“I go away & I come to you—& your heart shall rejoice, alleluia” (Jn 14, 18).
As Msgr Knox points out, it is only once we’ve reached the half-way mark of the Pater Noster that we begin to ask for things. But let us review a moment where the Our Father has taken us.
First, by calling God Father, we draw out the many implications of that title—its dignity, its cause for confidence. Second, when we speak of heaven it is so that we may, on the one hand, be safe from enslavement to earthly things; but are also reminded that, on the other hand, earth is to be a mirror for heavenly things. Third, we declare the uncompromising holiness of God’s very name. Fourth, we make over the kingdom of our spiritual lives to his sovereignty.
Now we are in a position to speak the next sentence, the first real petition of this great prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Knox points out that there’s something a little strange about this petition. Even the pagans knew, Carior est illis homo quam sibi.1 Christians of course are taught in the Gospel that our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask Him.2 And He sends rain upon the just and the unjust already.3 Given all that, why do we really need to ask at all? And not only might the asking be a little pointless, but it might even be more than a little selfish and petty. After all, aren’t Christians supposed to be self-forgetting?
Knox replies to his own reservations: the smallest needs even of the body are appropriate to pray for. Our Lord makes it clear by teaching us to pray as He did: “We are to ask for bread; for the gross, palpable comforts of this transitory world. All God’s gifts are good, in the natural as well as the supernatural order. It is only our misuse of them that can make them harmful to us.”4
We are reminded by Knox that it was the Manichees who thought all matter was evil and metaphysically impure. But this is not true, and Catholics must pray accordingly. Knox even says that it is good for us to pray for things we are fairly certain to get, because this prayer implies a built-in act of gratitude: “We need to be more like St Francis, who hailed the sun and moon as if they were a birthday present.”5
This is true because, after all, prayer is not meant to be something we resort to only in time of need, but always. Panem nostrum cotidianum.
Knox has a few other points to make, but for now I should remind everyone that the tradition has often heard in this phrase—“Give us this day our daily bread”—in a Eucharistic way. Today, you and I do that especially on account of a First Communion we will witness very shortly. Our little sister will receive her Daily Bread for the first time today—Daily Bread that is no bread at all, but Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity. The whole Christ comes into her life today, and how happy we are!
At the Alleluia verse today we heard Our Lord say, “I go away and I come to you.” Yes, Our Lord has gone away in His Ascension; but He comes to us in this Sacrament. He comes to you, dear Anne. You don’t see Him in the usual way, because He is with the Father in heaven—but you do see Him in a sacramental way that is not a symbol, but a reality; here on the altar, and soon in your heart and soul. And He has promised never to leave you.
When the priest is offering the Mass, and when he gets to singing the Pater Noster, the rubrics ask something of him. In fact, you may not notice it, but the ceremonial of the Holy Mass often directs where the priest’s eyes are supposed to go. Anyhow, at the Our Father, I’m supposed to be looking, not at the Cross or up to heaven or at the altar card, but right down upon the Sacred Host. “Give us this day our daily bread”—and there He is! There is our Lord’s true, sacramental presence, quietly on the corporal while the priest sings the Our Father back to Him.
Surely Our Lord must have had this moment in mind when He taught his first disciples to pray—that the prayer would be repeated at Holy Mass in just this way, down the centuries. I end by saying that here we have the reasons Catholics live they way they do: we think, act, and pray not as if our Master is utterly away, as if we had no real connection to Him. We live as if He is real and present, for so He is.
1 Juvenal, Satires, 10, 350; quoted in Knox, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, p 37.
2 Mt 6, 8.
3 Mt 5, 45.
4 Knox, p 38.
5 Ibid, 39.