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Monday 7 November 2011

Our Father

Fr Dominic Jacob preached this tenth sermon on the Mass on Sunday 6th November:

We have reached the end of the Canon, the Great prayer of Consecration, the main focus of the Mass, during which the bread and wine offered at the altar, become the Body and Blood of our Lord. We now move on to the Communion rite.

This begins with the Pater Noster, the Our Father, which St Thomas calls "The most perfect of prayers." This has always been part of the Mass, but it was not always where it is now, serving as a bridge between the Canon and the Communion, somehow belonging to both, uniting the sacrifice with the Banquet.

It was, Pope St Gregory the Great who had this prayer placed at the end of the Canon, which was the custom in the Greek Church where the prayer was said at that point by all present . One bishop, John of Syracuse, took issue with this innovation in the Roman Liturgy, but Pope Gregory defended his decision vigorously in a letter to the Sicilian bishop: "The Lord's Prayer," he wrote, "is recited immediately after the Canon, because it was a custom of the apostles to consecrate the offerings only when this prayer was also recited. It also seems most inappropriate to me, to recite at the sacrifice a prayer which was composed by some scholar, and to omit the recitation of the prayer which our Saviour himself composed, in the sacrifice of His Body and Blood."

One thing which has been restored in the new edition of the Missal is the more literal translation of the introduction to the prayer. "At the Saviour's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say..." it sounds rather more severe than the cosier introductions we were used to in the earlier translation and not a few have raised the question as to why we "dare" to say the Our Father. It's a fair question. But the truth is, we have always "dared" to call God our Father. Not, however, in any craven way as though we were terrified of the Lord. Surely it's about reverence before Almighty God, remembering first that God is God and that here we stand on holy ground. Here, in our presence, the Lord has done something truly awesome in making the Divine Presence a reality in the Sacrament of the altar. More than this - we, who are nothing, have been given through the grace of our baptism, a tremendous privilege: to call God our Father. On this matter, St Peter Chrysologus said: "Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to cry ...'Abba, Father!'...When would a mortal dare call God 'father', if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?"

We "dare" to call God father, because Our Lord has told us we should: "When you pray, say this..." Moreover (and I quote the Catechism here) the "power of the Spirit who introduces us to the Lord's Prayer is expressed... by the beautiful, characteristically Christian expression: parrhesia, straightforward simplicity, filial trust, joyous assurance, humble boldness, the certainty of being loved." (CCC 2778) So when we pray this prayer, we do so confidently, as a child coming before a father. St Philip once taught an old lady how to pray simply by helping her enter into the Our Father, and think about it clause by clause, beginning with what a marvellous thing it is to have God as our Father. It is important that we meditate on this often.

Another reason why the Lord's Prayer is such a good bridge to Communion is expressed in its central phrase: "Give us this day our daily bread." This was understood by early writers such as Origen, Tertullian and St Cyprian as a reference to the Holy Eucharist, "the daily bread which nourishes and preserves the divine life within us."

But there is another clause in the prayer which lends weight to its being included as part of the preparation for Holy Communion. This is the petition for the forgiveness of our sins and our deliverance from all evil. St Augustine puts it rather neatly: "When, because of human weakness, our minds have conceived something improper, or our tongues have spoken something unjust... these things will be removed through the Lord's Prayer, when we say: 'Forgive us our trespasses', and we may approach without fear and not eat and drink what we receive to our own judgement."

The first section of the Lord's Prayer, where we dwell on the nature of God, and implore him to make his presence felt on earth, and the last section, where we dwell on our response to his love, linking the forgiveness he gives us with that we ourselves must show to others, are the two wings that make this prayer so powerful. If you take the wings of a bird apart, you may understand how they work, but the bird will no longer be able to fly. Faith cannot exist without the wings of prayer and there is no better way to make that leap of faith which is so essential to our Christian lives than to speak the language of God himself, using the prayer with which the Son catches us up into the life of the Father, the life of the Kingdom for which our hearts yearn.