15 November 2007

The Lord's Prayer: Initiation into a life of Invocation (brief)

With Advent nearing I am looking afresh at the Lord's Prayer. After all, it summarizes what Jesus' vocation was all about, how he prayed, how he lived, what had priority for him, and what, by extension, constitutes Christian existence. Learning to pray this prayer is not a one-time task, and recitation of it is not without risks and challenges. Instead, we are invited to learn to pray as Jesus did, to pour ourselves into its petitions, day by day and "layer" of self by layer of self. It calls us, and provides a concrete way, to allow our hearts and lives to be shaped as Jesus' was. Yes, it teaches us to pray rightly, but more, it initiates us into a life of prayer; more correctly said perhaps, it molds and shapes us into the very prayers we are called to BE. (I am convinced that the admonition to "pray always" is a statement of the purpose of human life, and that prayer is not only an activity we are to undertake, but something we are to become. When we call Jesus "the Word made Flesh," we really are calling him an incarnate prayer, a Word event whose whole being glorifies (reveals and allows God to be) God in space and time.)

One of the things that comes up again and again is just how deceptively familiar the prayer is for us. We recite it daily, sometimes several times a day; and yet, almost every petition holds surprises for us. We simply don't know what the words mean or what they summon us to. The invocation is a particularly striking example. Luke's version of the prayer has simply, "Pater" (or "Abba"), while Matthew's has the more litugically suited and formed, "Our Father, who Art in Heaven!" Some people in parishes have problems calling God "Father," because they treat the word as a metaphor, and as an instance of human patriarchy or paternalism writ-very-large. Others love that God is called "abba, pater" because it apotheosizes or raises to divine level their own patriarchal pretensions. And yet, both groups have gotten something very basic wrong, namely, the invocation to the Lord's Prayer is not merely a metaphor describing divinity's "paternalness" --- one characteristic among others including maternalness. It is instead a NAME, and as a name it is symbol, not merely metaphor, and it FUNCTIONS as a name does. The Lord's Prayer begins with the revelation of and permission to invoke God BY NAME even if Matt's elaborate formulation obscures this for English readers. In Christ we are allowed, and in fact, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to call upon God as Abba, where Abba is a personal word of address which does far less to describe God than it does to give him a personal place to stand in our world.

We will miss this though, if we do not move beyond the prayer's familiarity and treat the invocation as a description of or metaphor for God. Remember, for instance, that the word "Abba" is in the vocative case, the case used for direct address. Remember that Jesus used the term "Abba" with a unique intimacy and familiarity, not as a description of God, but as direct address and name. Remember that his usage was unprecedented in Palestinian Judaism (Judiasm of the diaspora was somewhat different), not only because Jews tended to avoid referring to God as Abba (pagans did that all the time!), or because using Abba as a name and speaking it directly was too presumptuous (Divine names were not spoken or even written out), but also because the times they did refer to God as Father, it was in a collective sense and more metaphor or descriptor than name. Remember too that in Matt's day people LONGED to know both the REAL Name of God, and that their prayer was truly effective. So desperate were they that they stood on street corners reading from magic papyri which listed every known name of God. When Matthew warns us about using empty words in our prayers this is the practice he is referring to, a practice driven by the need to know and invoke God by name --- a need to pray with genuine authority and power.

But, along comes Jesus with his unique relationship with this One he calls by name as Abba, thus addressing God with an unheard of familiarity and intimacy. He speaks, lives, and teaches with a new kind of authority. To put it plainly, Jesus is on a first name basis with God; he speaks in the NAME of God. Their relationship is unique and the exchanges between them equally so. When we attend to his prayer, we see that Jesus calls upon God BY NAME as "Abba, Father." He gives this One a personal place to stand in the world in the way only invocation can do, invocation in both narrower and broader senses: that is, addressing or calling upon another by name and living one's life in the name of that other implicating them in all one is and does. Jesus reveals (makes real in space and time) a new Name for God. God is no longer simply the One who will be (present with us as) who he will be (present with us) [ehyeh asher ehyeh, YHWH]; he is Abba, and the One whom he will be is revealed definitively in Christ. By extension, Christians are those marked by this name, who, through the adoption of baptism live within its power and presence, who "call upon" or invoke God in this way. It is the symbol or name marking our vocation in this world, just as it marked that of Jesus.

As I have written here before, the life of Christian prayer is a life of invocation. The task before us and which we reflect on anew each Advent is to learn and embrace what it means to live as those who call upon and live life in the Name of another --- and not just any other, but the One Jesus revealed as "Abba, Father." The Lord's Prayer initiates us into this life, and the first line, the only non-petition in the entire prayer, embodies or symbolizes the whole of this vocation. It is both invitation and challenge: not only to take this Name upon our lips, but to glorify the name of God with our lives, to become those who truly are adopted daughters and sons of the One we call Abba, Father.