You can feel the sense of joy and exultation in Psalm 47 which the Headmaster read on Thursday. A psalm is a song. The Psalms are the hymn book of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and help illuminate our understanding of the major themes of God’s engagement with our humanity. Thursday, May 21st, is the fortieth day after Easter this year in the western Christian tradition and known as Ascension Day. It marks the culmination of the Resurrection in the homecoming of the Son to the Father. “Because I go to the Father” is the recurring refrain of Eastertide.
Home is where you belong, the place from which you come and to which you go. The idea of home speaks to the understanding of our humanity, to the sense of our place in the world and with God. The Ascension of Christ is the gathering up of all things to their source and end in God. In the comings and goings of God we learn about our abiding with God. The School is also your home, your intellectual and spiritual home and it is wonderful to be able to think about the possibilities of returning to this home in the Fall. For the ancient Greeks, gnothi seauton, “know thyself”, means knowing your place in the cosmos, the world as an ordered whole. For our humanity that means the polis, the city-state. But the concept of homecoming also relates to our schools as institutions of learning and living. Our schools and universities are your alma mater, your nursing mother, the places of intellectual and spiritual growth and maturity.
We are embodied beings and one of the constant emphasis in Chapel has been to eschew the false dichotomies of spirit and matter, of body and soul, and to consider their necessary interrelation. Christ’s Ascension shows that our humanity has its end in God. The Ascension celebrates the homecoming of the Son to the Father who is now Our Father. His homecoming is our homecoming in the realization that we have a place with God. The body is made adequate to the life of the Spirit. The truth and being of the Son is in his being with the Father and that embraces our humanity. This week we explored the deeper meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, better described as the ‘Our Father’, because, as Simone Weil in the 20th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century both observe, it contains all that we desire and orders our desires in the right way.
Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and a host of other theologians note that nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is there any direction to pray to God as Father. There are a few references that speak about God as father and a few about God as mother, but those are metaphors for God’s relation to us. The ‘Our Father’ is different. Why? Because it concerns God himself. It is Jesus who teaches us the most about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is the distinctive Christian way of speaking about the divine self-relation that is the basis of God’s relation to all else. Such is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
Yet it relates to a whole tradition of reflection upon the intellectual nature of reality as grounded in an intelligible principle which can be thought about in a number of interrelated ways. There is Plato’s great triad of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True. There is Aristotle’s “thought thinking itself thinks all things” which becomes the love which loves all things in love. The “infinite power, goodness, and wisdom of God” provide another set of principles along with the idea of Soul, Intellect and the One (Plotinus). There is God as eternal being, knowing, and loving (Eriugena following Augustiine and Boethius), to name yet another triad. Such things belong to the intellectual traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and to the so-called pagan schools of antiquity that influence philosophical theology. But they also relate to concepts like the Hindu Trimurti, the relation between Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva, for instance. The point is not to collapse these various ways of thinking into the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. There are profound differences about how one thinks the divine self-relation as the ground of all relations. But it is good to place the Christian ‘Our Father’ within that wider context and to appreciate at once its universality and its intimacy.
Origen (184-253 AD) notes that “the whole of our life says Our Father”. While we call it the Lord’s Prayer, Lancelot Andrewes (17th cent.) emphasizes the importance of it being “a Father, not a Lord, the one being a name of Love, the other of Dignity, the one being a name of Goodness, comfortable, the other of Power, terrible” (as in awesome). Prayer has to do with the whole of our life as ordered to and with God. “We ascend,” Augustine says, “in the ascension of our hearts”, the lifting up of our hearts to where our hearts truly belong. “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also”. We have our homecoming in the homecoming of the Son to the Father who is our Father. “All prayer”, Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests, “is about letting Jesus pray in us”.
As Simone Weil, the great 20th century philosopher of attention, Jewish and Christian, says, “the Our Father contains all possible petitions … It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity”. To pray it attentively is to be changed. It is perhaps the most familiar of all prayers for believers and unbelievers alike. In the spiritual traditions of the ancient Fathers of the Church, the Medieval theologians, the Reformers, and modern thinkers, the ‘Our Father’ is intimately connected to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection in terms of the Words of the Cross and the resurrection appearances, to the Beatitudes, and to the great catholic Creeds of the Church.
It complements the Ten Commandments for it, too, is divided into what relates first to God and then to us. The first three petitions are “the hallow[ing of God’s] name”, “thy kingdom come”, and “thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. Such petitions pertain to the glory of God in himself which is the ground of his relation to everything else. The next four concern our temporal lives: “give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses even as we forgive those who trespass against us, lead us not into temptation, and finally, deliver us from evil”. There is something complete and comprehensive about the ‘Our Father’. We seek what God wants for us and thus in prayer we are with God and embraced in the divine love which gathers all things into itself. Such is prayer and such is our homecoming in the gathering of all things to God.
(Rev’d) David Curry,
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
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