Chan Lowe: A gift for the ages

PITTSFIELD — I'm not a theologian. I don't even play one on TV — so before a posse of clerics burns me at the stake, I'll just say that what follows are but the deranged musings of a lay sinner.

I was thinking about the Lord's Prayer the other day. From a journalistic standpoint, it's a masterpiece of conciseness and clarity. According to the Gospels, one of Jesus' disciples asked him how they should pray, and Jesus gave them the "Our Father" as his answer.

It's known as a universal prayer, and it works for just about any monotheist. People tend to forget that there was no such thing as "Christianity" in Jesus' time; in a theologically based society, he was considered a Jewish man of wisdom, with the title of "Rabbi." Whether or not you believe in his divinity, there is no question about his ability as a teacher to inspire. Muslims recognize him as the "penultimate prophet," after Muhammad.

Because so many of us recite it by rote, the Lord's Prayer can lose its potency as a supplication. I always felt that when a priest told a believer seeking absolution to "say X number of Our Fathers" as penance, he was doing the sinner a disfavor by stripping the words of meaning and reducing them to the level of writing "I will not talk in class" a hundred times on the blackboard.

Two distinct parts

When I examine the prayer, I see it divided into two parts: first, the petition, which acknowledges God's holiness even as it reaffirms the lowly status of the utterer. Clearly, this isn't for God's sake — He already knows. It's to get the one praying into the proper state of humility. For most of us, that doesn't come easily.

"Thy will be done" is a linguistic case that is unfamiliar to modern speakers — translated from Jacobean English, it means something like, "That we may do your will." Note the use of the archaic familiar second person singular, "thy" — establishing a personal, direct relationship rather than a formal, detached one.

Then we get to the second part — the real heart of the prayer, which though brief, packs clout. "Daily bread" is subject to controversy regarding the precise meaning of the ancient Greek word for "daily," but I would put such conflicts into the category of arguing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Basically, it means the nourishment one needs for both body and soul.

Next comes alternate wording — you have the option of forgiving debts or trespassers (sometimes "sins"). A friend of mine who has studied theology tells me that in Biblical times, there was a custom of forgiving debts every seven years or so. Considering that James' translation of the Bible into the vernacular (written by committee) kept a weather eye on contemporary politics, forgiving debts was anathema to the debt-holding class, so "trespassing" was subbed in. This reasoning sounds remarkably modern.

A welcome clarification

"Lead us not into temptation" has stymied theologians for centuries, so I feel better about being confused by that line. Why would a loving God willfully lead us into temptation? Pope Francis recently provided us some relief from this conundrum. In a news story out of the Vatican that came and went with the speed of Donald Trump's latest falsehood, Francis opined that the original Greek allows us some flexibility of interpretation. According to him, the line really means something like, "Safeguard us from succumbing to temptation," which makes a lot more sense in this context.

"Deliver us from evil." Evil is all around us, and is particularly insidious in C.S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters" sense, which is to say that the moment somebody has the hubris to bask in his own self-righteousness, Evil cheerfully chalks up another point on the scoreboard.

The rest of it, "For thine is the kingdom, etc." — called the Doxology — is an add-on used mainly by Protestants. According to both Matthew and Luke, Jesus didn't say it, so I suppose one can use it at one's own discretion.

The beauty of the prayer, in my opinion, is that it encompasses every topic the sinner needs to cover in his ongoing attempt to get things straight within himself. It's all really that simple, and there isn't a word the best copy editor could add or excise without diminishing its power.

Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.


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