“Pray then in this way”, Matthew 6:9
In times past, preparation for confirmation in the Church of Ireland was very structured and included very specific elements. People who remember their confirmation service may remember that there was a preface read at each service, it began, “To the end that Confirmation may be ministered to the more edifying of such as shall receive it, the Church hath thought good to order, That none hereafter shall be confirmed, but such as can say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments; and have been further instructed in the Church Catechism, set forth for that purpose”. Many churches had stone tablets or brass plates on the east wall on which would be inscribed the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments so that worshippers would have had a confirmation “refresher” course when they came to church each Sunday.
After those learning the catechism had recited their duties towards God and their neighbour, the person teaching them would then say, “My good Child, know this; that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the Commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace; which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer. Let me hear, therefore, if thou canst say the Lord’s Prayer”.
How many young people at eleven or twelve years of age understood what was being taught to them? How many of those doing the teaching could have explained what was meant by “special grace”? The catechism teaches us that we cannot be the people God would have us to be without his grace and tells us we should pray for such grace using the prayer that Jesus taught us.
The translation of the Lord’s Prayer that was taught in the catechism, which is the translation still in use in most English-speaking churches, is the translation that was used in the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer; it is not the translation that appeared in the 1611 King James Bible, something that probably, on occasion, caused confusion to churchgoers.
Once the Lord’s Prayer had been said, those learning the catechism were then asked, “What desirest thou of God in this Prayer?” The answer they learned was intended as an explanation of each part of the Lord’s Prayer. The answer begins, “I desire my Lord God, our heavenly Father, who is the giver of all goodness, to send his grace unto me, and to all people; that we may worship him, serve him, and obey him, as we ought to do”.
Surely, this is no more than a partial explanation of Jesus’ words that begin the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven”. The catechism recognizes God as Father, an idea that was and giver of all good things and it talks about people’s response to him, but it leaves out the coming of God’s Kingdom.
“Thy kingdom come” is a statement by Jesus that the rulers of this world have not built God’s kingdom, that his rule is still something for which we must pray. How often, when we say the Lord’s Prayer do we think about the world in which we live and think about how much different God’s kingdom would be? When we look at the pictures shown on the television news, how often do we simply say, in response to horrific pictures, “thy kingdom come”?
“Give us this day our daily bread”, Jesus teaches his disciples. The catechism explains is words as, “I pray unto God, that he will send us all things that are needful both for our souls and bodies.” Actually, it means much more. The word Jesus uses for “daily” is not just about today, some people have translated his words as “give us today the bread of tomorrow”. He has taught us to pray for the coming of his kingdom and now he teaches us to pray for the provision brought by that kingdom, not in some distant point in the future, but here and now, in our own time.
If we have enough for our daily needs, then perhaps Jesus’ words do not mean that much to us. If we lived our lives as one of the world’s poor, the prayer, “give us today the bread of tomorrow” might mean something altogether different; it is asking for God’s way of sharing things become real in our own time.
The catechism says that we should desire of God “that he will be merciful unto us, and forgive us our sins”. Again, this is only a partial reflection of what Jesus teaches. His words are, “And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us”, which is much more challenging than simply asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus explains God’s way of doing things in Saint Matthew Chapter 7 Verses 1-2, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get”.
The catechism plays down Jesus’ words: it was written by powerful people in times when forgiveness was not common, particularly if you were poor. In our own times, if we realize that we are praying to God that he should only forgive us to the extent that we forgive others, it should make us reflect on our relationships with others, not just individual relationships, but relationships between different communities. We love because God first loved us, and we should forgive because God first forgave us.
The Lord’s Prayer concludes, “And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. Amen”. The catechism’s explanation of the concluding words tell us we desire “that it will please him to save and defend us in all dangers both of soul and body; and that he will keep us from all sin and wickedness, and from our spiritual enemy, and from everlasting death. And this I trust he will do of his mercy and goodness, through our Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore I say, Amen, So be it”.
If we think of the earlier parts of the Lord’s Prayer, where we are praying for the coming of the Kingdom, we saw the Lord’s Prayer was about more than just the private and the personal. Of course it is about the Kingdom coming in our own personal lives, but it is also about God’s justice on Earth. Similarly, the prayer to avoid temptation and to be delivered from evil is about more than just ourselves, it is about more than just our own souls and bodies. “Lead us not into temptation” should be as much a challenge to corruption in high places as a challenge to us to leads lives of personal integrity. “Deliver us from evil” should be as much a prayer for those we see on the television news as a prayer for our own protection.
It is the nature of the catechism, something that was people saying back the words they had been taught, that it can be something dry and formalised, something where people can say the words without those words ever touching their hearts. It is our challenge, all though our lives, to make the words real, to live out the lines we were taught. If Christians lived the Lord’s Prayer, as well as saying the words of it, our world would be changed.