensely personal. We might have a recollection of a loving, caring father; but then perhaps not. Father to us might signify the passing on of values to a new generation, unexpected responsibility, abuse, humour, fun times together, rejection, or loss and bereavement – and that’s if our father was even present in the first place. For most people, our experience is a combination of a number of these things.
In the 20th century, the greeting card companies invented “Father’s Day”, as a way to make money, yet many people find it a difficult day for all of the reasons mentioned above, and more. For the same reason, many people find it difficult to relate to God as Father. Yet, this is what the Saviour has taught us to say.
So just how is God our Father?
Well, in a very basic sense, God is Father of all creation, for with the Son, and the Holy Spirit, He brought all things from non-existence into being – all things visible and invisible, as we sing in the Creed.
But St Paul teaches us that those of us in the Church have God as our Father in a particular way. When we are baptised, we share in the death of Christ as we are submerged beneath the waters, drowning “the old man”. And we rise from out of the water a new creature, born of water and the Spirit. This is what we mean when we talk about being “born again”. The Church teaches that we share in the Resurrection of Christ. Our baptism is our own little Pascha (Easter). From that point we are said to be “in Christ”. In his epistle to the Galatian church, this is what St Paul has to say about our baptism:
As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.Galatians 3: 27, 29-4: 7
When we enter the Church of Christ through baptism, that moment when we become Christians, God adopts us as his children and makes us his own. We become one with Christ, and from that moment, when the Father looks upon us, he sees his children.
My namesake, St Cyprian of Carthage, goes so far as to say that we cannot have God as our Father if we do not have the Church as our Mother. For it is through our entry into Christ’s Church – through our baptism – that we receive the grace of adoption as children of the Father.
This is confirmed in the practice of the Church for many centuries, when the first prayer that would be said by new Christians when they first emerged from the font, was the Our Father. They were claiming their place as newly-adopted children of God, and we still do this today. Whenever we say this prayer, when we say the words ‘Our Father’, we trace the sign of the Cross upon ourselves, the same Cross that was first marked upon us by the priest at our baptism. So we remind ourselves of our place as adopted children of the Father.
I once had a friend who was adopted as a child, and was raised by a wonderful mother and father, and after his father died, he was raised by a wonderful mother on her own, and later, when she remarried, by a wonderful mother and stepfather. I once asked him if he would ever want to get to know his birth parents, and he said no. I asked, ‘I understand you might not want a relationship with them, but how come you’re not even curious to meet them?’ He looked up and me and he said, ‘Mum chose me.’
I’m in no position to speak of the relationship between a biological parent and child. Nor do I have any standard against which I can compare it to an adoptive relationship – I have no experience in this area. But for my friend, who knew himself to be adopted, the fact that he was chosen meant far more to him than biology ever could.
Thus it is with us and God. This is why we say, ‘Our Father in heaven‘. Whatever experience we might have of an earthly father is of no comparison to the experience that we have of our heavenly Father, and we mustn’t allow negative experiences of the one to prevent us from embracing the love given to us by the other.
It’s our heavenly Father Who created us, and it’s our heavenly Father Who provides our spiritual needs, and Who sent us his Son to draw us back to Himself when we had fallen away.
And we do fall away. We harm the relationship between ourselves and God, and ourselves and each other, and the creation in which we live, through the things we say and do, and don’t say and don’t do. These actions or omissions are how we sin. These forty days of Lent are the time of year when we come before our Father in penitence, asking forgiveness for those things that have led us away from the loving home that He has provided for us, and we follow the example of the Saviour Who fasted and was tempted in the desert for forty days.
Next Sunday, the Gospel is the parable of the Prodigal Son. This has great personal significance to me because I was baptised and received into the Church on the Sunday known in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as the Sunday of the Prodigal Son – I’ll let you make of that what you will. The Saviour gives us this parable as an allegory not only for our behaviour in turning away from God, but also of the love with which God receives us back. The son had run away from his Father’s house and squandered his inheritance on fleeting desires that had no lasting value, bringing shame and scandal to his father’s name. But he came to his senses, the Gospel tells us, and was determined to return to his Father’s house. He knew his unworthiness to be called a son, and was happy to be accepted back as one of the hired servants – one of the domestic staff.
Yet we read in the Gospel that his father saw him coming from some distance, and ran out to meet him, and embraced him, had the best robe put on him, and a ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet, and he threw a feast to celebrate his return. Knowing the welcome that awaits us, we should take this forty-day season of fasting, abstinence, and prayer as our time to uproot those things in our lives that separate us from God, to identify the ways in which we have squandered our inheritance, so that we too might come to our senses and say with the Prodigal Son: ‘I will arise and I will go to my Father’s house’.