Teach Us How to…Live? The Early Churches Take on “The Lord’s Prayer” Part 4
You would have reacted the same way, I suppose. The disciples had seen Jesus do incredible miracles. They also watched him pray a lot. They put two and two together and surmised that Jesus’ power was a result of his prayer. Now, every first century Jew knew how to pray. But nobody could do the miracles that Jesus was doing. The disciples wanted to know how to do that!
So they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. That inquiry resulted in what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” A short lesson on how to pray that the church has held dear ever since.
But is it a lesson on how one should pray?
“Yes, but”, is how I think I would answer that.
Yes, Jesus taught the disciples how to pray here. But if you look closer at what Jesus taught, I think He was actually teaching them, and us, how to live.
Rather than sharing my thoughts on this, I think if far more productive to read an early church Fathers take on the Lord’s prayer. How did the early church understand it? To do this, we turn to Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who lived in the early 3rd century. This is part four of a four part series. May his words encourage you to follow ever faithfully after the Savior…Jim
Cyprian on The Lord’s Prayer
What wonder, most beloved brethren, if such is the prayer that God has taught, who by His instruction has abbreviated our every prayer in a saving word? This had already been foretold by Isaias the prophet, when, filled with the Holy Spirit, he spoke of the majesty and loving kindness of God. He said: ‘Completing and abbreviating His word in justice, since God will make a short word in the whole earth.’ For when the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, came to all, and gathering together the learned and unlearned alike He gave forth the precepts of salvation to every sex and age, He made a great compendium of His precepts, so that the memory of the learners might not be burdened in heavenly discipline, but might learn quickly what was necessary to a simple faith. Thus when He taught what eternal life is, He embraced the sacrament of life with great and divine brevity, saying: ‘Now this is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Him whom Thou sent, Jesus Christ.’ Likewise, when He gathered from the law and prophets the first and greatest commandments, He said: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.’ And, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment. And the second is like it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets.’ And again, ‘Whatever good things you wish men to do to you, even so do you also to them; for this is the law and the prophets.’
Not by words alone, but also by deeds has God taught us to pray, Himself praying frequently and entreating and demonstrating what we ought to do by the testimony of His own example, as it is written: ‘But He Himself was in retirement in the desert, and in prayer,’ and again, ‘He went out into the mountain to pray and continued all night in prayer to God.’ But if He who was without sin prayed, how much more ought sinners to pray, and if He prayed continually, watching through the whole night with uninterrupted petitions, how much more ought we to lie awake at night in continuing prayer!
Moreover, the Lord prayed and asked not for Himself, (for what would an innocent person petition for himself?), but for our sins, just as He Himself declares when He says to Peter: ‘Behold, Satan was asking to have you, that he might sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith may not fail.” And later He entreats the Father for all, saying: ‘Yet not for these only do I pray, but for those also who through their word are to believe in me, that all may be one, even as thou, Father, in me and I in thee; that they also may be in us.’ Great alike is God’s kindness and compassion for our salvation, so that, not content with having redeemed us with His blood, He in addition also prayed for us. Moreover, behold what the desire was of Him who prayed, that, just as the Father and Son are one, so too we remain in that very unity; that from this it can be understood how much he sins who shatters unity and peace, since the Lord also prayed for this, namely, that His people live, for He knew that discord does not come to the kingdom of God.
Moreover, when we stand for prayer, most beloved brethren, we should be alert and intent on our petitions with a whole heart. Let every carnal and worldly thought depart, and let the mind dwell on nothing other than that alone for which it prays. Therefore, the priest also before his prayer prepares the minds of the brethren by first uttering a preface, saying: ‘Lift up your hearts,’ so that when the people respond: ‘We lift them up to the Lord,’ they may be admonished that they should ponder on nothing other than the Lord. Let the breast be closed against the adversary and be open to God alone, and let it not suffer the enemy of God to approach it at the time of prayer. For he frequently creeps up and penetrates and with subtle deceit calls our prayers away from God, so that we have one thing in the heart, another in the voice, when not the sound of the voice but the mind and the thought should be praying to the Lord with sincere intention. But what slothfulness it is to be drawn away and to be captured by foolish and profane thoughts, when you are praying to the Lord, as if there were anything that you should ponder more than what you speak with God. How do you ask that you be heard by God, when you do not hear your very self? Do you wish the Lord to be mindful of you when you pray, when you yourself are not mindful of yourself? This is to be entirely off-guard against the enemy; this is, when you pray to God, to offend the majesty of God by the negligence of prayer; this is to be alert with the eyes and to be asleep with the heart, although a Christian, even when he is sleeping, should be alert with the heart, as it is written in the person of the Church speaking in the Canticle of Canticles? ‘I sleep and my heart watcheth.’ Therefore, the Apostle solicitously and cautiously admonishes, saying: ‘Be assiduous in prayer, being wakeful therein,’ that is, teaching and showing that they can obtain what they ask of God, who God sees are alert in prayer.
Moreover, let those who pray not come to God with fruitless and destitute prayers. The petition is ineffective when a sterile prayer is offered to God. For, since every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and cast into the fire, likewise words without fruits cannot merit God’s favor, since they are fruitful in no deed. And so divine Scripture instructs us with these words: ‘Prayer is good with fasting and alms.’ For He who on the day of judgment is to render a reward for deeds and alms, today also is a kindly listener to prayer which comes with works. Thus finally did Cornelius, the centurion, merit to be heard, when he prayed. He was one who performed many alms-deeds among the people and who always prayed to God. Before him as he prayed at the ninth hour an angel stood giving testimony to his work in these words: ‘Cornelius, thy prayers and thy alms have gone up for a memorial before God.’
Quickly do those prayers ascend to God, which the merits of our works impose upon God. Thus did the angel Raphael stand before Tobias, as he always prayed and always worked, saying: ‘It is honorable to reveal and confess the works of God. For when thou didst pray with Sara, I offered the memory of your prayer in the sight of the glory of God, and when thou didst bury the dead directly, and because thou didst not delay to rise and to leave thy dinner, but didst go out and hide the dead, I was sent to tempt thee; and again God sent me to heal thee and Sara thy son s wife. For I am Raphael, one of the seven just angels who go in and out before the glory of God.’ Through Isaias also the Lord admonishes and teaches like things, testifying with these words: ‘Loose every bond of wickedness, undo the bundles of the unbridled traders, release the broken for rest, and break asunder every unjust burden. Break thy bread to the hungry and bring the needy and the harborless into thy house. If thou shalt see one naked, cover him, and despise not the children of thy own seed. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning and thy garments shall speedily arise and thy justice shall go before thee and the glory of God shall surround thee. Then shalt thou call and the Lord shall hear thee, when thou shalt cry and He will say: ‘Here I am.’ He promises that He is present and hears, and He says that He protects those who loosening the knots of injustice from the heart, and performing alms-deeds around the members of God’s household according to His precepts, as they hear what God orders to be done, themselves also deserve to be heard by God. The blessed Apostle Paul, when aided in the necessity of affliction, by the brethren said that the words which were done were sacrifices to God. He said: ‘I am fully supplied now that I have received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a sweet odor, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God.’ For when one has pity on the poor, he lends to God; and he who gives to the least, gives to God; in a spiritual sense he sacrifices to God the odors of sweetness.
Now in celebrating prayer we find that the three boys with Daniel strong in the faith and victorious in captivity observed the third, the sixth, and the ninth hours, namely for a sacrament o£ the Trinity, which in the latest times had to be manifested. For the first hour going into the third shows the number of the Trinity consummated, and likewise the fourth proceeding to the sixth proclaims a second Trinity, and when the ninth is completed from the seventh, the perfect Trinity is numbered every three hours. Having determined upon these spaces of hours in a spiritual sense a long time ago, the worshippers of God were subject to them as the established and lawful times for prayer. Later the fact was made manifest that formerly the sacraments existed, because the just of old so prayed. For upon the disciples at the third hour did the Holy Spirit descend, which fulfilled the grace of the Lord’s promise. Likewise Peter at the sixth hour going upward upon the house-top was instructed alike by a sign and the voice of God admonishing him, to admit all to the grace of salvation, although before He was hesitant about baptizing the Gentiles. The Lord also, having been crucified from the sixth to the ninth, washed away our sins by His blood, and, that he might be able to redeem and quicken us, He then completed the victory by His passion.
But for us, most beloved brethren, besides the hours of praying observed of old, both the times and the sacraments have increased. For we must also pray in the morning, that the resurrection of the Lord may be celebrated by morning prayer. The Holy Spirit set this forth of old, when He said in the psalms: ‘O my king and my God. For to thee will I pray: O Lord, in the morning thou shalt hear my voice. In the morning I will stand before thee, and will see thee.’ And again through the prophet the Lord says: ‘At dawn they will be on watch for me, saying: let us go and return to the Lord our God.’ Likewise at the setting of the sun and at the end of the day necessarily there must again be prayer. For since Christ is the true Sun and the true Day, as the sun and the day of the world recede, when we pray and petition that the light come upon us again, we pray for the coming of Christ to provide us with the grace of eternal light. Moreover, the Holy Spirit in the psalms declares that Christ is called the Day. He says: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is wonderful in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made; let us exalt and rejoice therein.’ Likewise Malachias the prophet testifies that He is called the Sun when he says: ‘But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and healing is in His wings.’ But if in holy Scripture Christ is the true Sun and the true Day, no hour is excepted for Christians, in which God should be adored frequently and always, so that we who are in Christ, that is, in the true Sun and in the true Day, should be insistent throughout the whole day in our petitions and should pray; and when, by the law of the world, the revolving night, recurring in its alternate changes, succeeds, there can be no harm from the nocturnal shades for those who pray, because to the sons of light even in the night there is day. For when is he without light who has light in his heart? Or when does he not have sun and day, to whom Christ is Sun and Day?
Moreover, let us who are always in Christ, that is, in the light not cease praying even in the night. Thus the widow Anna without intermission always petitioning and watching, persevered in deserving well of God, as it is written in the Gospel: ‘She did not leave the temple, serving with fastings and prayers night and day.’ Either the Gentiles who have not yet been enlightened or the Jews who deserted the light and remained in darkness should have seen; let us, most beloved brethren, who are always in the light of the Lord, who remember and retain what we have begun to be after receiving grace compute the night as day. Let us believe that we walk always in the light; let us not be hindered by the darkness which we have escaped; let there be no loss of prayers in the hours of the night, no slothful or neglectful waste of opportunities for prayer. Let us who by the indulgence of God have been recreated spiritually and reborn imitate what we are destined to be; let us who in the kingdom will have day alone without the intervention of night be just as alert at night as in the day; let us who are destined to pray always and to give thanks to God, not cease here also to pray and to give thanks.
Check out part one in this series
Check out part two in this series
Check out part three in this series