Here’s what we’re saying when we pray the Lord’s Prayer:
- Our Father — We acknowledge God: His existence, power, benevolence and love (and our love for Him), and universality. On the last point, note that throughout this prayer the first person plural is used — our, we, us — underscoring not only the universality of God but the essential brotherhood of all who pray.
- Who art in Heaven — We acknowledge the presence of Heaven and thus, implicitly, eternal life.
- Hallowed be Thy name — We ask that God be accepted as holy by all. In asking for this, we are asking that all be brought to Him, are we not?
- Thy kingdom come — We ask that His rule come to earth (sooner rather than later).
- Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven — We ask that (in the meantime) earth be as Heaven-like as possible in following God.
- Give us this day our daily bread — We ask for sustenance, no more, and this is the only material request in the prayer. We ask only for bread, and only for today (cf. manna in Exodus 16); note that the limited scope of the request is emphasized by saying both “day” and “daily.”
- And forgive us our trespasses — We ask that God forgive our sins.
- As we forgive those who trespass against us — We ask for God’s help so that we may be as forgiving of other people when they sin against us as He is with us when we sin against Him. This item and the preceding one are appropriately combined — but they are also quite distinct, since God can do anything and we can do nothing without His help, especially not something as difficult as forgiving another’s wrong that hurts us.
- And lead us not into temptation — We ask that God not put us in situations where we will be tried (and perhaps found wanting). This is a troubling and tricky line, as the Pope himself recently learned. God does not tempt us to do wrong — that’s the Devil’s job — but he has the power to keep us out of situations where the Devil can tempt us. Here’s what C.S. Lewis has to say: “[T]he Greek word … means ‘trial’ — ‘trying circumstances’ — of every sort; a far larger word than English ‘temptation.’ So that the petition is essentially ‘Make straight our paths. Spare us, where possible, from all crises, whether of temptation or affliction.'”
- But deliver us from evil — We ask that God protect us from all that is bad. This is a more direct supplication than the preceding one.
- For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory — We acknowledge God’s ultimate sovereignty, omnipotence, and majesty (this is not unlike the way the prayer begins, of course). One wonders if these three fit together in some special way. For example, do they correspond with the Trinity? Do they mirror the kingdom-will-hallowed threesome earlier in the prayer? C.S. Lewis suggested kingdom is de jure, and power is de facto, and “glory is — well, the glory ….”
- For ever and ever. Amen. — And we end by acknowledging the permanence of God and the truth of all we have just said.
So with every phrase we are either acknowledging things about God or else asking Him for things: The prayer begins and concludes with two acknowledgments at each end, with the eight asks in the middle. Compare the classic classification of prayers: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (spelling “ACTS”); Jesus’ prayer has all that, directly or indirectly, but requires that we also begin and end with a recognition of just Who it is we’re talking to, which makes special sense if among those praying are those who had not started out as Jews. It’s also true that the beginning and end of the prayer is about Heaven and the middle part is about life here on earth — so we’re acknowledging the former and asking for the most help regarding the latter, which also makes sense. Smart guy, that Jesus! That the separation of Heaven and earth is only temporary is implicit throughout the prayer.
(The quotes above from C.S. Lewis are from the chapter of his book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (pages 24-28) devoted to the Lord’s Prayer. There’s also an interesting take on the Lord’s Prayer in Garry Wills’s book, What the Gospels Meant (pages 85-88).)