Coming as it does, directly from the lips of our Blessed Lord Himself, in answer to the request of His disciples that He would teach them to pray, we may well be prepared to find in the Lord's Prayer an order and a completeness which mark it as altogether divine.
It is complete as summing up every possible need of soul and body, and as giving utterance, in few words, to all that as children we need to ask of our Father in Heaven. The very number of its petitions, seven, combining three, the number of Heaven, with four, the number of earth, mystically represents the universality of its scope, as including in its range things earthly and things divine. While its order, as teaching us to pray first for those things which directly concern the glory of God, as we do in the first three petitions, and afterwards, as in the last four, for those which concern our own necessities, is in accordance with our Lord's own command elsewhere, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you" (S. Matt. vi. 33).
The Our Father is thus the perfect model and rule to which every other prayer should be brought. "After this manner therefore pray ye" (S. Matt, vi. 9).
The Church acts upon this command, not merely by using the Lord's Prayer in every one of her Offices as the strongest and most confident appeal she is able to utter; but by taking it besides as the pattern after which she frames other prayers. Especially is this seen in the Collects, which in their brevity, and in the manner of their beginning, continuing and ending, bear the mark of Him Who taught her how to pray.
Such thoughts as these lie on the surface of any consideration of the Lord's Prayer. But it were irreverence to speak of the perfection of the matter and the form of the prayer which our Lord Himself gave us, while bringing to our consideration of it only such standards as are applied to any merely human utterance. Reverently to approach it we must place ourselves under the guidance of God's Holy Spirit, and ask Him to show us its marvellous beauty. Since then we believe this prayer to have been given by our Blessed Lord as the perfect model of all prayers, we must be prepared to find in it depths of meaning, which if they do not lie open to all, are nevertheless there to be revealed to those who will reverently regard them.
S. Augustine, for example, draws out a correspondence between the seven petitions in this prayer, and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, as he does again between both these groups of seven with the Beatitudes. Some might be inclined to regard such a correspondence as merely a clever conceit in which an inventive mind had made the most of what is in fact only a chance coincidence. And yet it might belong to deeper reverence, as well as to deeper insight into the things which pertain to the kingdom of God. to ascribe to the purpose of the Holy Spirit rather than to chance, a correspondence with supplies one more instance of the harmony which pervades Holy Scripture, and which is so strong an evidence that it is indeed the Word of God.
Certainly, if we consider what prayer is, the mystery out of which it grows, the relations on which it depends, the guidance, helps and supports that it needs, the grace which sustains it and the merits which it pleads, we must be prepared to find in the form of prayer thus given by our Lord, a deeper purpose than that of forming a model which should be comprehensive in its petitions, terse in expression and systematic in arrangement.
For prayer is in its very nature sacramental. Apart from the Incarnation of the Son of God prayer were impossible. For what is prayer but the act whereby we claim that mediatorship of Christ, which is His by nature, and which results from the permanent union in His One Person of the' nature of God with the nature of man?
"It must be observed that the very essence of our Lord's mediatorship is that all functions which are discharged on God's part toward man, or on man's part towards God are gathered together in in His Single Person. He is the sole channel of all which is done by God under the Christian covenant. For He is the only mediator Who unites both. And so likewise He is the only mediator through Whom our prayers can ascend to God, for 'no man cometh unto the Father but by Me.' This is the place where heaven and earth .are connected; the bridge which joins them together. He is the Door, 'the Way, the Truth and the Life.' There is one God and one mediator between God and man." [Wilberforce on the Incarnation.]
Among the Jews also, by anticipation of the Incarnation, the same was true. Prayer was not to be separated from the appointed sacrifices and the temple ritual. And this not because of any inherent efficacy in the sacrifices themselves, which were only "figures of the true," but because they represented and stood for the sacrifice which God- Incarnate, the true Priest, should in time accomplish in His own Person, without Whose mediation none since Adam's fall have had access to God.
But the mystery of the Incarnation does not end with the union of human nature with the nature of God in the Person of our Lord. "God was made the Son of man," says S. Leo, "that we men might become the sons of God." The mystery of the Incarnation on which, as we have seen, our Lord's mediatorial office rests, carries with it all those sacramental ordinances whereby He Who became Man, wills to raise man up to God. The Sacraments are therefore called the Extension of the Incarnation. By them this marvellous union, first effected in the Person of our adorable Lord, is carried on, applied and made effectual in each succeeding generation of men. This, and nothing less than this, is what is meant by the Gospel of Christ. This is His plan for the salvation of mankind, and the gradual restoration of that image which was marred, and that likeness which was lost through the fall of our first parents.
The Incarnation, therefore, and the Sacraments of the Church being all of one piece, prayer, which as we have seen, is impossible without the first, must have an intimate dependence upon the second. We can not step in here and divide. We can not take the one while rejecting the other. What God has joined together, man may not put asunder.
Now this being so, and our title to approach God in prayer being so dependent upon our acceptance of the whole sacramental system of the Church, we might almost be said to come to the study of the Lord's Prayer prepared to find that system set forth. We might almost have foretold that our Lord in answering the request of His disciples, "Lord, teach us to pray," would in the form which He should give them, leave not merely the model after which all prayers should be formed, but the brief yet complete outline at the same time, of that entire Sacramental system which is the charter upon which all prayer depends.
A reverent examination of the Lord's Prayer with reference to its Sacramental interpretation will, we believe, be abundantly repaid. The writer has never seen this line of thought worked out in any treatise on this prayer of our Lord which he has examined, and the following pages are simply a humble endeavour to point out such correspondence between the petitions of this prayer and the Sacraments of the Church, as may seem suggestive or helpful.