Vol. XVIII, No. 10
The Our Father — Prayer of the Crucified
by Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap.
During His crucifixion what was Jesus’ mental disposition? What was the form and content of His prayer? Despite the unimaginable physical pain and emotional distress, we know that during the course of His crucifixion Jesus’ heart and mind were consumed with love — love for His Father and love for each human person.
We know too that Jesus was not undergoing His crucifixion in a passive manner, as if He were merely submissively enduring what was happening to Him. Rather, He was using what was being done to Him as a divinely ordained event by which He would ardently give His life as an act of sacrificial love to the Father. This Spirit-filled offering of His life to His Father was lovingly done in our stead and on our behalf. Jesus on the cross must have prayed to His Father out of love for His Father and He must have prayed for us out of love for us.
We know that, in His cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”, Jesus prayed the whole of Psalm 22 (concluding with “It is finished”), which, in the midst of horrendous suffering, the afflicted man trusts in the Lord and is confident that he will be delivered from the present evil only to manifest God’s glory among all the nations.
With this in mind I want to suggest that one of the prayers that Jesus prayed while on the cross was the prayer that He taught His disciples to pray — the Our Father. This thought first came to me when I was recently celebrating Mass. When it came time for the Our Father, I looked up from the Missal (since it was now one of the few prayers of the new Roman Missal that I knew by heart) and looked at the crucifix before me. I thought to myself: “Jesus prayed the Our Father when He was on the cross.” Immediately the Our Father, in its totality, took on a fuller and richer meaning.
Some may object that there is no biblical evidence that Jesus prayed the Our Father during His crucifixion. That is true. Nowhere do the Gospels state that Jesus did so.
However, as I hope to demonstrate, that only if Jesus did pray the Our Father while He was nailed to the cross does it assume its most profound significance and acquire the fullness of its truth. Only because Jesus prayed the Our Father on the cross was the fullness of its salvific potential and historical consequence actualized. Moreover, everyone else who prays the Our Father does so only in union with and in imitation of the crucified Jesus, and they do so with it having been imbued with the meaning and authority that the cross has indelibly conferred upon it.
Thus, I will assume, for the sake of this essay, that the crucified Jesus actually did pray the Our Father. Allow me, then, to examine the Our Father in the light of Jesus having prayed it while He was on the cross.
Most scholars are confident that when Jesus taught His disciples to pray “our Father,” the Aramaic word He spoke for “father” was “abba”, thus designating their filial loving intimacy with the Father and the Father’s paternal loving intimacy with them. Two interrelated truths can be perceived in the crucified Jesus saying “our Father.”
First Jesus, as man, addressed God as Father and He did so precisely because He alone is the eternal Son of the Father, begotten and not made, consubstantial with the Father. Jesus, therefore, enjoys the privilege and the right to address God as Father, as Abba, in a singular and definitive manner.
Second, Jesus did not say “my Father” or simply “Father.” He addressed His Father as “our Father.” He did so because it is specifically on the cross that Jesus was obtaining the salvation of all who would become, throughout the whole of human history, members of His body, members of His Church, and so adopted children of the Father. Thus, Jesus was praying the Our Father not simply for Himself but as the head of His body and thus for all men and women. It is indeed only because Jesus reconciled us to the Father through His sacrificial death that we now obtain – through faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – the privilege and the right to address, in union with Jesus, God as our Father, as Abba.
Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name
With the words “who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” Jesus confessed who the Father is and thus in what manner He and all of us are to appear before Him. First, Jesus confessed that His and our Father is in heaven, that is, He lives and exists in a divine manner, in a way that differs in kind and not simply in degree from all else.
The acknowledgment that His Father is in heaven, within the context of the cross, was also an act of faith in that He trusted that His Father, as the heavenly Father, providentially governs all earthly events, even this event, and so continues to have His loving and protective hand upon Him. Moreover, Jesus, having said “our,” included all of humankind under the care of His heavenly Father. When we pray the Our Father, in union with Jesus, we are confessing with Him that we too trust, in all circumstances even in the midst of our own suffering and death, that we are in the safety of our heavenly Father’s hand.
Second, precisely because the Father is the heavenly Father His name is to be hallowed, that is, acclaimed to be holy and separated from all that is profane. The Father’s name is hallowed by the very fact that He is the Father of all, including His Son. However, everyone has a sacred duty to hallow the name of the Father, that is, to acknowledge and bear witness to the Father’s holiness.
Even the divine Son, from all eternity, hallowed the name of His Father because the divine holiness that was bestowed upon Him comes from the Father. What is significant, under the present circumstances of the cross, is that Jesus, as the incarnate Son, was perfectly hallowing the name of His Father. Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross was in itself the supreme acknowledgement and the ultimate testimony to His Father’s holiness, for in this very act of laying down His life on the cross Jesus is ardently worshipping and fervently glorifying His Father. The offering of His holy and innocent life was the perfect sacrifice of praise.
Moreover, on the cross Jesus was doing away with all that is not holy — sin and death as well as the devil, the father of all that is sinful and profane. We too hallow our Father’s name not only when we pray the Our Father, but also, and especially, when we do so within acts of sacrificial love on behalf of others, for we are imitating the sacrificial love of our crucified savior.
Third, when Jesus prayed that the name of His Father be hallowed, hidden within that proclamation is an entreaty that His own name would be hallowed as well. In His high priestly prayer, Jesus prays: “Now is the Son of man glorified, and in Him God is glorified; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and glorify Him at once” (Jn 13:31-32).
As His perfect Word and eternal Image, the Father forever hallows and glorifies the name of His Son for the Son expresses His own name in its entirety. Moreover, the Son eternally hallows and glorifies His Father from whom He was begotten as the Father’s perfect Word and Image.
The event of the cross is the earthly historical act by which and in which the Father and Son mutually hallowed and glorified one another. “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you … I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do; and now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made” (Jn 17:1,4).
Of course, this is true of all of us who are in communion with the Son and, like Him, glorify the Father in our sacrificial acts of love. In these very same acts the Father glorifies us for He allows us to manifest the working of the Spirit in our lives. This mutual glorification finds its supreme expression in the act of martyrdom where the crucifixion is most fully replicated and so the mutual hallowing and glorifying is most fully witnessed. Through the cross both Jesus and all of us hallow the name of the Father.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done, on Earth As It Is in Heaven
These three declarations found their full significance when Jesus prayed them in the midst of His passion. His passion and death were the culminative acts by which Jesus, in His very person, was establishing His Father’s Kingdom. Through His sacrificial death the reign of sin was destroyed and the power of death was vanquished. Jesus, in conquering this twofold evil on the cross, opened the gates to God’s kingdom — the kingdom of the resurrected life of holiness and immortality.
While Jesus, in His very resurrection, was the first to experience the fruit of His cross, His prayer for the coming of His Father’s kingdom was prayed on behalf of all. Now all who believe in Him can, in union with Him, enter the Kingdom of God — the Kingdom of the Spirit of life and truth.
The coming of God’s kingdom is predicated upon the doing His will. Jesus, unlike Adam and Eve, did the will of His Father, for all eternity in heaven and now here on earth. “I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of Him who sent me” (Jn 5:30).
This seeking to do His Father’s will found its ultimate expression in the Garden of Gethsemane. Echoing the Our Father itself, Jesus prayed: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me, yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14:36). In filial love and obedience, Jesus confidently entrusted Himself to His Abba, Father.
The cross was Jesus’ supreme act of obedience — “And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). This loving obedience was what destroyed the reign of sin and death. The Letter to the Hebrews tells that Jesus received a body so that as man He could willingly offer His life for our sanctification. “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10). Because of this filial and loyal obedience His Father “highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11).
This filial submission to the will of the Father also ushered in the new creation. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18-19). Here we discover the depth and significance of Jesus’ praying the Our Father as He suffered on the cross.
Not only did Jesus pray the words of the Our Father on the cross, but the cross itself is also the enacting of the Our Father. By faithfully doing the will of His Father on earth, even unto death, the Incarnate Son established the kingdom of God on earth, the kingdom for which He prayed. These three declarations are now fulfilled in Jesus and will come to complete fulfillment at the end of time when all who have done the will of the Father on earth, and so continued to make real the kingdom of God on earth, will forever, in loving joy and gratitude, do the will of the Father forever in heaven.
As implied above, Jesus made these three avowals not only on His own behalf but also on behalf of His body, the Church. As the head of His body, Jesus declared in the name of the whole Church — “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Moreover, whenever we echo the words of Jesus we do so in union with our heavenly Lord. With one voice, in the one breath of one Spirit, the head and members pledge to further the kingdom of God by doing the Father’s will both here on earth and in heaven.
It too is in the midst of the suffering body of Christ here on earth that this threefold affirmation finds its most vivid expression. For, as Jesus established the kingdom through His loving obedience to the Father even unto death, so by sharing in and completing His suffering the Church most clearly bears living testimony and contributes to the continuing reality of the Father’s kingdom.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
The Last Supper is Jesus’ commentary on His imminent passion and death. In the course of the meal He took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to His disciples saying: “Take, eat; this is my body.” He then took the cup filled with wine and said: “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:26-28).
Jesus, through His words and actions, was prophetically revealing that His passion and death on the cross would be the new paschal sacrifice that would establish a new and eternal covenant with God, His Father. It would be a covenant of new life. Jesus, in the Last Supper, was dramatically portraying and anticipating His own sacrificial death on the cross and already He was allowing His disciples to share in it through the reception of His body and blood under the forms of bread and wine — the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
After Adam sinned God said to Him: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:19). As the new Adam, Jesus, through His sweat and blood of the cross, gained the new bread of eternal life, both for Himself and His Church. The cross freed Adam and His descendents (which includes Jesus Himself) from the curse and so the new Adam would provide the new bread of life that His Father would send down from heaven.
Thus, when Jesus prayed on the cross, “give us this day our daily bread,” He had in mind a twofold inter-related meaning. He was petitioning His Father both that He would give Him the bread of everlasting risen life and, as head of the Church that is born from His pierced side, He was also petitioning that the Father would give the bread of new life to the members of His body.
In raising Him from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Father answered Jesus’ twofold petition. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (Jn 6:56-57).
There is a threefold communion here. Jesus as God and now as the risen Savior lives because of the Father and when we partake of Jesus’ risen body and blood we abide in Him and He in us and thus we, in union with Jesus, abide with the source of all life — the Father. Thus, since Jesus vanquished sin and death through the sweat of His brow, the Father truly makes Him the bread of life.
In the light of the cross and the resurrection Jesus could truly declare: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). Being the living bread, He now provides His body, the Church, with living bread, that is, He nourishes His body on and with His very own risen self and in so doing makes us one in Him. “Because there is one bread, we who are many become one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Cor 10:17).
When we, as members of the body of Christ, petition our Father for our daily bread, we do so in union with Him. We pray not simply for natural bread, though that is important, but we pray especially that we would receive the living bread that is Jesus’ resurrected body. The Father answers this petition in providing for us the Eucharist in which we share in the one sacrifice of Christ, and also partake of His risen body and blood. We obtain communion with the risen Christ and so, in His Spirit, commune with the Father.
By praying the Our Father within the liturgy of the Mass we are uniting ourselves to that same event in which Jesus Himself prayed it most fittingly — within His passion and death. Thus, it is most apt that we pray the Our Father immediately after the Eucharistic prayer, for we have conjoined ourselves to the one sacrifice of Christ. We have placed ourselves on the cross with and in Him, and thus cleansed from sin, we can most fittingly cry out “Abba, Father,” to the Father — who will provide for us, who are now properly disposed and appropriately prepared, our daily bread — Jesus Himself.
This petition also contains an eschatological entreaty. While we wish to share here on earth the living bread that is Christ, we also, along with Him, yearn for the day when we will be fully transformed into His likeness by living fully in and with Him who is our eternal and heavenly bread.
As the crucified Christ entreated the Father to make Him into the living bread through the resurrection, so we within the sacrifice of the Mass entreat the Father to bring us also to the fullness of life since we already, here on earth, partake of the bread of immortality — the risen Lord Jesus Christ. As we have already participated in the heavenly supper here on earth so we long to share in its full reality in heaven. We do so in the hope of Jesus’ promise: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54).
And Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us
In the cross we find the forgiveness of our sins. When Jesus prayed “forgive us our trespasses,” He did so as our Savior, as the head of His body, the Church. Only when Jesus spoke the words on the cross did these words achieve their true end, for truly on the cross Jesus is offering His holy and innocent life to the Father as a sacrificial petition for the forgiveness of our sins. Moreover, it is precisely because Jesus prayerfully enacted these words from the cross that the Father heard and answered His prayer once and for all. The resurrection confirmed that Jesus’ appeal for forgiveness has been realized.
It is only because the Father looked favorably upon His Son’s plea from the cross, specifically because it was from the cross that it was made, that we are able confidently to say to the Father “forgive us our sins.” We say these words in union with our crucified and risen Savior and this very union is the sole assurance that the Father will look kindly upon our entreaty. Without the cross and Jesus’ petition from the cross there would be no forgiveness of sins, and thus for us to so petition the Father would be pointless and futile.
However, the plea for the forgiveness of our trespasses is predicated upon the next phrase: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As we forgive others so we are asking the Father to forgive us. Again, Jesus, on the cross, fulfilled this requirement perfectly. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). While the primary referents were those who had condemned Him and had now crucified Him, Jesus was also forgiving all of those who would persecute the members of His body, or would harm the just and injure the innocent.
As Jesus prayed so He has directed all of us to pray. In and with Him we too ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others, even in the midst of our suffering for righteousness’ sake. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15).
Moreover, to forgive reflects the merciful love of the Father. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins” (I Jn 4:10). The Father’s perfection resides in His mercy (see Mt 5:48; Lk 6:36). The Father is the source of all mercy and only Jesus is as perfect as the Father for only He is as merciful as the Father. Nonetheless, in communion with the Father and the Son, sharing in the merciful love of the Holy Spirit, we too are able to forgive.
Lead Us Not into Temptation, But Deliver Us from Evil
As mentioned at the outset, we know for sure that, while on the cross, Jesus prayed at least one prayer — Psalm 22. The first verse is a cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Although Jesus had committed Himself to drinking the cup during His agony in the Garden, now on the cross He suffered the emotional experience of being abandoned by His Father.
In trust and faith, Jesus humanly knew that this is not true; nonetheless, this was also His greatest human temptation — the loss of His loving Abba, Father. “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Ps 22:2). In praying the Our Father, the crucified Jesus, in the midst of feeling abandoned, also prayed that His Father would “lead Him not into temptation,” that His Father would free Him from the grip of this lying fear and deceitful anguish. He was praying that the Father would send upon Him the comforting love and enduring strength of the Spirit.
As we have seen, Jesus was also praying on behalf of His body, and when we pray “lead us not into temptation,” we are doing so as members of His body. He was interceding on our behalf that the Father would always send us the wisdom to see the lie within every temptation, and to provide us the strength of the Holy Spirit to overcome every temptation.
Moreover, in the midst of the Church’s suffering, cares, and concerns, she too must pray that the Father will free her from the greatest of all temptations — the temptation of feeling abandoned by God. We too at times feel that we no longer reside in the loving presence of the Father; yet, in union with Jesus, we too know, in confident faith and unwavering trust, that this temptation, despite its seeming reality, is simply that — a temptation. If the Father never abandoned His crucified Son, we know He will never abandon the Church or any of us who now live in communion with His risen Son.
The final solution to being led into temptation is to be delivered from evil, the evil from which temptation arises. Thus, Jesus concluded with the request that the Father “deliver us from evil.” The evil that Jesus wished to be delivered from is not simply the evil of being subject to the hands of evil men and thus His suffering on the cross. Rather, Jesus requested that the Father deliver Him and all of us from the source all evil — sin — and thus also from the curse of sin — death. Ultimately, Jesus wanted to be freed from the kingdom of Satan, the father of lies from whom all evil comes.
The cross portrays a marvelous irony. When the crucified Jesus prayed that the Father “deliver us from evil,” His prayer was simultaneously being answered. The cross is the petition and the cross is the answer. In His sacrificial passion and death — the definitive petition — Jesus, as one of us, reconciled us to the Father and so obtained the Father’s loving forgiveness. On the cross Jesus put death to death. The cross itself was the instrument of Satan’s downfall. Thus, the cross itself is the agency by which Jesus and all of us in Him are delivered from evil. The cross itself was the Father’s answer to Jesus’ and our plea for deliverance.
The resurrection was the Father’s complete answer to Jesus’ plea for deliverance, for in the resurrection the Father inaugurated His kingdom — a kingdom free from sin and death, a kingdom of righteousness and immortality. In answer to Jesus’ petition for deliverance from evil, the Father made Jesus Himself the answer. Jesus crucified prayed to the Father that we be delivered from evil and the Father’s answer to this petition is Jesus risen. The person of Jesus, our crucified Savior and risen Lord, is Himself our deliverance from all evil. Through faith and baptism we unite ourselves to the risen Jesus as our Savior and Lord, and so share in His victory over evil and obtain the new life of His Holy Spirit.
What we see here is that the first petition of the Our Father, “thy kingdom come,” and the last petition, “deliver us from evil,” go together. The coming of God’s kingdom delivers us from all evil. Moreover, the acts that bring about God’s kingdom and deliver us from evil are one and the same — the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Christ we live within the Father’s kingdom and so are delivered from evil.
The resurrection is the assurance that our plea for deliverance from evil has been answered — through Jesus, ever before the throne of His Father, continually interceding for us who are members of His body. Moreover, when we pray the Our Father, we are joining our voices with Jesus’ voice, confident that the Father is ever watching over us and protecting us even within the fallen world in which we still reside.
Thus the petition “deliver us from evil” is inherently eschatological. Only at the coming of Jesus in glory at the end of time will our deliverance from evil be fulfilled and the fullness of the life in Christ be ours. “Therefore are they [the saints] before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night within His temple; and He who sits upon the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:15-17).
Prayer in Spirit and in Truth
I hope that I have demonstrated that Jesus did actually pray the Our Father during His suffering on the cross. Even if one is not convinced, I hope that I have shown that, at the very least, He prayed the content of the Our Father. Only if Jesus prayed the Our Father was the content of the Our Father fulfilled.
The cross is the doing of the Our Father. On the cross Jesus addresses His heavenly Father in sacrificial love, and here He perfectly hallows His name. Because of this all the petitions within the Our Father are fulfilled. The cross makes possible the Father’s kingdom, because on the cross Jesus accomplished perfectly on earth the will of His heavenly Father.
In raising Jesus from the dead the Father provides for us the daily bread of eternal life — Jesus Himself. In His sacrificial death Jesus obtained the forgiveness of our sins and reconciled us to the Father. In the Father’s forgiveness we are empowered in the Spirit to forgive others.
Lastly, the cross enables us to overcome all temptation and delivers us from all evil — even death itself. The Father testifies that Jesus fulfilled the Our Father by raising Him from the dead. In the risen Jesus we find the Father’s unqualified answer to all the Our Father’s petitions. In perfectly enacting the Our Father on the cross Jesus Himself becomes the Father’s perfect response.
We, having been conformed into the likeness of Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, can now pray the Our Father in spirit and in truth. Furthermore, we too, as members of Christ’s body, enact and so make real the Our Father through our deeds of sacrifice. In so doing we hallow the Father’s name by doing His will and, thus, further His kingdom on earth. We also long for Jesus’ coming in glory when we will worship the Father in the fullness of the Spirit and love one another as perfect sons and daughters of the Father.
Father Thomas Weinandy has served since 2005 as executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and is the author of many books and essays on theology. This essay first appeared in A Man of the Church: Honoring the Theology, Life and Witness of Ralph Del Colle, ed. M.R. Barnes (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012). It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and of Wipf and Stock Publishers (wipfandstock.com).
Father Weinandy’s most recent article to appear in AB, “Jesus’ Eucharistic Commentary on the Paschal Mystery,” was published in August 2011.