Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Our Father

Today's Gospel records Jesus' teaching of the 'Our Father', to his disciples. If you were present two days ago for the Rite of Election of candidates for baptism, you may have been surprised that, unlike most liturgical functions, it did not contain this most central of Christian prayers.

The reason is that Christian tradition regards the Lord's Prayer as part of the arcanum, the secrets that are known only to the initiated, and only passed on to catechumens as their initiation draws near. We have already prayed, in the Collect of the First Sunday of Lent, that we will grow in understanding of Christi arcanum, which our Missal translates (with a nod to Ephesians 3:8) as ‘the riches hidden in Christ’. The Lord’s Prayer will be handed on to the elect as part of the liturgy of the third scrutiny on the fifth Sunday of Lent. But they will only proclaim the prayer with the community for the first time after their Baptism and before their first reception of the Eucharist.

In our culture, the Lord's Prayer is widely known and used. Even unbaptised children in our schools are expected to learn and repeat it. Before the Council, the Roman liturgy contained more indications of its special character. At Mass, the celebrant would sing or say it alone, the rest of the assembly only responding with its final clause, sed libera nos a malo. On many other occasions, the bulk of the prayer was said silently, only the opening and the conclusion being audible. In many monastic communities the custom survives of the superior singing most of it on his or her own.

Theological support for this is found in the New Testament: 'unless a person is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God' (John 3,5); 'Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew . . . ' (1 Peter 1,3). Our new birth through baptism gives us a new Mother - the Church - and a new Father - God.

Hence the tentative tone of the introduction to the Our Father at Mass. The celebrant seems almost to be tip-toeing up to the prayer with a reverent hesitation. He refers twice to the giver of the prayer: 'the Saviour's command . . . divine teaching' but not directly, until finally, having screwed up his courage and presented his credentials, he dares to address God as Father.

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