Lead Us Not: The Anointing of the Sick

seven sacramentsWe come at last to the end of our series on the Seven Sacraments and the Our Father. We conclude with the strangest, and perhaps the most interesting, part of each.

The Anointing of the Sick is a strange sacrament. Like Confession, it deals with things we don’t like to think about.  The old name was Extreme Unction. Unction and Anointing are two translations of the same idea. The classic verse for the sacrament is James 5:14: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” The Greek for “anointing” is a slightly eccentric word, from which the Latin tradition gets “unction.” But the “oil” is the standard olive oil always referred to by “anointing.” In short, anointing and unction are two words for the same thing.

The bigger difference is “extreme” and “sick.” The old name emphasizes that the sacrament has to do with facing death (in extremis). But there was a bit of an abuse that grew up in the early modern period, parallel to the withholding of other sacraments, whereby this sacrament wasn’t given until you were basically dead. The new name, “of the sick,” is supposed to highlight that yes, it’s about facing death – but we face death before we’re dead.

All in all, this sacrament is about that strangest fact of human life: death – and the way that Jesus is present to anoint us at the hour of our death.


Meanwhile, our final two petitions of the Lord’s Praye r– or are they one? – are even stranger. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Lead us not? It’s not, “lead us out,” which would make sense, but “do not lead us.”  Are we really worried that God will lead us “into temptation”?  And why is it “but” deliver us? That’s a curious word, suggesting a connection between the two phrases that is not obvious.


If we think about the Anointing of the Sick, with some help from the Greek of the Our Father, we can get some insight.  The word for “temptation,” peirasmon, is about testing. It has the suggestion both that we can pass the test – and that we are being put to the test, facing something really difficult.  There are many tests in life – but the ultimate test is death. How will we react? Will we submit to temptation – the temptation to despair, to deny God’s mercy? All of the little tests of our life prepare us for this one. All the little times we are challenged lead us to this ultimate challenge, where we will either accept God’s mercy, extended through the sacrament of Anointing, or reject it, as we so often reject God when put to the test.


The next key word, however, is “into.” The prayer does not talk about being led while “in” temptation, but about being leading “into” temptation. This is even stronger in the original languages, but “into” talks about your ultimate destination. To be led “into” a house is to end in the house. To be led “through” a house is to end on the other side.

Perhaps what we are saying is, yes, God will give us tests. It is God himself who, somehow, in some hard to understand way, gives us death as the ultimate healing from sin. But death is not meant to be our end. Too many people – and too many of us, too many times – go “into” temptation, but never come through on the other side. If God is going to give us the test, we pray that he lead us “through.”

If you lead me to temptation, let me not end in it.


The prayer expresses this idea with the word “but.” Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. “But” signals that these are not two separate petitions. Deliver us from evil is the alternative to being led into temptation. The test itself can be our ultimate destination – we can end in death, and despair, and emptiness – or it can end with our liberation from evil.

You likely know that the “evil” of our English translations is a bit abstact compared to the Greek. In Greek, it’s in the masculine, not the neuter. Neuter would signal a thing, but masculine signals a person. And it is a definite article, “the evil one,” not just abstract “evil.” The evil one – the word has overtones of both “hurtful” and “guilty” – wants to claim us. He wants us to end in despair. We will face the evil of death – but let us be delivered by it from the grips of the destroyer.

We pray for God to lead us through the test, to pour his anointing oil on our tests, and make death itself our final liberation from evil and sin.

If you had to predict based on how you dealt with the tests of this day, how would you expect to relate to God at the hour of your death? How could you prepare for that final test better?

Confirmation: Thy Will Be Done

seven sacramentsBy Baptism we call God in heaven our Father. Ordination reminds us of our highest call, to hallow his name, but Marriage points us to the call to let him be king of love of all the earth.

In the fourth petition of the Our Father, we turn to God’s will, and an opportunity for insight into the sacrament of Confirmation.


Now, the first key to understanding this step in the Our Father is to distinguish it from the statement before. “Thy Kingdom Come” and “Thy Will Be Done” are not the same.

Kingdom does point to authority. In Greek and Latin, if anything, the word points even more to authority. In English, “kingdom” refers to the realm over which the king rules, but in those languages, it could also refer to God’s kingship itself. But don’t let this draw you astray.

The classical tradition makes a distinction between a king and a despot. A despot does whatever he wants. But a king does what is good for his people. A classic way of saying it is, the despot rules for his own good, the king rules for the common good. Of course, a despot might call himself a king. But someone who rules for his own pleasure and not the good of his people is a despot.

(Parallel distinctions are made with other governing arrangements. An aristocracy and an oligarchy are both ruled by a small number – but the difference is whether they are ruled for the good of all the people or just the good of the few. And in the classic use of the words, when the people rule, it’s only called “democracy” if they are selfish; a “republic” is when the people care about the common good.)

The point is, the most important question is not only who rules, but why, or for what?

In other words, we miss the meaning of God’s kingship if we just say, “he’s the king, he can do whatever he wants.” No, what makes him a king and not a tyrant is that he cares about his kingdom. There is a connection between his “kingship” and his “kingdom.” And to call God king is a beautiful thing.

God’s kingdom is a beautiful thing, where everything has its proper place, everything is ordered and right and beautiful. Nothing is dismissed or rejected, everything is in place.


Now, all of that is lost when we turn to the word “will.” Indeed, my mentor in the thought of Thomas Aquinas taught us to be careful about using the word “will.” Will precisely does not make the distinction between a benevolent king and a tyranical despot. In each case, the ruler’s will is done.

It is often wiser to talk about God’s plan rather than his will, to get a sense that there is some order and intelligence, not just brute force or willfullness. Note that Mary does not say “thy will,” but “thy word”: she sees the intelligence in God’s plan. Modern Catholic spiritual writers often reduce her “fiat” to a “yes” – but again, one can say yes to a tyranical will. Mary’s fiat goes deeper than that.

Nonetheless, Jesus teaches us to accept God’s will.


All these cautions about thinking of God as mere willfulness can help us understand why we do say “thy will be done.” We say “will” when we don’t know why. “Kingdom” is a hopeful word, where we see the beauty of God’s plan. “Will” is an abandoned word, where we have no idea why he’s doing what he does.

And that has a place in our prayer life too. We need to know that God is a king, whose will is always for the good and beautiful and orderly and helpful. But we also need to know that his plan is often beyond our ken. Sometimes all we can say is, “thy will be done.” I don’t know why you’re doing this, God, but I accept it.


In the traditional Western view of the sacrament of Confirmation (the Easterners have not developed this theology, and the West has been careful not to get too far ahead of them – but the middle ages did have a rich theology of Confirmation), this is the sacrament of battle. We are anointed to bear witness – but not a witness of rich words, a witness of suffering.

In the traditional Western practice of Confirmation, the bishop slapped you – just as a medieval Lord would wound his knight with his own sword, to say, you go out to suffer.

When we say, “Thy will be done,” it is as if we call on our Confirmation. We attest our willingness to do, and to accept, God’s will, come what may. We grit our teeth, realizing that fighting for the beautiful kingdom will sometimes mean just getting beat up. In Confirmation, we receive the grace to grit our teeth.

In what parts of your life does it feel like God’s will makes no sense?

The Priesthood: Hallowed be Thy Name

seven sacramentsLast week we considered how “Our Father, who art in heaven” is a reminder of our Baptismal dignity. Baptism makes us children of the heavenly father. But Baptism, like childhood, is only potential, looking forward with promise.

That promise looks forward, above all, to praise. We are given divine birth so that we can know the divine. We become “sons in the Son” so that, like the Son, we can become eternal praise of the Father.

Every newborn baby has a father, but does not yet know his name. The promise of earthly birth is, above all, the possibility of relationship, of knowing others in the world, above all our family, by name. The promise of our heavenly birth is that we can know the name of the holy one, know the holiness of his name, hallow his name. “Our Father, who art in heaven” bears fruit in “hallowed be thy name.”


We can enter more deeply into this next line of the prayer by picturing a priest at the altar. He lifts up his hands in praise, he hallows God’s name. Indeed, Baptism is the door into the Church – so that we can attend the perfect praise of the Mass. We dip our fingers in baptismal water at the door, and go up to the altar; our Baptism gives us access to the place of the Priest; calling God our Father opens up the possibility of hallowing his name.

Now, in Catholic theology there are two kinds of priesthood. Baptism itself makes us priests: “Having been drawn to Him, a living Stone, indeed rejected by men, but elect, precious with God; you also as living stones are bulit up a spiritual house, a holy priesthod, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for possession, so that you might speak of the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:4-5, 9). We are all stones building up the Church, all priests, all people of praise.

And so the proper name for what we typically call the sacramental priesthood is really Holy Orders. Orders means hierarchy, leadership. It is not that the sacramental priests are the only priests – it is that they lead the priestly people in the priestly service of worship.


If we are a priestly people, why do we need priestly “orders”? Imagining the ordained priest when we pray “Hallowed be thy name” can help us understand.

Yes, my life is called to be praise. I am called to hallow God’s name. But I need an image of that hallowing. I can think of myself at Mass best by drawing to mind the one who leads me in worship.

The sacramental order is all about making things vivid – giving us, fleshly people, clear images of the truths of our faith. We are not left to understand vaguely that we have been born again to a new Father – we see it happen, in Baptism. We understand that all of life is praise when we have special moments of praise, with special leaders in praise.

The ordained priest is, first of all, a sacramental image of our praise. He manifests in his body this truth of our faith.


He is also a sacramental image that praise is a gift. I do not make myself a Son of God, I receive it – it is poured onto me in Baptism through the ministry of the Church, the Body of Christ. I do not rise up to God in praise by my own strength, but that too is a gift. The ordained priesthood is a gift to us, something that we cannot make ourselves. We cannot ordain priests except through the hand of the ordained, reaching back to Jesus and the Apostles. And we cannot offer perfect praise except through that sacramentally ordained ministry.

The point is not that priests are better Christians. The point is that the priesthood itself – all of our priestly service – is a gift from God. The sacramental priesthood is an icon showing that worship is a gift.

We further remind ourselves of that gift by invoking the word “name.” We only know God’s name because he has told us. Again, there is an icon of this truth in the Magisterium of the Church: God speaks to us from outside of us, through Scripture, interpreted by the Tradition, interpreted by the ordained leaders of the Church. To know God is all gift.


Finally, it is a gift that draws us together, not dispersed to our private rooms, but gathered around the altar of praise – gathered around the ordained priest, who leads us in procession.

When we pray “hallowed be thy name,” even in our private rooms, we call to mind the ordained priest and understand how all of life is drawn to the altar of praise.

How would it change your day if you saw it pointing to the altar?

Our Father: Baptism

seven sacramentsToday we begin a new series, exploring the sacraments through the Our Father. I laid out the general theme in a post several months ago. Now I want to take some time to consider how each line of the Our Father helps us think about a sacrament.

The purpose here points in both directions. On the one hand, we want to be able to pray the Our Father well. The sacraments can give some substance to the words, a way to focus on what we’re saying. On the other hand, we want to appreciate the sacraments. The Our Father can give us a way to appreciate each of the seven sacraments – and, indeed, a daily way to rediscover them all, for they are all important to our lives. At the heart of the Our Father is the most powerful prayer for making a spiritual communion. But while we’re at it, we can spiritually unite ourselves to all the other sacraments that surround communion.


We begin, then, with Baptism: Our Father, who art in heaven.

Baptism is the sacrament of rebirth. The word means “plunging.” The original rite involved going down into the water and coming up again. (We have radically simplified that rite; the Latin Church sometimes likes to minimize the experiential aspect of the sacraments in order to emphasize the divine power, which does not rely on us.) So the symbolism is of dying, as we go under the water, and rising again as we come up. There is freshness, a cleanness, a refreshment in this new life – just as there is some fear and trepidation as we approach the water. Baptism is death and rebirth.

But behind this rebirth is another element of rebirth, regeneration. It is not just that we are born again from the womb of the Church our Mother. It is even more that we are conceived again by God our Father.

Jesus is the only-begotten Son, the only one who is Son by nature. But in Baptism we are joined to him, so that we become sons and daughters – “sons in the Son,” says a traditional formula. We enter sacramentally into his human death, and so are reborn united to his divine sonship. We receive the power he put into the waters – and it is the “power to become children of God” (John 1:13).

We are born again “not of blood” – that is, this Sonship is not baked into our human nature. “Nor of the will of the flesh”: our sinfulness turns away from this Sonship. “Nor of the will of man” (John 1:13), because we simply do not have the power to make ourselves sons of God. We are born again “of God,” with the sonship only he can give us.


Every time we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we can remember that by Baptism we have been given a rebirth to heavenly life. We have been called – and truly are – sons and daughters of God. This dignity is heavenly, impossible to obtain apart from the infinite divine power of Jesus, through his sacraments. And it is heavenly, too, because our citizenship, our home, our inheritance, is in heaven, with the Father who has made us his own.

Every time we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we ought to remember how awesome our Baptism is. We carry that Baptism with us. It is our spiritual garment, the constant source of our spiritual dignity. And everytime we think of Baptism, we should realize that it has made us able to call the God of heaven our Father.


It is appropriate that Baptism comes first in the Our Father. Baptism is the door, the beginning. We remind ourselves of our Baptism at the door of the Church, because Baptism is our entrance into the mysteries of all the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the heart that beats at at the center of the Church, of the sacraments, and of the Christian life. Baptism is our wedding garment, without which we are not allowed entrance.

It is only a beginning. When we pray about Baptism at the beginning, we realize that it must be completed by worship (hallowed be thy name!), by service (thy kingdom come!), by endurance (thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!). It must be fulfilled by the Eucharist (give us this day our daily bread), by Penance (forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive), and by Suffering and Death itself (lead us not into the Test, but deliver us from the Evil).

We do not understand Baptism if we think it is the end. We do not understand our sonship if we think once we have it, nothing else matters. Baptism, and calling God our Father, is the beginning of our heavenly journey.

How does Baptism change the way you look at your life?

The Our Father and the Seven Sacraments

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

“Give us this day our daily bread” is a classic form of the spiritual communion.  It expresses the heart of receiving communion: Jesus become our bread, our only longing, our daily sustenance.  We enter more deeply into sacramental communion, or enter into it when we cannot sacramentally receive, by entering into this line of the Our Father.

On the other hand, the Eucharist gives us a deeper entrance into that line, helps us understand what those words really mean.  The sacrament gives substance to the prayer.


“Give us this day” is the heart of the Our Father, right in the middle.  The whole prayer, in a sense, revolves around this pivot, gives content to it.  One way to appreciate the Our Father as a whole is to think about how the seven petitions match with the seven sacraments.  As with “Give us this day,” the words of the Our Father help us enter into the sacraments, while at the same time the sacraments help us enter more deeply into the words of the Our Father.

There are other ways, of course, to approach these this.  People have found other ways to line up the sacraments with the Our Father.  I myself have written on this web page a commentary on the Our Father without the sacraments, dividing it into twelve rather than seven.  But this is the richness of revelation: a great writer like Shakespeare frequently says two things at once, and the Divine Author fills his words with a many complementary meanings.


Our Father, who art in heaven.  Baptism is the beginning of our life of faith, and the first line of the Our Father goes with it.  By Baptism we are reborn, not from earth, but from heaven.  By Baptism we can call God our Father; without Baptism, we cannot properly speak of him as our Father.

Hallowed be thy name.  We immediately raise our hands in worship.  And this is the heart of Holy Orders – we the laity look to the priests to lead us in hallowing the name of God.

Thy kingdom come.  The family is the first cell of society, the beginning of our building of the Kingdom.  Holy Matrimony is not the only way we build up his kingdom here on earth, but it is the first seed of that Kingdom.

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Whereas the “kingdom” speaks of order and community, “thy will” speaks of pure grit.  “On earth as in heaven” underlines the challenge: in heaven it will be easy, on earth it is hard, but we want to do his will here, as well.  The sacrament of that grit is Confirmation, the strengthening, the anointing for battle.  When we feel overcome, we call on our Confirmation: “thy will be done!”

These first four are the sacraments of mission.


Give us this day our daily bread is the arrival point, the heart of the matter.  It is the strength to live everything else, and the sweetness that the rest is for.

The last three petitions are not mission, but life, living it out.  Each of them has two parts, a complexity like life in the world.  “And” marks each new petition/sacrament.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  “Forgive us” is clearly the sacrament of Confession.  The second part, “as we forgive,” takes us to the depths of that sacrament, which bears fruit in our own transformation.  Nowhere is that transformation clearer than when we who have been forgiven begin to extend that mercy to others.


And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  The culmination is the richest, perhaps the most difficult part to understand, and it goes with a sacrament to match, the Anointing of the Sick.  Why does it say “but”?  Because temptation and deliverance go together, two sides of the same coin.  It is sickness, and sickness unto death, that shows us the connection.

The Lord leads us to death – death of various kinds, until the full death of our earthly body.  And death (even the little deaths) is the ultimate temptation, the temptation to despair.  But we pray that God will lead us not into temptation – let that not be the destination.  Rather, lead us through temptation, through the tempting, the test, the purification, to the liberation.  The temptations are the place of liberation.  If we can walk not into temptation, but past it, through it, temptation itself can be our liberation from evil.

This is the sacrament of the sick: God gives us death as the punishment of sin, but then he who walked to the Cross walks with us through death, so that the punishment itself becomes our liberation – because Christ is with us.


What riches can you find in the Our Father?

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?

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?

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 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?