When the disciples asked our Lord to teach them to pray they were admitting something more than just an ignorance of forms. Indeed, they were steeped in forms. The complexity of the temple rites, the varied and detailed prayers of the synagogue, and above all the numerous prayers recorded and memorized from the Old Testament, formed the disciples in prayer. But when they came to Christ seeking to be taught by Him they were asking something more than just a form of prayer. Christ does give them a new form, and this should be expected, for He gives them also a new content. To put it another way, He is giving them a new wineskin for their new wine.
Yet this isn’t something wholly new, but rather the beginning of the restoration of what the world was always intended to be. The Old Testament begins with our first parents’ expulsion from Eden, and cherubims placed at its gate to guard the tree of life. This note of exclusion continues throughout the Old Testament, embodied in a chosen people with a priestly tribe and a high priestly family and then families descended from the one family. With Christ this decadent priesthood is removed, supplanted by a new priest whose priesthood is not dependent on familial lineage, but upon the divine oath. Christ comes to complete what we were created all along to have been, namely the pinnacle of God’s creation, creatures united to the Creator. The Old Testament priesthood spoke of separation from God, and a priesthood that could not ever unite us to God, but whose sacrifices were constant reminders that our union with God had not been obtained.
Christ’s advent reverses all of this, showing the inadequacy of the old forms, and if you will, the inadequacy of the old wine. It is not that the old wine wasn’t wine, for the devotion of David and Abraham was devotion, but it was not a devotion of sons, daughters, and heirs, but of slaves and servants (Galatians 4). As mentioned in a previous post, and citing Metropolitan Anthony of blessed memory, to see God in the Old Testament was to die, to meet Him in the New Testament is life. He whom the Patriarchs and Prophets worshiped as an enigma, we adore as our friend and nearest kin, who has told us all things and given to us by grace all that He naturally is. Now, even this was not fully perceived by the disciples, for they had to be instructed still even after the resurrection (recall the two disciples on the road to Emmaus), and it is the Spirit given us at Pentecost who guides us into all truth. Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor were befuddled by what they saw, and were instructed not to relate what had been seen until after the resurrection.
The content, then, of these new forms, harkens back also to my post on Platonism and the Old Testament. When looking at God’s revelation there we see an unapproachable God, hidden in darkness or light unapproachable, whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are not our thoughts. He is indescribable, and whose presence, because of our wretchedness, is death. This hardly admits of any sort of type and antitype reality. Man is made in God’s image, and then shortly, seemingly, robbed of this by transgression. (The Old covenant character of Islam, which denies man is after God’s image, can be divined here, and along with it, a proscription on all representations of Mohamed, let alone God.) Hints of the imago Dei still persist, but they are muted, especially in light of the absolute transcendence of God. This has now changed with the coming of Christ, even though not completely grasped by the disciples.
Yet while this fullness of the revelation of God was not completely understood by the disciples, we can see that they certainly had glimpses of it: Peter asking our Lord to depart from him following the miracle of the catch of fish, because he was a sinful man; the disciples’ question “who can this be, that even the wind and waves obey him;” and the revelation of Christ as the Son of God to Peter (whom we can see by the sequel didn’t fully know what all that entailed either). Since they understood that the coming of Christ had radically altered what they thought was reality, and as already John the Baptist had given his disciples new modes of prayer, so it was natural that He who had the words of eternal life should also.
And what is this content of the new form? It is right in front of us, and should be always on our tongue, for Christ told the disciples “Whenever you pray, say, Our Father . . .” Thus the Our Father is not some mere model by which we pattern our prayers, but is the prayer of the Kingdom, the default position of all our thoughts, the DOS that we have to return to when the latest version of Windows crashes. For its importance arises from the two initial words, that Christ’s Father is also our Father.
But it is more than this: in the Old Testament God is seldom noted as Father, and indeed all the times I have found He is likened to a father, not called The Father. And this is one of the key elements of the Christian mystery. Father is the proper and absolute term of divinity, and not the generic “God”. St. Gregory Nazianzen noted that God is but a relative term, for “who is He the God of? Everyone.” But Father, agennetos (the proper property of The Father) is absolute, for whom is He begotten of? No one. Thus God – – with props to Fr. Pat Reardon – – is The Father, and the Christian revelation is ultimately paternalistic: “For this cause I bow my knee to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from Whom all paternity (patria is the Greek) in heaven and earth is named (Eph. 3:14).” Now, we are not to think of God as if he is Dad, nor are we to make him some surrogate for what dear old dad should have been: he is not a father, but The Father. His paternity transcends our mundane notions of fatherhood. This is why the Creed begins “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty . . .” When St. John of Damascus begins his On the Orthodox Faith, with a discussion about God, his aseity and eternity, et cetera, he makes it clear that it is not some God in general he is discussing, but indeed The Father. Thus, the Christian revelation is ultimately personal, and more than this, ultimately by nature, Tri-personal. It is a great mystery as well that ultimately, by grace, the myriad persons of the redeemed are as well taken up with Christ into the Trinity.
Prayer, in this key, means that we exist as divine sons and daughters in the divine Son. This is part of what is termed theosis or deification by the Church, and should radically alter how we pray. During Easter we never kneel. Further, during the commemorations of Eastern throughout the year, meaning every Sunday, we do not kneel. Why? Because we are raised with Christ, and seated with Him (at the right hand of God the Father) in heavenly places, and thus we are able with boldness to dare call upon the Heavenly God as Father. Christ, through whom we have access to the Father, informs us of this rather clearly, for while we pray in His name, we do not come to Him with our petitions, but “I shall show you plainly of the Father. On that day you will pray in my name: and I am not telling you that I will pray to the Father for you, for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved me, and have believed that I came out of the Father John 16:25-27.”
This is why we stand in prayer. We may still kneel as penitents, but as we are seated with Christ, we now have access through and with Him to the Father, Our Father.