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?