17th Sunday of Ordinary Time - The Language of the Soul

The ultimate purpose of Jesus' living and dying as one of us was to provide the full and final revelation of the love and goodness of God to all people in all ages. And when asked by his disciples to teach them to pray, Jesus speaks of His Father, in what we have come to know as the Lord's Prayer. He speaks in simple terms, in plain language about the Father whose Being He shares so intimately and whose Love He wants so much to share.

But language is an interesting procedure. It is so common for us to remark that a phrase "loses a lot in translation." Each language has a very special setting of time and place and culture. The language of a people is filled with shades of meaning that are particular to the peculiar circumstances in which a people live.

The books of the Bible were written centuries ago, in a very different time and place from our own. So the work of translating the words of Scripture accurately has absorbed the minds and the energies of scholars for thousands of years. A word or a phrase in Greek or Aramaic or Latin can easily lose its original force or color when translated into English or French or Italian. Modern Scripture scholarship is constantly using every possible resource to refine our rendition of the Word of God so that what we read and understand is as close as humanly possible to what God Himself intended to reveal.

In English, we have experienced various translations known as the King James version, the Douay-Rheims version, the Revised Edition, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine translation, the Jerusalem Bible, the Good News Bible, and the New American Bible - and so many more. All of these render various favorite passages in different ways, hoping to help us understand the truths that God wants to reveal to us in these sacred writings.

The Lord's Prayer is obviously one of the most revered passages in the New Testament. We learned to mouth the words in our infancy, and continue to pray them throughout our adult lives. It appears everywhere in the church's life: in its liturgy and sacraments, in public and private prayer. It is a prayer that every Christian treasures. But it also has its roots in the Jewish Kaddish. The Kaddish is a prayer of blessing that begins "May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days."

Jesus spoke his prayer in a language that his followers understood - in concepts with which they were already familiar.

We struggle with words that are less commonly used today, like "hallowed", and "trespasses". We need to stop and think about what "thy kingdom come" really means. We hear others pray: " Forgive us our debts ... " One interpretation might be "Forgive us our sins in the same way that we forgive those who sin against us." (What a powerful self-indictment that might be!) We are used to praying: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" - but now we also hear: " Subject us not to the trial, rescue us from the evil one."

In recent years, there have been suggestions that much of the language in our present translations is sexist - that is, it reflects an older attitude of male predominance, and very often seems to omit or slight the female. A very new translation of the Lord's Prayer, for example, might read: "Our Father/Mother" or "Our Parent." This would probably upset many, and seem very clumsy. But it does help us realize that God is neither male nor female; in His being we must find the essence of all that is best in both masculine and feminine.

In all of this, we need always to go beyond the literal meaning of the words to the substance of what God wants us to believe and live by. The confusion is compounded even more when we reduce our prayer to a debate over the words or phrases - or even the specific language - we use.

This is especially important for us to remember as as we prepare for new translations promulgated by the Vatican and the "restoration" of the Tridentine Liturgy.

Words and Language are important only insofar as they lead us to understand the Reality. Jesus' answer to His followers about prayer is very simple: He has told us about His Father. We praise His name, we ask, we seek, and we knock at the door, in full confidence - knowing He will answer our needs. And we love one another and forgive one another as He has already loved and forgiven us.

The Lord's Prayer sums up the teaching of Jesus. It is also a prayer that offers us a glimpse of his understanding of the Father: his awe and reverence for God, his childlike, simple-yet-strong faith in his Father, and his strength to go bravely through life no matter what comes.

Ultimately, our prayer should not become a debate of semantics, laboring over specific words or phrases. It should, as Jesus taught us, rise from within, speaking the language of the soul.