How many Christians know what the opening of the Lord’s Prayer–Hallowed be your name–really means? It’s a prayer that owns up to a crisis, getting right into God’s face. No wonder the early church devised the introduction “as our Savior Christ has commanded and taught us, we are bold to say,” admitting that the prayer is so blatantly frank that we need reminding who gave us the right to pray it.
The crisis is that God’s name, God’s honor, reputation, integrity, has been disgraced by the infidelity of his own people. We have made God irrelevant, incredible or disgusting to millions of our fellow beings whose image of God has been deformed by our spiritual impotence and stupidities. Our dilute ‘updated’ version of Christianity has reduced God to a benign figure of fixed smiles, who doesn’t do much except refrain from anything ‘judgmental’ that would interfere with our project of maintaining self-esteem. Or our vehement religiosity has projected a God who behaves amorally, or sanctions violence and displays favoritism. But what has most drastically stripped God’s name of its holiness is our habit of taking the authority that belongs to the Creator alone and investing it in mere human institutions, the ‘word of human hands’; the perennial sin of idolatry.
To cry, “Father, hallowed be your name” is a confession brought on by the crisis we have created through idolatry, and an urgent pledge to desacralize the institutions we have been falsely treating as sacred, and let God alone be holy. A lot of the current malaise in our own country and in the world today is a consequence of being forced to recognize that institutions we have been falsely treating as sacred are in fact only provisional, fallible human fabrications. I was struck the other day listening to one of the daily radio programs on economic affairs. A pundit high up in the affairs of the multi-national corporations used the word ‘sacred’ about 20 times in just a few minutes to describe the instruments and machinery of global capitalism. We have gotten to the point where questioning the ultimate validity of the transnational capitalist system and the authority of its secretive priesthood is the equivalent of blasphemy.
Now when the system is imploding here, and exploding there, there is frantic activity to shore up our faith in this ‘divine’ dispensation ruled by the corporate angels. It’s too late to prevent us from seeing the idol has feet of clay, but the powers that be cannot allow doubts to spread about how much more of it is made of fragile base materials that could give way and bring everything crashing down. But only God is divine, only God’s name is holy. Supposing capitalism as we know it today is only provisional, no more eternal than feudalism was, and that God’s urgent will is for something better, something more just.
Then there is the crisis of American self-confidence, which may be a salutary crisis, very suited to give a fresh impetus to the Lord’s prayer. Think how Americans have invested our own nationhood with a sacred character stolen from the name of God. We see how popular in some quarters is the delusion that the Constitution itself is a sacred, eternal revelation, rather than a great achievement of the 18th century, but one that has poten- tial flaws that are beginning to open up. The horror roiling the political scene shows the difficulty of admitting that this ‘sacred revelation’ can’t guarantee that government won’t lead us into a blind alley of prolonged political deadlock and impotence.
And if we ‘hallow the name’ of our own military might, sacrificing more of our resources on its altar than all the rest of the world spends on arms, if we depend on the myth that American might must be right this time, what happens when we simply don’t know how to make up endings for our war stories any more? War is justified by made-up stories. It is not a divine mandate at all. What if we don’t know how to end the stories spun by our costly prolonged foreign interventions?
To pray, ‘hallowed be your name’ is to appeal to God to help us restore to his name all the worship we have invested in, and the authority we have falsely attributed to fallible schemes of our own devising. Believers have been here before; Jesus in teaching us this prayer was reviving the words of the great prophet Ezekiel who trusted that God would re-sanctify his own name, which we have weakened and debased. “I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations will know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before your eyes.” (36:23)
Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiri- tual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.