The Lord’s Prayer


Fallen man needs help to pray. It is not something that comes naturally to us any more. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, his instructions are summarized in what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer, coupled with several important exhortations. In the Gospel of Matthew they are told to pray in their “inner room” or “treasury” with the door shut, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (6:6). They are also told to fast in secret (6:17-18), and their treasury is not to be used to store anything that moths or rust or thieves may take away from them, but only heavenly treasures, for “where you treasure is, there will your heart be also” (6:21). The rest of Matthew chapters 6 and 7 should be read as a continuation of these teachings on prayer – about the inner room of the heart and how to keep it empty of all but heavenly things. These instructions on prayer are situated in the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount, so that prayer and action are fully integrated in the teachings on Christian life.

The Lord’s Prayer as reported in the Gospels consists of five or seven petitions. The five listed by Luke (11:1-4) expand into the seven listed by Matthew (6:9-13), which are the ones adopted by the liturgy of the Church. Here are the five in Luke:



1. Hallowed be thy name.

2. Thy Kingdom come.

3. Give us each day our daily bread,

4. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us;

5. And lead us not into temptation.


And here are the seven, from Matthew’s Gospel:


Our Father, who art in heaven,

1. Hallowed be thy name.

2. Thy Kingdom come.

3. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

4. Give us this day our daily bread,

5. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

6. And lead us not into temptation

7. But deliver us from evil.


The structure of the prayer is interesting. In the case of the five, we might think of the human body in the form of a five-pointed star – the head and four limbs. The first petition, the hallowing of the Father’s name, can be assigned to the head, the next two to the right and left hands, and the last to the feet.

In the case of the seven, we might associate them with the sacraments, or the days of creation, as I have done in my book The Seven Sacraments, and also with the seven fundamental needs of the human person as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2803-2854).

The petitions begin with God and end with deliverance from evil; so that if read in reverse order they represent an ascent to God from the depths of our worldly state. In both cases, the petition for daily bread is in the middle – number three of five, or number four of seven. This middle petition refers mystically to the Eucharist, which is the heart of the Church. (As Henri de Lubac put it, “The Eucharist makes the Church.”) For the Church comes from the heart of Jesus, from his love, demonstrated symbolically by the flow of blood and water from his side as he hung on the Cross. This is the river of the sacraments, in which we are baptized and from which we are born as children of God.


Commentary on the Seven Petitions


1. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

The uniqueness of Christianity revolves around the unique relationship of Jesus to his Father, whom he called Abba, “Daddy”. Through the Jewish prophets, man had been prepared to view God not simply as Creator of all things, but as Father, the head of our family, united to us in a Covenant to which he had bound himself for all time. In the blood of Jesus, a new Covenant is made and a new Name is given, a more intimate Name, one that only Jesus has a right to use. Into this right we enter not as individuals but as a community, in communion with each other, which is why we say Our Father, not simply Father.

The names of God are many – some say seventy-two, some say a hundred, some say an indefinite number. Each name represents God under some attribute, and God remains the Nameless One because in himself he transcends every attribute and every conception we have of him. But he knows himself, even if we do not know him.

The knowledge God has of himself is perfect, and God’s conception of himself is the Father’s begetting of the Son. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). Thus in the beginning, which means not just at the start but in the Archetype or Principle (the true “beginning” of things, including time itself), the Word was with God, and Word was God (John 1:1). Since the knowing of the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father is also perfect, and identical with the divine nature, it is also a Person – the Holy Spirit. Thus God as he is in himself is Trinity. The Trinity is the knowledge of God in and by himself, transcending all knowing of him by creatures.

That is why the naming of God as Trinity, as Father, is the right not of creatures but of the Son; that is, of God himself, and why we can only name him “as he is in heaven” in his transcendent glory when we are part of the Son, joined to him in baptism as members of the Church, as members of the corporate Person who is the Bride of God. This is the New Covenant in the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father, with the Son, in the Spirit.

God’s name is hallowed, kept holy or sacred, set definitively apart from all that is not God, by the fact that it can only be spoken from within the Trinity, the inner room to which God the Son has granted us access – since “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man” (John 3:13), who is also the Son of God.

The Name of God is the first sacrament. When God speaks, he reveals himself – just as when we speak, we reveal ourselves. Thus when he speaks in eternity the Word that is his Son, the Son is in fact the Name that reveals God to himself. This Word is carried on the Breath of God which is the Holy Spirit. And because by his Word he causes the world to be, the world is a representation of the Word, and it is a “Name” of God also. And when within the world he sends the Word into the womb of Mary, the Word becomes flesh. Thus the sacraments are born every time Jesus tells us that “I am”.


2. Thy Kingdom come.

If the Name refers to the inner sanctum of God’s own identity within the Trinity, the Kingdom is the radiation of that identity through creation. The Kingdom is to “come”, which means it lies from our point of view in the future. It is the essence of all we pray for – union with God, the Coronation of the Virgin, the divinization of the creature by grace.

God’s Kingdom comes by the radiation or sending of the Holy Spirit, as in the crowning of the Disciples with tongues of fire at Pentecost. In that sense the Church is the Kingdom; but the Church is only partially realized on earth until the times are fulfilled and all are safely gathered in. Many who appear to be part of the Church are spiritually cut off, and many who seem cut off from her are members of the Church invisibly, their numbers known only to God. “But many that are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

In order to appreciate fully the import of this petition we should read the Book of Revelation, where the Throne of God is unveiled. On the Throne of the Father is the Lamb who is the Son, and around it are the four Creatures, and the twenty-four Elders, and the Angels, bowed low and singing praise. The One who sits on the Throne makes all things new, and the Holy City descends from heaven like a bride.

The Kingdom is Sophia, God’s Wisdom which is his majesty and beauty, into which the whole creation is taken up through the Incarnation of the Son, in the marriage of the divine and human natures.


3. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Almost breathlessly the Prayer moves from anticipation of the Kingdom to the grounding of that Kingdom in the earth by obedience to God. If the first Petition expresses Faith, the second Hope, then the third concerns Love. It is by love alone that the will of another can become my will, without force or compulsion but joyfully and perfectly. The distinction between heaven and earth remains, even in the Book of Revelation, but the same will is done in each, because the fulfilment of everything that pertains to the earth lies in the heavenly will alone.

The petition echoes the fiat of Mary at the Annunciation (“let it be to me according to your word”) and of Christ in Gethsemane (“not my will, but thine, be done”). It is in these prayers that we see earth, or human nature, making it possible for God’s will to be done as in heaven.

The will of heaven, which is love, is the Holy Spirit. Thus this petition is a prayer for the Spirit to descend from heaven to earth, and to fill the earth, as he began to do at Pentecost, and as he had already done in the soul of the Blessed Virgin.


4. Give us this day our daily bread.

It might seem pointless, foolish, to ask God for the most basic requirements of life, the ones that seem most under our control. Of course bread is for us to make, to fight for, to wrest from the soil, to buy from our neighbour…. Yet of course this petition makes the point that we are dependent on God for our very existence, and our survival from day to day. Bread may be the work of human hands, it may come to us from a bakery or supermarket, but it would not do so if God did not permit it, if his Providence did not arrange for us to receive it, and if he did not create every single ingredient out of his love.

When the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to eat, after he has been talking with the Samaritan woman, he replies, “I have food to eat of which you do not know…. My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:31-4). In the wilderness, tempted in his great hunger by Satan, he refuses to turn stones into bread, because “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). So for Jesus – who is in his own Person the “word” that proceeds from the mouth of God – his nourishment, his daily bread, is to do the Father’s will, and only secondarily to eat bread. The same should be true for us. The spirit in us is nourished by the right kind of obedience.

The spirituality of this obedience is described beautifully by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. In every moment God makes plain his will for us, by placing before us certain duties (be they as “spiritual” as going to Mass or as mundane as household chores), or else by prompting us to do things that we could as easily have left undone. Whatever it is, however trivial or banal, God’s “bread” is in that thing and it is a sacrament for us, a source of nourishment for our soul.

The word “daily” is a translation of the very unique word epiousios, which the Vulgate renders “supersubstantial” or “above” substance, referring to the higher substance of the Blessed Eucharist. Its plainer meaning is simply “sufficient for the day”, meaning bread that is enough to take us through the next twenty-four hours. In this sense it reminds us of the manna that fell in the desert to feed the tribes of Israel , but which could not be hoarded for the day after since it would quickly become corrupt.


5. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

We ask to be forgiven what we owe to God. For to sin is to take something away from God, which means that we must now owe it back to him. Something is taken away from the glory of God by every sin. But no matter how small the sin, the debt is infinite by virtue of the infinity that is lost. That is why none can pay it back except the Son.

Here we confront the mystery of the Trinity once more, in the mystery of “justification”. Without Christ, his Incarnation and Passion, men would have remained creatures of God; but they would have been nothing more than that. Their imperfect adherence to God and his natural law would have been compensated for in various ways. Every religion has ways of bringing or binding us back to God, in the form of symbols and rituals and sacrifices. But as St Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, none of this makes us truly righteous. The gap always remains infinite.

In that sense we can never be truly “forgiven” without Christ. We can be tolerated by God, we can be blessed by him and comforted by him, as a creature is by its Creator, but there will always be a reconciliation still to accomplish, a penance to be made, a debt to be repaid; one that man who is not God cannot perform. But the man who is God can perform this sacrifice. He alone can pay this infinite debt, by giving his infinity, and he has done so.

This means that the forgiveness attained in Christ, through baptism (and regained after subsequent sin in the sacrament of penance and the Eucharist), is a whole other thing than any that might have been attained outside him. It overcomes the infinite chasm that the rejection of grace by our first parents had opened up. It pours into our hearts the living presence of the Holy Spirit, with the Father and Son. That is not the same as simply the presence that God has within us as the Creator in the hearts of his creatures. It is the Spirit of Sonship. It makes us no longer creatures, in a sense, but deifies us with the life of the Trinity.


6. And lead us not into temptation

“Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (James 1:12-15).


God leads us into temptation the way the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness after his Baptism in the Jordan so that he might be tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1). In other words, he permits us to be tempted, or creates opportunities for us to be tempted (not by himself but by the devil), and he always has a reason for doing so. But we pray not to be so led, unless it is God’s will, because no one must presume that he is strong enough to resist the temptation. “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).


If we are tested, it is because we need to learn something. And though we may give way, God can give us the grace to resist. Certainly without his help the task would be hopeless. In defeating temptation we draw upon the victory of Christ against his three temptations; and we resist temptation only in Christ, in communion with him through the Holy Spirit.


7. But deliver us from evil

Now we reach the baseline of our plea. We need to be rescued from all the woes of the world and the enemies of the spirit. We have given into temptation, we have fallen into the gravity-well that leads to hell, we have come up against the one who seeks to obstruct God – the one who “throws himself across” the Way of Jesus (dia-bolos).

The destruction of the Way in us is a fragmentation of the self, a shattering of the image of God, so that the “I am” is lost. The light that comes from God and shines in the pure soul is darkened and fogged, refracted and misdirected. From this state of confusion, of being lost in the fog, we must seek to be rescued. We must allow our “I” to be rebuilt. It is with this need that the Lord’s Prayer confronts us at the end, so that we can begin again by appealing to “Our Father” who shines above all the darkness, in communion with the Son whom darkness cannot overcome.