Ontario wrestles with place of the Lord’s Prayer

c. 2008 Religion News Service TORONTO _ The premier of Ontario has dropped a political hot potato with his recent announcement that the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the provincial legislature should be dropped. “It’s time for us to ensure that we have a prayer that better reflects our diversity,” Dalton McGuinty, a […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

TORONTO _ The premier of Ontario has dropped a political hot potato with his recent announcement that the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the provincial legislature should be dropped.

“It’s time for us to ensure that we have a prayer that better reflects our diversity,” Dalton McGuinty, a Liberal Party member, said last month.

“The members of the Ontario Legislature reflect the diversity of Ontario _ be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or agnostic. It is time for our practices to do the same.”

Now only two Canadian provinces _ New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island _ still begin their legislative proceedings with the Lord’s Prayer.

McGuinty’s announcement touched off a flurry of debate in Canada’s most populous province. Reactions ranged from those advocating that the prayer should be kept in a nod to Ontario’s Christian heritage to those who would outlaw religious expression in the public square altogether. Some have recommended rotating the Lord’s Prayer with those from other faiths.

Perhaps the most intriguing plea for the Lord’s Prayer has been from scholars who say the world’s best-known Christian prayer is universal and ecumenical in spirit.

In fact, it could be considered Jewish _ as it is attributed to Jesus himself.

Either way, McGuinty’s proposal has touched off a decidedly religious debate in largely secular Canada, and one that echoes similar fights south of the border over the proper role of religion in civic spheres.

The U.S. debate, for the most part, has not centered on the Lord’s Prayer but on other references to the divine _ specifically, whether civic councils can open with prayers that end “in Jesus’ name.” That’s the fight playing out in a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va.

The Lord’s Prayer has already come under scrutiny in Ontario. In 1988, an appeals court struck down a requirement that public schools start the day by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Then, in 1999, the same court struck down its use before municipal council meetings, saying it “imposed a Christian moral tone” on public deliberations.

Known by Roman Catholics as the “Our Father,” the Lord’s Prayer is probably the best-known prayer in Christianity, primarily because it is the only one explicitly endorsed by Jesus.

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It appears in two places in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, it is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, while in Luke, a disciple asks Jesus how to pray, and Jesus obliges with the now-famous words:

“Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven so in earth. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.”

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Where did Jesus get it?

Rabbi Bernard Baskin of Hamilton, Ont., who has studied the prayer’s roots, offers an explanation. “Jesus wasn’t a pagan or a Greek. It came from the Jewish tradition almost phrase by phrase.”

The Interpreter’s Bible, a well-known Christian source, agrees. The Lord’s Prayer “is thoroughly Jewish,” it states, and nearly every phrase is paralleled in the Jewish liturgy.

What makes it a Christian prayer is not its language but the fact that it was promulgated by the fount of Christianity, says the Rev. Dan Donovan, a theologian at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself first prays, and then teaches the Lord’s Prayer. “He is drawing us into his prayer,” Donovan said. “The (issue) is not so much the actual words, but the fact that Christians pray it as the prayer that Jesus taught, and in some sense, as a way of sharing in his prayer.”

In his book, “Jesus and the Judaism of His Time,” University of Toronto scholar Irving Zeitlin cites line-by-line parallels between the Lord’s Prayer and the Jewish mourner’s prayer, the Kaddish (“May (God) establish His kingdom during our lifetime and during the lifetime of Israel”); the Eighteen Benedictions (“Forgive us our Father, for we have sinned”); Talmudic prayer (“Lead me not into sin or iniquity or temptation or contempt,” goes one); and other Hebrew scriptures.

That means Jesus “brilliantly” condensed important Jewish ethical teachings, while also summing up the essence of what would become the Christian faith, says Darrell Johnson, a teacher at Vancouver’s evangelical Regent College and author of “Fifty-Seven Words That Change the World: A Journey Through the Lord’s Prayer.”

“The Lord’s Prayer gathers up all of life and brings it before God. Jesus brings the wide range of concerns the Jews would bring to prayer and just boils them to these six petitions.”

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Catholics and Protestants, meanwhile, have differed on the use of the last line, known as the doxology _ “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.” Protestants generally use it, while Catholics added it to the Mass just in 1970.

Scholars agree the line was in any case probably lifted from the Book of Chronicles, in which King David is quoted: “Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor.”

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Given its Jewish roots, Johnson feels the Lord’s Prayer is “so wonderfully inclusive that any religious orientation could pray this prayer.”

The “only glitch” he sees is the reference to “Our Father,” and that has nothing to do with religion.

“That would be the bigger problem for a number of women who find it hard to address God in male language. If I were in leadership, I think I could nurture a climate that said, `This prayer, minus that problem, includes us all.”’

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The biggest irony, perhaps, is that Jesus himself might never have uttered his own prayer in a public setting.

“When you pray,” he counsels his followers during the Sermon on the Mount, “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”

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A photo of McGuinty is available via https://religionnews.com.