When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I often think of an essay I read years ago by the theologian David Wells. Petitionary prayer, Wells wrote, is “rebellion against the world in its fallenness. . . . It is, in this its negative aspect, the refusal of every agenda, every scheme, every interpretation that is at odds with the norm as originally established by God.”
That has always struck me as an obvious gloss on the second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” To pray for God’s reign to become more fully visible, to pray for God’s perfect heavenly shalom to come into its own on earth as well, is to ask for the aftershocks of the fall to be quieted. It is, in effect, to take one’s stand against the world as it is now and to ask for more and more foretastes of the world as it will be when the kingdom of God is finally consummated.
What strikes me this Maundy Thursday, though, is that in the one instance we have in the Gospels where the Lord prays his own prayer, the way in which those petitions are answered doesn’t so obviously mesh with my understanding.
In the Gospel of Matthew, on the eve of his crucifixion, in Gethsemane, Jesus prays in the way he had earlier instructed his disciples to pray: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. . . . My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” In Greek, the wording of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus had passed on to his disciples for them to pray and the wording of his own anguished cry in the garden are identical (compare Matthew 6:10 with 26:42). (As the New Testament scholar Dale Allison has neatly put it, “The First Gospel is about a figure who imaginatively and convincingly incarnates his own moral imperatives.”)
And the way that prayer is answered, of course—the way the Father’s will comes to be done on earth, in that hour—is that Jesus is not rescued from his fate. He is arrested, tried, bound, scourged, and crucified. This looks not so much like the peace of heaven dispelling the darkness of the earth as the reverse.
What should we make of that? More pointedly, how ought Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane to shape our understanding of the divine will and its character? Just so, I think: In a world marked by sin and death, for the will of God—the wholeness and life and love of God—to take root on earth requires the vanquishing of that sin and death. Put differently, it won’t do to say that God is only found in moments of obvious health and beauty and joy. God must also be at work in suffering, in darkness, in torment, because only if God confronts the horror we’ve made of the world, bears it, and bears it away can the triumph of God’s love be assured. Only if the will of God mysteriously includes Jesus’s death on a cross can the will of God for our human flourishing be guaranteed. All other solutions would be mere Band-Aids, putting off the inevitable confrontation by papering over it. If the heavenly will of God is to be enacted on a sin-scorched earth, then it must also be the will of God for Jesus to enter fully into all the pain of that earth. The way to healing lies through Jesus’s suffering, rather its circumvention.
The great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once wrote:
The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history. . . . I use the world “projected” in the sense that we project a film onto a screen. If it is a smooth silver screen you see the film simply in itself. If the screen is twisted in some way, you get a systematically distorted image of the film. Now imagine a film projected not on a screen but on a rubbish dump. The story of Jesus—which in its full extent is the entire Bible—is the projection of the trinitarian life of God on the rubbish dump we have made of the world. The historical mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal mission of the Son from the Father; the historical outpouring of the Spirit in virtue of the passion, death, and ascension of Jesus is nothing but the eternal outpouring of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. Watching, so to say, the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity.
It’s clear to us that the will of God in heaven is the perfect, eternal love of Father, Son, and Spirit, unmarred by any suffering or dying. What is less intuitive—but what Gethsemane and, later, Calvary force us to notice—is that the will of God is also the way of the incarnate Lord into the far country of our suffering and dying, where he is mocked, spit upon, strung up, and left to suffocate. That is what it looks like for the will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven because that is the only way our earth can be saved.