The prayer that leads us to the imitation of Christ

Miguel Augusto

Dr. Scott Hahn, Professor of Biblical Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, spoke about the Our Father at a conference called ‘Deep in History’ more than a decade ago. In his talk, he leads us into a theological reflection, which we have referred to. Dr. Hahn mirrors the greatness and depth of the Our Father, a prayer that for him “we pray a lot, but ponder little”. The entire talk is available on YouTube.

Jesus gave us the perfect prayer, begins Dr. Hahn, immediately pointing out that it is the prayer that the Catholic Church recites after the Consecration, before Communion, at the climax of the Holy Mass. Dr. Hahn emphasizes that it was uttered by Jesus in the most famous of all His sermons – the first sermon that the Evangelist Matthew records, known as the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the Gospel of St Matthew). “The Our Father is the heart; it is the centerpiece of this sermon. In fact, in this first of His public sermons, He calls upon God His father. He teaches us to recognize God as a father. He uses the word [Father] 17 times in just three chapters, which is more than you will find God referred to as Father in the entire Hebrew Bible,” the Dr. Hahn stresses.

Luke the Evangelist, Hahn recalls, shows us that the Lord actually gave the prayer in response to a request that came from the disciples. Luke tells us, in fact, that it was Jesus praying all night long in His private vigil when the disciples came to Him in the morning. They realized that He had been up all night praying, and so they asked Him: “Lord, teach us to pray”.

For Dr. Hahn, this request itself was God’s answer to Jesus’ night of prayer. “We will never be true disciples of Christ until we become like Christ. We will never be like Jesus, until we learn how to pray as Jesus did. So, the very desire to pray is itself a result of Christ’s prayer, and in this case, Jesus gave them truly what is the most perfect of prayers,” he says.

Dr. Hahn quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which states the following:  “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers…. In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired. This prayer not only teaches us to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them [St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae]” (CCC, 2763).

Our Father – The Seven Petitions

The Lord’s Prayer is divided into 7 petitions. Dr. Hahn reminds us that the number seven is sacred since it symbolizes perfection. Dr. Hahn tells us about the structure of the Our Father; that the seven petitions are divided into two parts – one with three petitions, and the other with four. He adds that the first three we might describe as “God’s Word”. He says, “We are praying for: ‘hallowed be thy Name’, ‘thy Kingdom come’, and ‘thy will be done’. And then the last four, the second part. Here we speak of us: ‘give us’, ‘forgive us’, ‘guide us’ and ‘free us’. The sequence, it’s sort of like backwards. Because how do we typically pray when we find ourselves in trouble? We start by kind of crying out with our weaknesses. This prayer kind of tells us to avoid that sort of pattern. The sequence is as if from back to front. We focus on God’s strength.”

For Hahn, Christ has just launched a revolution in the history of universal religion, “By teaching his disciples to do what not even the most devout rabbis did in ancient Judaism – to address God as Father. Father in ancient Judaism was a metaphor, a figure of speech, something that we can compare God to. That changed when God sent His only Begotten Son.”

“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name” – If God is our Father, then we are his family, says Dr. Hahn. And he stresses, “If He is in heaven, what does this opening line remind us of? We’re not home yet; along the way is the pilgrimage. What separates us from God is sin. Sin is what obliterates the sense of God’s Fatherhood.”

Sanctified is the same as holy. Dr. Hahn highlights that we are praying ‘may thy name be holy’. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear that the petition does not have a causative meaning. He adds, “So, what does it mean? God as a Father, we bear His name; that’s what children do. The Catechism states [paragraph 2839] that when we pray that His name be hallowed, we are begging God to make us saints. The whole world, the way God has designed it and governs it, is one big saint-making machine.”

“Thy Kingdom Come” – That makes us more than just sons and daughters, asserts Dr. Hahn, adding, “It gives us a royal vocation, but notice – it’s a Kingdom. I want to propose to you that there is a reason why we all pray this family prayer together every week at one and the same time. After the Consecration and right before Holy Communion. And why? Because the Kingdom is not just futuristic, it is also Eucharistic.” 

“Your will be done” – This petition, for Dr. Hahn, is a gentle reminder of the truth that matters most: we pray for God to change our will. We recognize that not only does He know us better than we know ourselves, He loves us more than we love ourselves. Hahn points out that this petition is well understood by St Therese (Lisieux), who said in The Story of a Soul (her autobiography): “God gives me whatever I want. Because I want all that He gives me”.

“Give us this day our daily bread” – We see something representative of the Eucharist. Jesus was a Jew, and He was talking to Jews. Dr. Hahn questions, “In the desert for 40 years, what did God do? He was a Father waiting on His family hand and foot. He was giving them the manna.” When we pray “give us this day our daily bread”, when does God do it? Dr. Hahn asks us the question and adds, “Throughout our meals, but especially in one sacrificial communion meal: the Eucharist.”

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” – Here we are given a great challenge. The Lord challenges us to grow as His children because He wants us to be holy. Dr. Hahn says, “Not spoiled children; selfish, immature. God wants me to hate my sin more than other people’s sins.”

“Lead us not into temptation” Dr. Hahn notes that God does not seduce or tempt. He quotes from the Letter of James, which says it very clearly: “No one experiencing temptation should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). For Hahn, why should God think of testing us as His sons and daughters? He answers, “Not to find out what He doesn’t know, but precisely to show us what we don’t know. When we faced tests, trials, we discover – I’m not as strong as I thought I was. God shows my weaknesses in order for me to discover His power and for me to desire it much more than I have up until now.” 

“Deliver us from Evil” – In this last petition, Dr. Hahn reinforces it is important to note that it is not generic evil here. In all veracity, it is, he says, “‘deliver us from the evil one’. We’re no match for the devil, but he’s no match for Our Father.” Our Lord taught us to recognize that we are faced with an enemy that we cannot overcome on our own. However, Dr. Hahn leaves a strong encouragement by Jesus’ words, “You belong to God, children, and you have conquered them, for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

During his reflection, Dr. Hahn always draws a parallel between the Lord’s Prayer and the Holy Mass. In conclusion, he exhalts the Our Father prayer, centered on the Holy Mass, by saying, “So where does God release His power to deliver us from evil more than anything else that we do on Earth? In the Mass! This is one of those prayers that is deeper than the ocean. It is inexhaustible. It is the most perfect prayer, especially when we pray it in the most perfect and blessed of sacraments: the Eucharist.”

 (Image: Faithful in prayer before the Holy Mass. St Dominic’s Church, Macau. Photo: Miguel Augusto)