Fr. Ron Millican
THE PRAYER TO BEGIN ALL PRAYER: THE LORD’S PRAYER, 4
In my last column dealing with the Our Father, the ultimate prayer because Jesus himself used and taught it to his disciples, I spoke of the intimacy this prayer creates in us. To call God “Father” is to acknowledge his closeness to us. However, if the words “our Father” teach that God is intimate, this phrase—“who art in heaven”—suggests that God is distant. This does not sound very good until we understand what Jesus is driving at.
Who Art in Heaven
Jesus does not mean to say God is physically distant; “heaven” is not a place. It is a way of being—existing in perfect love—and that way of being is so perfect that is unlike life as we know it (which, to put it nicely as possible, is not perfect in love).
Heaven in the Bible is usually contrasted with earth, as in the phrase “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This suggests that the one sphere, earth, has a long way to go to become like the other sphere, heaven.
The Bible usually used the word “holy” to talk about this. Holy does not mean “perfectly good in a religious sense,” but “set apart.” For example, I think most of us possess a special set of dinner ware that is used for special occasions like Thanksgiving. In one way this dinnerware is holy because it is set apart in many ways. It is set apart for the most special celebrations.
In calling God holy, we are saying that he is set apart, distinct, utterly different from human beings. God is nothing like us: He is infinite, and we are finite; he is all-knowing and present everywhere, and we are not; he is pure goodness and love, and we are not. And for those who enjoy philosophy, we participate in being, and he transcends being.
The practical point is this: The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we can never put God in a box, mold him into our image, or make him more acceptable to our sensibilities.
In her book, “Amazing Grace,” Kathleen Norris talks about this dimension of faith: “One so often hears people say, ‘I just can’t handle it,’ when they reject a biblical image of God as Father, as Mother, as Lord or Judge; God as lover, as angry or jealous, God on a cross. I find this choice of words revealing, however real the pain they reflect: If we seek a God we can “handle” that will be exactly what we get. A God we can manipulate, suspiciously like ourselves, the wideness of whose mercy we’ve cut down to size.”
As intimate as God becomes, he always remains himself, utterly distant from us, someone we hold in awe, some who continues to shape us—as well it should be if we do not want to narrowly confine the wideness of his mercy.
And so the beauty of the Sanctus we pray at Mass: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”