Monday, January 18, 2016

What does it mean when we say, “Our Father Who Art In Heaven”?

Commentary on the Second Discourse on the Lord’s Prayer by Saint Gregory of Nyssa

To address God as “Our Father who art in heaven” is an awesome statement. Gregory of Nyssa says about addressing God in this way, “I need to leave the whole earth behind. I must traverse all the intermediary air and come to that ethereal beauty, reaching the stars and beholding their lovely order,” This is not enough as we must “go beyond all material things that change and that are in flux.” He reminds us that all things ”exist and are dependent on the ineffable will of the Divine Wisdom.” To lift ourselves to such heights in such a prayer, we need to still our mind and attain an “unchanging and unwavering disposition of the soul.” To address God our father who is in heaven of necessity takes us beyond all that is of this world embracing Him as our creator and recognizing ourselves as His son or daughter. Gregory begins this discourse by asking us to think about how wondrous this is.

Gregory raises the question, “What quality of the soul must the speaker possess to speak of God as “Our Father!” To address God in this way we must fully appreciate and comprehend the mystery of God and His divine nature of “goodness, holiness, joy, glory, purity and eternity.” So, how is that we would even dare to to refer to God as our own father? What are the implications of our saying this?

Gregory suggests that we would not dare address God in this way unless we perceived a reflection of His attributes in ourselves. How is it possible for God who is good in His essence to be the Father to anyone engaged in evil activities? Would it not be like accusing God of being the Father of our evil tendencies? Would it not be a mockery of God? What does the word fatherhood imply? Calling God our Father implies that He is the source and cause of our existence. Gregory warns that “whoever invokes God as Father and still possesses a wicked conscience, he in fact accuses God of nothing less than being the source and cause of his own evils… If someone is possessed, as Scripture puts it, by hardness of heart and dares to utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer, he pursues falsehood.” We don’t dare infer that God is the father of our sin.

When Jesus instructed us to say this Prayer he assumed that were were already committed to live the life he taught. A vow had preceded our prayer. As Gregory puts it, “I believe He is doing nothing less than ordaining an exalted and sublime way of life.” He surely does not want us to lie and make false statements about ourselves. To call God “Father” implies the greatest potential for ourselves. It reflects our understanding that we are destined to become like God because we are His children made in His image. This we must believe to say this prayer. When we call Him “Our Father” we are obligated to show our kinship with Him through our way of life.

Clearly there is much preparation that is needed “in order that our conscience rise to the level of confidence to dare address God as ‘Father.’ If you are concerned about money, or preoccupied with deceits of life, or chase after human glory, or are enslaved by the most wicked desires, and then take this exalted prayer to your lips, what do you think the Lord would say,…?”

When we approach God to say the Lord’s Prayer we must examine our way of life and to see if we inwardly possess a quality that is worthy of divine kinship. Then we can be courageous and recite these beginning words of this Prayer. Gregory says, “For the Lord who has directed us to say ‘Father’ did not permit us to speak a lie. Therefore, whoever conducts himself worthily of God, it is he who rightly gazes toward the heavenly city. It is he who rightly names the King of heaven ‘Father’ and calls heavenly blessedness his own homeland.” To call God “Our Father” we must think of the things above where God is. It is heaven where we need to build the foundation of our home. This is where we should lay our treasures. “For where the treasure is, there is also the heart.” (Mt 6:21)

Gregory says, “Do not be spotted by evil passions: neither envy, nor conceit, not anything else that defiles the godly beauty.” If you desire such purity and are committed to gaining it above all else, then have the courage to call out to God and call Him your “Father.” Gregory says, “He will look upon you with fatherly eyes. He will cover you with a divine robe and will adorn you with a ring. He will equip you with the sandals of the gospel,” just like the father of the prodigal son. “He will restore you to the heavenly homeland in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom belong the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”

  “Our Father who art in Heaven” reminds us of the “homeland from which we have fallen,” says Saint Gregory of Nyssa. What is this “homeland” he is referring to? He is reminding us that our true homeland is “Heaven,” the place where your “Father” lives. Do you call home “Heaven”? Once you accept this idea of “home” then think about how far we have fallen to find ourselves in this existence here on earth where death, strife and suffering abound. It is the appreciation of this gap between our life in exile here on earth compared to our true home in Heaven that is essential to have in mind to properly recite the Lord’s Prayer with sincerity.

Saint Gregory uses the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 to emphasize this point. In in this story the departure of the young son from his father’s home is like our fall from heaven. He leaves a abundant life with his father only to find himself in utter despair deprived of all his homeland freely provided for him. Saint Gregory most importantly points out that he is not brought back to his homeland, back to his original prosperity, until he acquires a consciousness of his dire misfortune. To return the son had to awaken to his desperate situation and express his regret. Before he was accepted in return the son offered this prayer, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” With this expression of regret he was welcomed back with open arms back into his homeland. The key was his confession and recognition of his fallen condition. In return the father gave him a new robe symbolizing the first robe that man lost due to his disobedience when he ate the forbidden fruit and become aware of his nakedness. He was also given a ring with a carved stone which signifies the regaining of the divine image. And, he was given shoes to symbolically protect his heel from the bite of poisonous snakes symbolizing the attacks from the devil on our weak points. We must recognize that we are living at a great distance from our true homeland. We need to express our regret that we have deviated so far from what God has naturally given us. With faith and sincere confession, we too will be welcomed back like the prodigal son. Calling on "Our Father Who Art in Heaven" is a recognition of the place of our true home in Heaven, the kinship with have with our God, and our desire to return home.

Children of God
Scripture says, “To whoever received Him, He gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). By calling God our “Father” we imply that we have committed ourselves to the way of perfection, to become a likeness in His image through goodness. Similarly He points out, if we retain evil traits such as envy, hate, slander, conceit, greed, and desire for glory, the father we call to will be one who has kinship to these traits. And who has kinship with these traits? Saint Gregory writes, “The prayer of a evil person, as long as the evil remains in him, is an invocation of the Devil.”

Saint Gregory points out that the path we are assumed to be on when we recite this prayer is one that leads us back to paradise and our attainment of a likeness with God to become “just, holy, good and the like.” This is not a physical path whose distance we can measure, but a spiritual one based on the simple act of free choice. He says, “Because no physical labor is necessary to make the choice of what is good–and free choice can be followed by success in whatever one chooses–it is possible for you to occupy heaven immediately upon putting God into your mind.” It is a life of virtue, living God’s commandments, following the direction of “Our Father Who art in Heaven.”

So, to approach God and say “Our Father Who art in Heaven” we must first examine our way of life. We need to examine it to make sure it embodies the qualities worthy of divine kinship. We need to fully recognize the nature of our true homeland and how far we have fallen. We must have a contrite heart and regret about our present condition. Only then can we call upon God as “Our Father.”

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