Deliver Us From Evil

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 14 in our series on the Our Father.

The last petition of the Our Father is, in a sense, the most practical. “Hallowed be thy Name,” at the beginning, is so lofty as to be hard to pin down. It’s not immediately clear what it means, or what we should do. But “deliver us from evil” nicely expresses how we experience the Christian life most of the time: “Lord, please, just help me keep out of trouble!”

We experience this, first of all, on the physical level. It seems like nothing makes people pray like danger. Friends of ours just had a baby in the hospital, for what, thank God, turned out not to be leukemia. Everyone was praying then!

We can learn a couple lessons from this. First, we learn that there really are, at least on some levels, objective goods and bads. There is such a thing as “evil,” at least in the sense of Really Bad. (Latin and Greek, in fact—and also German, French, and a lot of languages—don’t make a distinction between “evil” and “bad.” It might be helpful to pray sometimes, “deliver me from bad things!”) Leukemia is bad.

Second, good does sometimes come from bad. It’s good to be reminded to be thankful for our children, good to pray, good to come together. But leukemia is still just plain bad.

Third, we believe that God is provident, that he can help us. Praying “deliver me from bad things” at least gives us a sense that God does something.

But finally, “bad” can never be the last word. Once cured from sickness (or poverty, or trouble at work, or whatever) we still have a life to live. We are liberated, or “delivered” from evil, but still left to seek the good. Despite our constant experience of struggling to get free from bad, we still need to live life and seek for happiness.


Now, all of this repeats itself on the moral level. Indeed, when we begin to ask what comes next, once we are free from physical evils, the question next arises how we should live. For many of us, most of the time, Christianity feels like a struggle to stay out of moral evils, a struggle with sin.

Here again, the struggle reminds us that there is such a thing as good and bad. To be struggling against our own sin means we are already decent people – but we recognize that we still have a long way to go. We are still snippy, self-righteous, unfair to the people around us. It is good to struggle against evil in our moral life. It is part of the path of love.

It is even better to pray to God to deliver us. The Our Father does not tell us to pray, “I’ll try harder next time.” It teaches us to ask our Father to deliver us. It encourages us to transform our struggle to be a better person into a deeper reliance on God, a deeper belief that he can actually help. Just as God can heal our physical ills, his grace also heals our spiritual and moral sickness.


And the Our Father teaches us to think of this in terms of liberation. Christ sets us free. Not free to be evil, but free to be good. Just as sickness prevents us from living our life, so too does sin. To pray “free us,” deliver us from evil, is to learn to see that sin is not a matter of breaking arbitrary laws, but of being caught up in kinds of un-freedom, inability to live a full life of love.

At the end of the Our Father, this is, in some sense, our ordinary experience of the Christian life: the struggle against bad stuff, physical and spiritual, the gradual discovery that sin is slavery, and the even deeper discovery that God is powerful to set us free and deliver us.


But finally, too, we learn to see that there is more to life than deliverance from evil. Though we spend much of our life fighting little problems, the Our Father calls us to lift our eyes higher. We pray not just to do better this time, but to be healed from temptation; to learn to forgive; and to see God not only as our deliverer from evil, but as our constant nourishment.

And then to lift up our eyes to willing as he wills, working for his kingdom, and hallowing the name of Our Father. This is true liberation, the true meaning of escape from sin.


Do you struggle as much as you should against little evils? Or do you get caught in the battle against little evils? What would true Christian freedom look like?

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 13 in our series on the Our Father.

This week’s line from the Our Father reminds us of our fragility. As we move from the heights of hallowing God’s name to the humdrum of our ordinary life, this experience of fragility comes to be one of the most prominent parts of our spiritual life.

To pray “Lead us not into temptation” means, above all, acknowledging the reality of temptation. We are in-between people. We want God’s will to be done; we long for his kingdom; we even acknowledge the holiness of his name – but truth be told, other things are often more attractive. We are tempted.

To situate temptation within the Our Father is to appreciate more deeply what sin means. It is not just that we are tempted to break the rules, or to reject God outright, whatever that means. Rather, our temptation is, for example, to long for other things more than for his kingdom. This takes us back to all our previous reflections. In the case of the kingdom, we see that the temptation is not only against the assertions of his will, but against a place of peace and order, against a world ruled by the mercy of Jesus. Truth be told, we often long for – we are often tempted by – visions of something else that sounds better, whether it’s the domination of creature comforts or the assertion of our will over others.

We say thy will be done, but honestly, we often prefer the brute assertion of our will, or we abandon the wisdom and the love that are his will, and say “God won’t mind; his rules aren’t that important anyway.”

And his name? Above all, we are actually tempted to live as if God is not Father.


What is perhaps most interesting about temptation is that it presumes that we want to do the right thing. What a strange creature we must be, to be tempted. We haven’t rejected God outright – and yet we still turn away from him in our actions. We know that’s not who we want to be, but we do it anyway. So very fragile.


But the first half of this prayer expresses our fragility even more deeply. “Lead us not.” Surely this is the strangest part of the whole Our Father. It is not “lead us away from temptation,” nor “deliver us” from temptations already present. We will pray “deliver us from evil” in a moment, but here the verb is “leading into” and our request is “please don’t lead us.”

“Do not abandon me” is in fact a constant thread in the prayers of the Bible. As if God could abandon us.

Now, God never abandons us. Even the great cry of anguish in Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why you have forsaken me” (v. 1) changes gradually to “be not far from me” (v. 19) and finally “they who seek the Lord will praise him . . . for the kingdom is the Lord’s” (vv. 26 and 28).

Indeed, it’s a strange truth that there would be no point in praying to a God who you think has abandoned you. Crying out “My God” already presumes that he is still there. God never abandons us.


And yet we so radically depend upon him that we can almost describe everything that goes wrong as God abandoning us. I am weak and he is strong: with him, all things can be conquered, without him, nothing.

And temptation is so powerful, our ability to live the Our Father we profess so weak, that rather than saying, “we’ll just try really hard,” we say “please, don’t let me fall.”

There are, perhaps, two sides to this. On the one hand, we do not want to be in a place of temptation. “Lead us not into” partly means “I do not want to be there.” If I am in the place of temptation, I will fall. Don’t let me be there.

On the other hand, we are so fragile that even falling onto the wrong path seems like God abandoning us, or, even worse, actively putting us in harm’s way.

The point is not to blame God for what goes wrong. The point is to profess our absolute dependence on him. Notice, in fact, that the Our Father doesn’t make the slightest effort to justify God, to explain why it isn’t his fault. Its focus is much more practical: on our absolute dependence on God to keep us on the path of his holy name, his kingdom, his wise and loving will.


What would change in your life if you really believed that you are weak and he is strong?

Those Who Trespass Against Us

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 12 in our series on the Our Father.

As we think about the Our Father as a model of our spiritual life, let’s take one more week, this Lent, on forgiveness. This is the one part of the prayer, after all, that Jesus himself underlines: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15). It almost sounds like our entire salvation hinges on this.

An interesting aspect of this line is that Jesus does not deny, and does not ask us to deny, that there are such people as “those who trespass against us” – in fact, they are common enough to make up our whole way of salvation.

Now, there is a healthy practice of putting the best interpretation on people’s actions. Often when it seems like someone has trespassed against us, it’s all just a big misunderstanding. Often we are the bigger trespassers: we are being too ornery, or too quick to judge other people’s intentions, etc. Sometimes what we take for a trespass was an innocent mistake, sometimes they were actually trying to help us, and we are too prideful and stubborn to appreciate it. It’s good and valuable for us to make a habit of putting the best interpretation on people’s actions.

But that is not what Jesus tells us to do here. Forgiveness doesn’t mean not noticing. It doesn’t mean pretending that nothing happened. It doesn’t mean pretending there is no one who “trespasses against us.” Forgiveness is more radical than that, because it means loving even when people do trespass against us.


This comes to the heart of our Lent. Jesus did not die for the “innocent misunderstandings” of the world. He died for our sins. He loves us, and forgives us, even when what we do is radically wrong.

Or rather, he recognizes that sin and misunderstanding are not so far distant. In Luke’s Gospel, he says from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). On one side, his forgiveness recognizes that if they really knew, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).

On the other hand, precisely in Luke’s gospel, it immediately goes on to the good thief: “One of the malefactors who were hanged railed on him, saying, ‘if you are the Christ, save yourself and us.’ But the other answering rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, seeing that you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing wrong’” (Lk 23:39-41). The good thief is saved by the recognition that he has sinned, not by pleading it was all an innocent mistake.


Perhaps we can put it this way. Sin is a sad predicament. The sinner is not someone we should hate for his evil. He is someone we should pity for his foolishness.

The good thief is saved by acknowledging the truth. By acknowledging, on the one hand, that sin has gotten him nothing, that the ultimate wages of sin is death. And by acknowledging, on the other hand, that only Jesus can get him out of this mess.

The bad thief is lost because he insists on the way of selfishness. That selfishness is itself his condemnation. It’s not that Jesus decides whether he “deserves” to be “punished.” It’s that being a bad person is itself a horrible thing. Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it. The world condemns itself, by choosing hate over love. That choice is hell.


Sin is all around us. People do trespass against us. They do many wrong things. They choose not to love. They crucified the Lord of glory.

If we are spiritually alert, we realize that sin is within us, too. How petty, that when people trespass against us, we look for ways to fight back. What do we think that is going to get us? What good does it do us to hate people for their sin? It hurts them more than it hurts us.

Forgiveness is the recognition that sin hurts the sinner. Forgiveness is salvific because it helps us to detest sin as we should, to turn from the way of self to the way of love. And forgiveness is the recognition that we too need forgiveness, and turn to a Lord who always gives us a chance to repent, even when we are both hanging on the Cross.


What are some examples where your failure to forgive is truly foolish?

As We Forgive

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 11 in our series on the Our Father.

Today we reach the one point in the Our Father where we actually do something. We aspire to the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of his kingdom, the doing of his will – but in all these things, we primarily ask God to do it. We don’t pray, “God, I will make thy kingdom come,” we pray, “let it come: you do it.” Just as, in the second half, we ask him to give us our daily bread, to forgive us, to lead us not into temptation, to deliver us. Everywhere else in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “you do it.” This is the one place where we say what we will do.

But what we do turns out to be nothing but forgiveness. In one sense, it is a not doing: we just pledge not to count up what other people owe us. Though in another sense, of course, forgiveness opens up a whole world of activity. It allows us to treat others, first, in terms of their goodness, and to enjoy them, even though they also have badness that we need to forgive. It allows us, also, to see others in terms of their weakness, and to reach out and help them, not counting the cost.


Jesus underlines the importance of forgiveness in our practical life. We are, remember, in the central section of the Sermon on the Mount, almsgiving (Matt 6:1-4), prayer (Matt 6:5-15), and fasting (Matt 6:16-18). But this second, central section of the central section, on prayer, concludes, “and deliver us from evil. Amen. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

On the one hand, let us not overlook the incongruity of what he is saying. He is talking about prayer – and precisely when he talks about prayer, Jesus pauses to say that forgiveness is essential. If we do not forgive, our prayer is falsified, our spiritual life a sham.

And so, on the other hand, notice how appropriate this apparent incongruity is. In forgiveness, we see that almsgiving goes with prayer, that the true measure of our prayer is in how we treat the weak: those who are in debt to us. (The weak? Yes, those who hurt us are not the strong, but those who are too weak to be better.) Forgiveness is the heart of all almsgiving.

We see, too, that fasting goes with prayer, that the true measure of what we treasure is what we are willing to give up. Forgiveness is the most profound fasting, the most profound way of saying that God is worth more to us than our grudges and whatever we hope to extract from our debtors.


Forgiveness, then, has a reciprocal relationship with the rest of the Our Father. In one sense, we could say that the rest of the Our Father is ordered to forgiveness. We ask our daily bread to do our daily work: but our daily work is forgiveness. Father, give me the strength to forgive. We ask not to be led into temptation: Father, let me not be tempted to hold grudges. Deliver me from the evil of unforgiveness. Indeed, forgive me for not forgiving.

The Father’s kingdom is the kingdom of forgiveness. His will is that we forgive. This is how we hallow his name. This is how we bring heaven to earth, because by forgiveness we leave everything in God’s hands, recognize that his is the power and the glory and the kingdom, and not ours. By forgiveness, we leave room for God.

But in the other direction, it is forgiveness that allows us to pursue higher goods. There are other temptations, other evils. But the only way to be freed from them is to trust in God, not in ourselves. The second half of the Our Father urges us to realize that every good gift comes from God: that it is he who gives us strength and delivers us from evil. Forgiveness is strategic, because it is precisely there that we most profoundly realize how we tend to exclude God from our vision.

When I hold a grudge, on the one hand, I value other things more than God – usually petty things. On the other hand, I think everything depends on the assertion of my rights, that if I don’t fight for myself, I’ll lose out. And how pervasive these grudges are, from little annoyances with people in our household to big hatreds of those in the world around us.

Forgiveness is acknowledging that God is God.


What are some very small ways that you fail to forgive? What do they say about your relationship to the Father?

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 10 in our series on the Our Father.

Our prayer takes an unexpected turn. After several lines about the Father’s kingdom, will, name, we have begun to ask for what we need. But Jesus instructs us to immediately move on to asking for spiritual things. Immediately turning from “our daily bread” to “forgive us” underlines how little we ask for with our daily bread. We don’t get to go on asking for things.

Bread is the only thing the Our Father lets us ask for for ourselves. Indeed, by framing it in terms of other goods, the bread sounds more oriented toward our battle with “trespasses” and “evil” than with merely sustaining our earthly life.


Forgiveness is a sign of strength. God is powerful enough to provide our daily bread. But he is more powerful than that. He is powerful enough to forgive our sins. God’s forgiveness is a sign that our sin doesn’t hurt him, doesn’t in any way limit his strength.

This is an important point. It is not as if the Cross and Resurrection show a God powerful enough to do physical miracles – like raising the dead – but not strong enough to overcome man’s sin; or, powerful enough to overcome the consequences (sin kills) but not powerful enough to overcome the cause (sin). God’s forgiveness is a sign of his strength. If we are asked to forgive, it is a sign that we somehow share in that strength.

The German word behind our “forgiveness” means “to give and give and give.” God is wealthy enough to keep giving, rich enough to become poor for us without fear.


Yet forgiveness also recognizes that there is a trespass. We don’t forgive or ask forgiveness where no wrong has been done. Like Confession, our asking forgiveness simultaneously acknowledges that God is bigger than our sin and that sin is a real problem.

Some English translations say “debts” instead of “trespasses.” Matthew’s Gospel gives a longer version of the prayer, basically the one we use. As he often does, Luke shortens it to its essence. In Matthew it’s “debts,” in Luke it’s “sins” or “trespasses” – though he then says “as we forgive those indebted to us.”

In English, and even more in Greek and Latin, the word debt is rooted in the word “ought.” To “owe” is to “ought to give.” We moderns tend to think of monetary debt as purely arbitrary. To say we “owe” it to God sounds like he is a miser, counting every coin that crosses his desk. But what we are saying is not about him, not about him demanding something, but about us: we ought to do it. We say, “forgive us our oughts,” forgive us for the things we ought to have done but haven’t.

Part of what we are meant to learn from asking forgiveness, whether in the Our Father or in Confession, is precisely that there is such a thing as “ought.” That it’s not a matter of how much we can get away with, how little God needs from us, but that some things are just right.

“It is right and just,” we say in the Mass. When we love, we give simply because it’s the right thing to do. No amount of forgiveness makes us happy to be unjust. In a sense, this is what Christian maturity is all about: learning to do what is “right and just,” what we “ought” to do, not because otherwise we’ll hurt God or make him angry – no, he is always strong enough to forgive us – but because it is right. To recognize that along with his “forgiveness” there is our “ought.” That is love.

Sin doesn’t hurt God. But it does hurt us, because it simply is a failure to love, and love is everything.


Finally, the word “forgiveness” does not quite do justice to the word in Latin and Greek. In fact, we ask God not just to “forgive” us, but to “put away” our sins. Perhaps “remit” sounds too much like accounting, but perhaps “remission of sins” can be a better translation, because it keeps this alive.

Think of it this way: “forgiveness” is all about the forgiver. It doesn’t affect the other person. But “put away our sins” is at least ambiguous: it’s not clear whether he’s putting them “away” from him, or from us.

In fact, the divine remission of our sins doesn’t affect God, it affects us. This is near the heart of the mystery of grace: that we can ask God to “send our sins away” from us. To heal us, and make us good.


How have you grown in your sense of “ought”?

Our Daily Bread

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 9 in our series on the Our Father.

The Lord’s Prayer does not encourage us to ask for a Mercedes-Benz. “Our daily bread” is right at the middle of the prayer, and it sets the tone for how we relate to Our Father.

First, it is remarkably late. The Lord’s Prayer puts our focus first on God: his name, his kingdom, his will. We begin by asking not for ourselves, but for his glory.

Notice that this puts “our” daily bread in an interesting light, too. Throughout the prayer, the word “our” keeps us very much socially focused. I pray not just for my daily bread, but for that of those around me, for all those who call God, or could call God, Father. But by postponing our daily bread until so late in the prayer, Jesus draws us to a deeper sense of the “our.” It is not “our bread” for “our kingdom,” but for his. The kingdom of the God who tells us to call him Father and provides us our daily bread is a loving kingdom, a more generous kingdom than we would be inclined to pray for. The postponing of the daily bread frames that petition in a bigger picture, of God’s goodness throughout his kingdom.

And then, when we finally move on from “thine” to “ours,” when we pierce the clouds to this world below, we very quickly move on from our daily bread. This is not like sitting on Santa’s lap: “and then I want a new refrigerator, and a kitchen renovation, and then a trip to the Bahamas.” No, quickly after we mention our daily bread, we go on to much humbler, and more specifically spiritual goods: forgiveness, and freedom from sin and evil.

Finally, our daily bread itself is such a humble petition. Jesus has us stand in the posture of St. Francis, every day asking only for what we need, and only for today. Not a membership in the wine-of-the-month club: we have bigger concerns, things we love so much more than that. If someone gives us such a membership (my birthday is coming up!) let us never forget that it is so much less precious than my daily bread, or my longing for God’s kingdom, and for a heart that forgives.

“Our daily bread” reminds us how little we really need, and how our relationship with Our Father is about much more wonderful things than what we often focus on.


On the other hand, Jesus does tell us to ask for our daily bread, and that is also interesting. In a sense, not to ask God for what we truly need is disobedient – or, more deeply, a violation of our relationship with Our Father. He does provide, and he wants to provide. We don’t ask Daddy to buy us a fancy car, but we do live in the household where he will always take care of us.

This, in fact, is an interesting flipside to Christian simplicity. On the one hand, as we saw above, we should have a kind of “contempt” for the things of this world – or, let us say, the things that are only of this world. Fancy cars and kitchen renovations you can’t take with you. But things like love and forgiveness and freedom from sin (defined in terms of love and forgiveness) are things of both heaven and this world, things we should not have contempt for! So the Our Father teaches us to love the things of this world that matter, and not the things that don’t.

But on the other hand, if we live true Christian simplicity, we will always need to rely on Our Father, even for our daily bread. If we are truly generous with those around us puts us always in a place of needing to beg God to take care of us. Let us feed our neighbors, knowing that Our Father will always feed us.


Finally, what is our daily bread? What does sustain us?

On the one hand, this prayer is an important reminder that we have bodies. We really do need to eat (and sleep, etc.)!

On the other hand, Jesus says, “my food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34) and that he himself is the bread from heaven that will satisfy our hunger and thirst. Let us pray, too, that union – communion – with the good God will be our deepest sustenance, the source of our strength.


What kind of “daily bread” do you need to pray for?

Give Us This Day

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 8 in our series on the Our Father.

These last several weeks, we have been noting the descending movement of the Our Father, from Our Father in heaven to the fear of evil, from God’s name to his kingdom to his bare will.

We have now pierced the clouds, as it were, and come down from heaven to earth. The transition began with the last line of the first part of the prayer, when we asked that earth might be as heaven. But we now land squarely on the ground: Give us this day our daily bread.

Although this whole line is traditionally counted as one petition, we will break it into two, and this week focus on the simple phrase, “give us this day.” (In English this is first; in Greek and Latin, it is a post-positive, which amounts to the same.)


We are no longer in the eternity of the heavens, but in “this day.” These words point in two directions. On the one hand, they emphasize that in our world, we cannot see ahead. There is only this day; we meet God here and now, or not at all. All that follows is framed by this narrow focus on the present. In that sense, this world is very different from the eternal, broad view of the heavens.

On the other hand, there is a kind of mirror of eternity in the present moment. Eternity is not a long succession, not a really long time, but an eternal today. Eternity is living in the now. In another way, then, to focus on the now is to take a very eternal, divine perspective. God is always now.


The key shift between the two parts of the prayer is from an emphasis on God (your name, your kingdom, your will) to an emphasis on us (our daily bread, our trespasses, as we forgive, us not into temptation, deliver us).

But again, this opening line sets the standard for what will come after. Grammatically, we are on the receiving end. We don’t first proclaim what we will do, but beg God to do “for us”: give us! Thomas Aquinas says Christian moral theology is not so much about what we do as what God does for us. The Christian perspective always sees God as a provident Father.

Indeed, this is the first step in applying what we have learned “above the clouds,” in the thy’s of the Our Father, to the world “below the clouds,” this day, where we live. To call God Father is to see ourselves in a position of receptivity. The Father provides bread for his children. Even deeper, the Father provides the very existence of his children, and their nature. We are, and we are what we are, because God makes us. This is the perspective of calling God Father. This is the first thing to know about on earth as it is in heaven.


To look ahead: our daily bread treats God as our provider, the one who sustains us every step of the way. And it narrows our view to the this day: not God’s provision once, and then we will handle very well ourselves, thank you, but God’s continuing sustenance every day.

Forgive us then quickly shifts the subject, from what we ask for (very minimal: nothing but bread) to our recognition that we have no right to ask – and that God the Father nevertheless always provides, always receives us back.

As we forgive is the only thing we ourselves do – but it is a not-doing. All we pledge to do is not hold grudges. (Though, we will see, this is no small thing.) To realize that it is the Father, who forgives us and daily provides for us, who ultimately matters. If I receive everything, on the one hand, I have no right to hold back, to be unforgiving. On the other hand, I have no need to be stingy, because he always provides, always gives, every day.

Lead us not into temptation is the strangest line of all: as if God might lead us into temptation! But it underlines our absolute reliance on God, a sense that we are always following, and if we are to be safe, it is only because he keeps us safe.

And deliver us from evil sees all victory over harm as being in God’s hand.

In short, all of the Christian life, everything we have to say about this day, “below the clouds,” is that God gives to us, this day.


How do you cultivate a sense of receiving everything from God?

On Earth as It Is in Heaven

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 7 in our series on the Our Father.

It is common to think of “thy will be done” and “on earth as it is in heaven” as one clause. But we can also think of the latter as its own prayer. (The traditional division of the prayer finds seven petitions; in this commentary, we will divide it into twelve. These Biblical numbers are fun!)

Notice first that we are at a transition point in the middle of the prayer. The first half (six parts, according to our reckoning, but three petitions according to the traditional reckoning) revolves around the word “thy”; the second half revolves around the words “us” and “our.”

The first half concludes with a sort of summary, “On earth as it is in heaven.” The second half begins with its own kind of summary, “Give us this day.” This is typically Biblical. In the Ten Commandments, the first tablet, about honor to God, begins with a statement about God himself, “I am the LORD your God” (parallel to “Our Father”) and concludes with a narrative of God creating “heaven and earth” (parallel to “on earth as it is in heaven”).

The second tablet of the Ten Commandments, about how we relate to people on this earth, is “the only commandment with a blessing” (as Paul says in Ephesians 6:2): “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land.” Similarly, the second half of the Our Father begins with God blessing our days on earth: “give us this day.”


We can think of this transition as piercing the clouds, as it were, descending from heaven to earth. Just as the Ten Commandments, and Jesus’s summary of them, teaches us to look both upward to love of God and around us to love of neighbor, so the Our Father has us look upward to Our Father, in heaven, his kingdom, his will – and then around us to our daily needs, our trespasses, forgiveness, our temptations, and the threat of evil.

The lynch pin, in a sense, is the prayer we consider today, “On earth as it is in heaven.” This is how we think of this world: we want it to be as in heaven, where God is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). “On earth as it is in heaven” is a beautiful gloss on all of the other eleven parts of the Our Father. To call God “Our Father” is to think of earth being united to heaven. When we think of him being (“who art”) “in heaven,” we long for our earth to be as heaven. Right down to forgiving trespasses and being liberated from temptation and evil. Let earth be as it is in heaven! Let me be on earth as I will be in heaven!


We can think of our world this way only if our treasure is in heaven. Only if we long for God to be all in all, only if we long to see him face to face, can our here really be transformed according to that vision. Heaven lost its grasp on the Christian imagination sometime in the last couple hundred years, but traditionally, devotion to heaven was a dominant part of Catholic spirituality. As we saw in the Salve Regina, we sighed, “after this our exile, show us . . . Jesus!” Pope Benedict, in fact, wrote one of his three encyclicals, Spe salvi, precisely on rekindling love of and hope for heaven.

Longing for heaven does mean seeing this world as a kind of exile. It means seeing the things of this world as passing and not truly fulfilling. It means longing for things that we cannot see now, but only hope for.

But, ironically, as our prayer today so pointedly reminds us, love of heaven doesn’t at all mean giving up on this world. “On earth as it is in heaven” means longing for heaven – and longing to live heaven on earth. I think our culture often tells us that heaven and earth are opposed, that loving heaven can only mean you don’t care about this world. The prayer Jesus teaches us says exactly the opposite. I’d note that this is a constant theme of papal encyclicals – think, for example, throughout the writings of John Paul II: love of heaven does not diminish our concern for this world, but kindles it.

When we learn to love the “thy” phrases of the first half of the Our Father, we see “this day” in that light. We learn to forgive and ask forgiveness, to flee temptation and evil – and, more importantly, to rely on our Father for our daily sustenance, and thus to see Him as the one who sets us free to love.


How do you make the connection between heaven and earth?

Thy Will Be Done

Sermon on the mountPart 6 in our series on the Our Father.

Our walk through the “Our Father,” Jesus’s little treatise on the spiritual life, brings us this week to “Thy Will Be Done.” As we noted last week, this line takes another step downward, from the contemplative heights into the practical life. From the heights, in which we see the Father’s “kingdom” extending through heaven and earth, we come to the simple acceptance of God’s “will.”

“Will,” as we said last week, is an interesting middle ground. On the one hand, we believe as Christians that God’s will is not arbitrary, that he has a perfect, wise plan, a reason for everything. (And, if we hold to the philosophy of the Catholic tradition, we believe that no one ever makes purely meaningless acts of will: will always express some kind of intelligence.)

But we speak of will, not intellect or wisdom or plan, precisely to emphasize that the reason doesn’t matter. To say “thy will be done” is precisely not to say, “if it makes good sense to me.” To the contrary, it is to say, “I don’t know the why behind this choice; I don’t see the wisdom in your willing; but I accept.” Even if we believe God has a reason, we say “thy will” to say that his reasons are often inaccessible to us.

The paradigmatic case, of course, is when Jesus himself says, “thy will be done”: “Father, if you will it, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42). Indeed, in this first sorrowful mystery, Jesus takes us in a sense to the inner depths of suffering: not only does it hurt, but we don’t see the reason for it. All we can do is bear it – “suffer” it, in the older sense of the word – and try to believe that somewhere underneath there is a reason.

We mustn’t think God is arbitrary or mean. But anytime we think we know all his ways, we fall into foolishness, and we wander from his will. When we substitute our intelligence for his, we abandon his perfect plan.


This is an important part of the Our Father. A couple weeks ago, when I wrote on the opening words of the prayer, my friend Chris commented that we hardly need the rest: everything is right there, in the two words “Our Father.” In one sense this is true. Truly all of Christianity is contained in those words.

But to fully appreciate those words, and their force in our lives, especially in this valley of tears, we have to appreciate that much of the time we won’t see it. Often God will seem more like a will to which we must submit than like a loving Father. We need to say the first words, to know that ultimately behind this strangeness, there is meaning, and love. But we also need these later words, to remember that truly accepting the Father requires accepting his will, even when it makes no sense to me.

Indeed, it is not because he is a cruel tyrant, but precisely because he is a loving Father – infinitely wiser and more merciful than we can imagine – that we have to accept that we often can’t comprehend his ways. It would make sense if he were more like us. Thank God that he isn’t.


Perhaps this gives us an opening to think of “thy will be done” in a different way. Often we say these words to mean something outside of us: the suffering that comes, the downfalls in our careers or relationships. Thy will be done, Father. I accept this from your gracious and mysterious hand.

But “thy will be done” can also be a motto for our own participation in that plan. Because the Father’s will is always mercy and love. “Thy will be done” can also be an opportunity to say, “may I will as you will” – not only that I accept this thing that befalls me, but that I love, and pour myself out, as the God of Jesus Christ does.

“I will to will the will of God,” a motto of the saints, can also mean, I want to will goodness, and mercy, and kindness, and compassion, and love – and truth and justice and righteousness!

In this way, too, we see the progress and unity of the Lord’s Prayer. It is very fine to call God Father, to have our treasure in heaven, to long for God’s kingdom – but none of this means anything until we come down to the practicals of loving as God loves, willing as he wills.


How have you grappled with the goodness and mercy of God’s mysterious will in your life?

Thy Kingdom Come

Sermon on the mountPart 5 in our series on the Our Father.

Our prayer continues to move outward. “Hallowed be thy name” looked upward, to God himself, a prayer focused entirely in worship. “Thy kingdom come” now looks to the reverse side of the coin, to how God is manifested in the world. “Who art in heaven” had us up where God is already all in all. Now we ask him to extend his reign even here below, to where he is not yet.

Next week we will consider “thy will be done,” a beautiful prayer and, for many people, a favorite part of the Our Father. But here, let us briefly consider how “thy kingdom come” is different, and why it comes first, on the “heavenly” end of the prayer.

Note, first, the difference between the prayer “thy will be done” and Mary’s prayer to the angel, “be it done to me according to your word.” “Will” stresses arbitrariness, or at least darkness. I don’t know what you’re going to do, and I don’t know why you want to do it, but go ahead. But “word” expresses intelligibility, and wisdom. God has told Mary what is going to happen (at least in rough outline). She understands – and more importantly, his plan is understandable.

There is a risk – in fact, it is one of the key breaking points in the history of Christian thought – in thinking of God too much in terms of an arbitrary will. Certainly his plan is far beyond our sight or understanding. But God is not a tyrant, not arbitrary. He calls us into his heavenly kingdom – not, ultimately, into blind obedience to his “will.”

Before we speak of God’s “will,” the Our Father calls us to think of his Kingdom.


What is a kingdom? Well, first of all, it is a social reality. Louis XIV is supposed to have said, “l’état, c’est moi”: I am the State. Without getting into too many subtleties of political philosophy, let us notice that, though a tyrant may himself be the entire government, he simply cannot be the entire realm. A realm, or a kingdom, is many people, all the complexity of many lives. The tyrant might be the “State,” if by that we mean the mechanics of government, but he cannot be the entire nation.

Yet to the extent that there is a single realm, there is a kind of unity about it. A realm, or nation, is, as we occasionally remember in America, e pluribus unum, something one out of the many, a kind of unity of many people.

This is actually quite important to the Catholic understanding of the human person. We are social beings in such a way that our individuality and our being part of society are not at odds. In fact, we are more human when we participate in communities bigger than ourselves.

Heaven is the ultimate community, the ultimate kingdom. The heavenly city, the eternal Jerusalem, “the city of the great king” (Ps. 48:2) is a place where we are more fully alive because in union. Both our union with God and our union with all the saints do not destroy our individuality, but bring it out in all its richness.

All of this speaks of the order, the wisdom, the fullness of God’s kingdom. Indeed, in the old political philosophy, the distinction between a king and a tyrant was that a tyrant demands that everybody be a slave to his will – but a king works for the good of his kingdom, to make the realm shine and come alive in all its richness. That is what we pray for when we pray “your kingdom come.”


A kingdom, of course, points above all to a King. But in Christianity, our great king, the son of David, is a shepherd. We need his help. The sheep go astray, and the kingdom goes to pieces, without the goodness and wisdom (and defenses from danger) of the king. There is no doing without the good shepherd – and oh, how foolish it would be to try to replace him with our own selfishness and short-sightedness and weakness. But his exaltation is ours too, his kingdom our life, and happiness, and well-being.

All of this points, too, to why we must pray Thy Kingdom Come. It’s a little strange. In one sense, God is already king. Creation is always in his hand, nothing escapes his providence. But in another sense, Jesus will only truly be king when we embrace him, when the sheep hear his voice, when order, and beauty, and goodness come to our world, through the wisdom of Christ the King.


How do you envision Jesus as King? What does his “kingdom” mean to you?