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Praying the Our Father today

30 November, 1999

In this book, Brother John of Taizé explores the biblical background of the “Our Father” and shows how it can still be a prayer to express our spiritual desires today.

64pp. To purchase this book online, go to www.ocp.org/products/6056


1. “Teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1)
2. Our Father in heaven
3. Hallowed be your name
4. Your Kingdom come
5. Your will be done…
        … on earth as in heaven
6. Give us this day our daily bread (tomorrow’s bread)
7. And forgive us our debts
           as we also have forgiven our debtors
8. And keep us from entering into testing,
           but deliver us from the Evil One (from evil)
9. “Here I am; send me” (Is 6:8)




When the Christian Church was still in its infancy, one of its leaders wrote a letter to some of the newly baptized. In it he encouraged them to keep living lives of love, the touchstone of the new existence they had just entered. He then compared their baptism to a new birth:

[You have been] reborn not from a perishable seed, but from an imperishable one, through the living and lasting word of God (1 Pt 1:23).

A little further on, continuing with the same image, he gave them some advice for their lives:

As newborn babies, hunger after unadulterated spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up into salvation (1 Pt 2:2).

In this letter the Christian life is viewed as a seed of the Gospel planted in us, the source of a new existence which bears fruits of love. For this to happen, however, the seed has to be nourished so that it can grow. The primary question for believers, then, is not “how can I accomplish great feats in my life?” but rather “how can I nourish the seed of the Gospel planted in me so that it will grow and bear fruit?” In other words, what are the roots of our faith, the sources of the inner life? What enables us to receive new vitality over and over again?

One of the most important of these sources is prayer. Prayer is the act by which we place ourselves consciously and voluntarily in the presence of God. It is a time when human beings fully express their identity as believers. When we pray, we implicitly define ourselves as people who do not claim to find our source in ourselves; we come to God with open hands. God is, of course, always with us, and we may wish to live at every moment as if God were the beginning and end of our existence. But forgetfulness is part of the human condition, and our many activities and cares inevitably distract and scatter us. For this reason, those moments when we stop to center ourselves on “the one thing that matters” (see Lk 10:42) are essential.

But how should we pray? We will never stop asking this fundamental question, since prayer is something that we can never claim to have mastered completely; it is not a personal belonging, a reality we have understood once and for all. The world of prayer is a vast universe, and a whole lifetime is scarcely enough to explore a tiny part of it. Methods and advice can be found everywhere, but for the most part they do not satisfy, since they rarely deal with the question on a deep enough level.

The question about prayer is related to another question which is no less essential: who is God? It is obvious that if prayer is by definition a relationship with the One we call God, then it will change according to our view of who God is. Is God a tyrant jealous of my freedom, a schoolteacher obsessed with perfection, or someone who loves me as I am and who wants the best for me? The manner in which we conceive of God is inevitably linked to a particular way of praying.

To these two questions—”Who is God?” and “How should we pray?”—many answers are possible. Each individual can give his or her own answer; in addition, there are the collective answers which have been given by the great world religions in the course of history. If we call ourselves Christians, however, we cannot be content with a purely individual answer. We know that we belong to a faith-community that has existed for centuries, and so we depend not merely upon our own personal intuitions but on the faith of the whole of God’s people, a faith that goes back to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets of Israel; we walk in the footsteps of the apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ.

The faith of this community has been passed down from one generation to the next by a living tradition. Inspired writers gave it expression in books which make up what we call the Bible. When we read the Bible and meditate upon it, little by little we begin to glimpse, over centuries of history, the face of God and the features of the human partner that God desires.

Christians also know that everything in the Bible is not on the same level. At the center we find the figure of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection reveal God’s heart of hearts. It is this figure, whose coming had been prepared from the very beginning and who remains alive in the community that bears his name, who founds the unity of the entire Bible.

It is highly significant, therefore, that one day during his life on earth, Jesus’ disciples asked him the very same question that concerns us here: 

And it happened that, while he was praying in a certain spot, when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Lk11:1).

First of all, there is something very simple here that should be pointed out. Jesus prayed. We are used to considering Jesus, the “beloved Son” (Mk 1:11), as someone who lived in a permanent state of spontaneous intimacy with God. It is all the more striking, then, to realize that during his earthly existence, Jesus often took the time to stop and enter into a conscious and explicit relationship with God.

Second, what does the disciple’s question actually mean? First he watches Jesus pray, and then he says: “Teach us to pray.” Now the disciples were Jews, and therefore for them prayer was an essential part of their lives. They had prayers for all occasions—morning and evening prayers, table blessings, and so on. But here they are asking for something else. They want to learn Jesus’s prayer. In other words, they wish to be introduced into his own particular relationship with God. They are asking for a prayer that recapitulates the specific message of Jesus and that will clearly identify them as his disciples. So Jesus responds to their request by teaching them the Our Father (Lk11:2-4; Mt 6:9-13).

We can thus understand why, since the beginning of the third century at least (Tertullian), this prayer of Jesus has been considered a recapitulation of the whole Gospel. And yet, when we read it, we cannot can fail to be struck by two things: first, its utter simplicity—it is almost a child’s prayer—and second, the fact that practically all of its expressions are characteristic of Jewish prayers with their roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. These two factors may well conceal from us the newness and the power of this prayer.

And yet, from another point of view, here we have something analogous to the mystery of the Incarnation. When Jesus of Nazareth journeyed through the villages of Palestine some two thousand years ago, for many of his contemporaries his uniqueness was not all that obvious. A powerful preacher, healer, or miracle-worker, an impressive rabbi, perhaps even a genius … A great man, no doubt, but all in all a human being like us. Only those who took the time to follow him in response to a call that touched the depths of their being were gradually led to discover something of his innermost mystery: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Mt 16:16).

The same can be said of the prayer of Jesus, the Our Father. Only those who take the time to penetrate its mystery will be able to glimpse, beneath the ordinary appearances, beneath the expressions of the day coming from the prayer’s biblical and Jewish background, something unique, a kind of gateway into the inner life of God. This is what we are going to attempt in the following pages, by examining the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer one after another.

Questions for Reflection

1. In his preaching Jesus often used the image of a seed. How do the parables of the sower (Mk 4:1-9), the seed that grows by itself (Mk 4:26-29), the weeds and the wheat (Mt 13:24-30), the mustard seed (Mt 13:31-32) help us to understand his message?

2. What conception of God is implicit in Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-8?




If the Our Father is a recapitulation or summary of the message of Jesus, then the first words are, in their turn, a summary of the whole prayer. They thrust us into the very heart of the Gospel.

First of all, in the Greek text comes the word Father. To speak of God— or one of the gods—as a father is something that can be found in a number of civilizations. It is not surprising that, when they attempt to speak of the invisible realm of the divine, human beings borrow images from life here on earth—a father, a mother, a king, a shepherd, and so on. And it is easy to see why God would be referred to as a father: it is a way of describing the divinity as the Source of life.

In ancient Israel too, believers used images taken from daily life to speak of and to God. At the same time, the people of the Bible were deeply aware that their God was someone wholly Other, the Incomparable, a being beyond all the categories of human understanding. Thus the word “father,” which implies a relationship of great closeness between God and human beings, is occasionally used in the Hebrew Scriptures, but always with a certain discretion, and almost never in direct address. Moreover, in the Hebrew Bible, the image of a father does not reflect the fact that God is Creator of the universe, but refers rather to the birth of a people through the event of the Exodus and God’s support of this people in all the stages of their existence (Dt32:6; Is 63:16, 64:7; Mal 2:10). The title is sometimes used to express the special relationship existing between the Lord and the Lord’s people; nonetheless, it cannot be said that for Israel this is a customary way of addressing God.

It is all the more striking, then, to look at the Gospels with this as a background. Like every pious Jew, Jesus used the prayers of the Bible, the Psalms (e.g., Mk 15:34). But whenever he prayed in his own words, he began with the word “Father.” And, according to Mark 14:36, we know the exact word he used: it was the word Abba. At the time of Jesus there were two Semitic languages used in Palestine: Hebrew, the language of the Bible and the liturgy, and Aramaic, the language of everyday life. Now Abba is the Aramaic word for father, so we can imagine that the disciples of Jesus were somewhat disconcerted to hear him speak in that way to the living God. It was not customary to call upon the “Holy One of Israel” with such an everyday expression, an expression that could be heard on the lips of children in the streets when they shouted for their “papas.” The word must have indeed struck the hearers as something exceptional, for it is among the very few Aramaic expressions that we find in the books of the New Testament. The translation “Father” is simply juxtaposed alongside the Aramaic word, as if the word itself were the bearer of an important message.

What did Jesus wish to express by calling God Abba in his prayer? First, the word evokes a unique intimacy. Jesus, of course, was not the only Jewish believer to feel that God personally loved and took care of his people. For the Jews, God was never a cold and distant figure. But the relationship between Jesus and the one he called Abba was incomparably deeper and more intimate, so that we are justified in speaking of a total communion, a oneness. Later on, when Christians will confess that Jesus is the only Son of God, all they are doing is making explicit what is already contained in the simple word Abba.

Second, the use of the word Abba is a mark of trust, of filial love. Like a little child who turns to its father or mother whenever it encounters the least difficulty, whoever calls God Abba sees God as a permanent presence and source of security, especially in times of difficulty. And this confidence is the source of a tremendous freedom: Jesus lives in the certainty that “the Father has placed all things in his hand” (Jn 3:35; see Mt 11:27a).

Two key texts of Saint Paul will now bring us a step further:

When we were immature children, we were slaves to the elements of the world. But when the fullness of time came, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, to give us the gift of sonship. You are sons: God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his son that cries out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son and, if you are a son, then God has made you his heir (Gal 4:3-7).

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to be ruled once more by fear, but a spirit of sonship, by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The spirit in person testifies together with our own spirit that we are children of God. But if we are God’s children, we are also heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ, if in fact we suffer with him in order to be glorified as well with him (Rom 8:14-17).

In these texts Paul sums up the Christian life as the transition from the condition of a slave to that of a son. In other words, a relationship with God characterized by fear is transformed into a relationship of trust. And Paul considers this transformation not as the result of something we ourselves have done but as God’s own work through Jesus, God’s Son. In and through this Son we become in our turn sons (and daughters*) of God. By his life, death, and resurrection, Christ brings us into the very same relationship he has with God, “so that he might be the firstborn of many brothers and sisters” (Rom 8:29). He does this, continues Paul, by sending his Spirit into our hearts, the Spirit that cries out in us “Abba, Father.”

{*It is unfortunate that the word “son” is exclusively masculine, since it is certainly not Paul’s intention to limit this new relationship with God to male Christians. In the passage from Romans, Paul uses instead the Greek word tekna (“offspring,” “children”), a neuter plural; this is also John’s usual practice (Jn 1:12, 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1,2,10, 5:2). This has the inconvenience, however, of not emphasizing as strongly the incredible fact that Christ brings us into his very own relationship with God: in and through the Son, we become sons. In addition, the word “child,” though it well expresses the trusting attitude which is the essence of faith (Mk 10:15), has a connotation of immaturity which is, for Paul, the exact opposite of life in Christ, as is clear from Galatians 4:1-3 (see also 1 Cor 13:11, 14:20).}

Being able to say Abba to God, then, is a way of attesting to the fact that Jesus has brought us into a brand-new relationship with God; it also means expressing this relationship with the word he himself used and then passed on to us. It is a way of confessing our faith in a God who is a Source of trust, who is always there for us, and who wishes for us the fullness of life (Jn 10:10). From the very first word, then, those who pray the Our Father dare, with the trust of faith, to open their hearts to the gift of the Spirit and to occupy the place of Jesus, God’s beloved Son.

But whoever dares to enter into Jesus’ own prayer in this way, and to call God “Father,” must immediately add the word “our.” This simple word points as well to a fundamental truth of the Gospel: the new relationship with God has as its immediate consequence a new relationship among human beings. From now on we are no longer alone; we are members of a community. No individualistic relationship is possible with the God of Jesus Christ. Entering, with Jesus, into a new relationship with God means at the same time discovering that we are linked to all those who are walking on the same road.

One day, in response to a question, Jesus spoke of two great commandments that sum up the whole Torah—love of God and love of neighbor (Mt 22:34-40). If we look closer, however, we discover that in the Gospel these two commandments are seen to be two faces of one and the same reality. “No one who does not love his brother whom he sees can love God, whom he does not see” (1 Jn 4:20b). And the existence of the Christian community, where this mutual love is lived out day after day in concrete fashion, is the existential sign that the God of Jesus Christ is present and active at the heart of human history (see Jn 13:35; 1 Jn4:12).

Finally, we encounter the expression “in heaven.” A typically Jewish way of speaking, these words do not imply that God is far away. They are a way of explaining that, even though we call God “Father,” God still remains unique; God is not identical to a human parent. The image we have of God, of course, is formed in part from our experiences with other human beings. A person who has never experienced an authentic human love will have tremendous difficulty in trying to understand God’s love for him or her. At the same time, it is essential to realize that God’s love goes far beyond any human relationship, all the more so if our human experience of fatherhood has been incomplete or even negative.

In the final analysis, we can understand the words “Our Father” correctly only by looking at Jesus in the Gospels and by discovering his relationship with God. We must allow our understanding of this relationship to complete and, if necessary, to correct our own human experiences of love and fatherhood. Behind the Our Father stands not a human image or analogy, but a living, concrete relationship between Jesus and the One he calls Abba. Through Christ this unique relationship becomes accessible to us. When we say yes to Christ, we receive his Spirit and take part in his intimacy with the Father. To put it another way, we enter into the communion, the inner life, of the Holy Trinity. This is why, in the first Christian centuries, the Lord’s Prayer was one of the last things taught to those preparing for baptism. They recited it publicly for the first time just after their baptism, during the Easter Vigil, to celebrate the new stage of life they had just entered, a new relationship with God which paralleled their entry into the Christian community.

Questions for Reflection

1. Even if they do not use the word “father”, the Hebrew Scriptures present God as someone who is utterly trustworthy. How do the following passages explain the reason for this: Psalm 91; Psalm 103; Deuteronomy 7:7-8; Deuteronomy 26:1 -11?

2. In what way does the account of Jesus’ baptism (Mt 3:13-17) help us understand the first words of the Our Father?

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