Revisiting the Lord’s Prayer

Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ means more than meets the eye

Q: In a recent column you commented on Pope Francis’ suggestion that the text of the Lord’s Prayer be clarified. Are there other parts of the Lord’s Prayer that should be clarified?

A: Let me begin by recommending that anyone reading this column should read that earlier article in the April 2018 edition of Northwest Catholic. It covers three important principles for interpretation and translation, which will not be repeated here. 

I would also like to preface my answer by saying that the following thoughts have not been publicly advocated by Pope Francis. Rather, they reflect my personal belief as a Catholic Christian and biblical theologian. With those qualifying comments stated, I will now address your question.

Yes, I do believe there are other sections of the Lord’s Prayer that one day might be clarified so as to more accurately communicate the divinely intended truth.

Not just ordinary bread

The most important clarification concerns the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread.”

The problem involves the use of the word daily. The Greek term used in Luke 11:3 and Matthew 6:11 is epi-ousion, which doesn’t really mean daily.

It’s difficult to know what this Greek term means because it is only used in this one line of the Lord’s Prayer and no other place in the entire New Testament. In fact, epiousion isn’t used anywhere in ancient Greek literature. It is almost as if this word was created specifically for this one line in the Lord’s Prayer. That uniqueness should make us wonder why such a singular term would be used.

Before going on, let me first explain how it came to be translated as daily. It happened around the year 387 when St. Jerome was given the task of translating the Bible into the language of the people, which by then was Latin and no longer Greek. Jerome studied Hebrew and Greek for nearly 20 years before translating the texts into Latin. When he came to the word epiousion in the Lord’s Prayer, he was perplexed and didn’t quite know what it meant, so he seems to have translated it in a limited way using the Latin term quotidiano, which means each day.

Other early church fathers had a very different understanding of what the term meant, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth: “The fact is that the Fathers of the Church were practically unanimous in understanding the fourth petition of the Our Father as a Eucharistic petition.”

They came to this conclusion because of epiousion’s very composition. The Greek term epi means above, higher, from above and even super. Ousion means essence, substance, being and nature. For this reason, the church fathers — including Sts. Ambrose, Augustine and Peter Chrysologus — commonly understood the phrase to refer to the supernatural bread of the Eucharist and not just the ordinary bread of daily sustenance.

A prayer for daily Eucharist

This ancient belief has always been part of the Catholic Church’s deeper reflection on the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that while there are several possible ways of understanding the term epiousion, including the traditional daily, the most probable and most literal translation is really super-substantial or super-essential. (CCC 2837) That’s the Eucharist!

When we pray this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we are really begging God to “Give us today our supernatural (eucharistic) bread.” That’s a prayer for daily reception of the Eucharist.

When we understand the petition in this way, we can grasp the meaning of the remaining petitions:

It is through our sharing in the body of Christ, the very life of Jesus in the Eucharist, that we receive the forgiveness which flows from our Lord’s cross (“forgive us our trespasses”).

It is only in Christ Jesus that we dare to pray for forgiveness “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” because who can forgive perfectly, completely and eternally except Jesus himself? We can only forgive others through Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus. We experience this communion with Jesus in a distinctive and extraordinarily graced way through the Eucharist.

Jesus is the one who shows us how to overcome temptation, and he alone is the one who has perfectly lived in obedience to the Father, so it is only in our communion with him that we can truly say “lead us not into temptation.”

Finally, Jesus is the only one who has triumphed over every force of sin and death through his cross and resurrection. He alone can protect us from the power of the Evil One if we remain in the palm of his hand. (see John 10:28-29) He alone can “deliver us from evil” in every sense.

That is the power of the Eucharist to nourish our soul on a daily basis. Jesus wants us to desire that nourishment, to pray for that nourishment, and to make time to receive that nourishment.

Read the Spanish translation of this column.

Northwest Catholic - July/August 2018

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.
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Daniel Mueggenborg es obispo auxiliar de la Arquidiócesis de Seattle. Envíe sus preguntas a: editor@seattlearch.org.