Part 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?