Abwoon d'bwashmaya: Hearing Old Prayers With New Ears

April 4, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

You have just heard the "Our Father" spoken in Aramaic. It's very fashionable these days to hear things in their original Aramaic, as you may know that Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ" is done entirely in Jesus' original language and there are subtitles (well, the Romans speak Latin and there's a smattering of Greek in there. I don't know what language the Devil speaks). The problem with Aramaic, though, is that it's apparently a thoroughly dead language and no one really knows how it's pronounced. What we've just heard is a recording of linguists' best guess.

I wanted to speak a bit this morning about one of the problems with Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," which is that it begins with Jesus' betrayal and arrest and spends the next two hours taking the viewers through the events of so-called Good Friday through a very brief, very weird resurrection moment (I really almost expected Jesus to turn to the camera and say, a la "The Terminator," I'll be bahck). I didn't like the film for many reasons, some of which I may further explain on Easter, but my primary disappointment was that it focuses entirely on the passion – that is, the violence committed against Jesus -- and never allows us to see the living and luminous man. In other words, there is no context; it simply seems as though the Jewish temple priests and the Roman centurions just plain have it in for this nice, handsome guy.

Well, Mel has every right to make the movie he wants to make. He's an actor, not a theologian. But it is the preference of the liberal church to emphasize the life of Jesus over his suffering and his martyrdom, and this morning I would like to direct us to one of the gems of his life – a life that for me is full of spiritual riches that would take a lifetime to fully appreciate, let alone to live by.

This little gem has come to be known as The Lord's Prayer, and it is introduced in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Matthew and Luke 11. In Matthew's version, Jesus has given a wonderful series of teachings on the righteous life, basically an extended excursus on obeying the Ten Commandments and going even beyond them in moral commitment. He talks about how to pray: i.e.:, don't be a hypocrite and do it in a showy way, and by the way, here's what you might say. "Our Father," and the New International Version gives us:
Our Father in heaven/hallowed be your name./Your kingdom come/Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven./Give us today our daily bread./Forgive us our debts,/As we forgive our debtors./And lead us not into temptation,/but deliver us from the evil one.

In Luke's gospel, the setting is a bit different. The disciples approach Jesus and ask him, Would you teach us how to pray? And he teaches them, using almost the same words Matthew uses (That "kingdom, power and glory" bit, known as the doxology, was added by the emerging Christian church in the early centuries after the original was spoken).

It's a prayer that gets used in every conceivable setting. I had heard it a thousand times in my non-Christian childhood and young adulthood before I ever stopped to consider what it might be saying. As prayer, I think its nice, but I still feel a little bit strange using it, for instance, during weddings (because it is so much a communitarian prayer, and doesn't seem to speak very well to the occasion of the exclusive joining of one person to another). As poetry, it doesn't do as much for my spiritual life as, say, the 23rd Psalm. But as a daily meditation for those who believe in a more just world and also realize we have lots of work to do in our own hearts to help bring about that world, I think it's a humdinger:
Our Father who art in heaven
hallowed be Thy name.

This introduction places this prayer firmly in the Jewish tradition, of course, addressed to the Father God of Abraham and Moses. Central to Jesus' own spirituality was an intimacy with God, a kinship with his creator, the God whom he referred to as "Abba" – an Aramaic word which resembles our term of endearment, "Daddy."

The root of the Aramaic, "abwoon" or ab, may refer to a spiritual or a biological father depending on whether the w (for personal) or the b (for spiritual) is emphasized. (Neil Douglas-Klotz, p 13)

Also worth noting about these first phrases is the fact that "while abwoon is derivative of the word for personal father, its original roots do not specify a gender and could be translated ‘divine parent.'" (p 13) Those of you who wish to might pray, "O Father-Mother of the Cosmos, hallowed be your name!"
Thy kingdom come
Teytey malkuthakh
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Nethqadash shmakh

This is my favorite moment in the prayer. It is both petition and supplication for the kingdom of equals preached by Jesus, and for me it partners human endeavor with creation's own desire for "a world made fair, and all her people one."

When we pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done," there is an invitation for both personal and societal transformation. The Aramaic roots of nethqadash also "evoke the images of clearing or sweeping and of preparing the ground for an important plant." (ND-K, p 17) The idea is that the kingdom, or realm, of God requires of us each an individual clearing out of what we might call ego material. The ground must be prepared individually and as a community.

And (this is kind of nice) the word "malkuthakh," which refers to a quality of rulership, could be justifiably either translated as "kingdom" or "queendom" (The name "Malkatuh"—same root -- was a name of the Great Mother in the Middle East thousands of years before Jesus).

For those who rankle at the notion of submitting to the "Thy will be done" concept, I offer to you the insights of Neil Douglas-Klotz, "In Aramaic, the prayer always directs us in a practical fashion. To make the experience of Abwoon useful, we need to create a place for this Oneness to live inside. Then the light of shem – the clarity or intelligence that arises in ultimate peace – becomes usable on an everyday basis, like light in a lamp." I am guessing that each one of us would like to see ourselves as being capable of being as a lamp in the world.
Give us this day our daily bread
Hwvlan lachma d'sunqanan yaomana

This phrase might also be translated as "necessary" bread. Provide for our lives that which is most essential, those things, in the words of James Freeman Clarke, "whether of temporal or spiritual [nature] – to make us strong for this day's occasions." The Aramaic lachma means both "bread" and "understanding" – in other words, it is a request for food for mind, body and spirit.

And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

How many of you learned this as "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?"

Either way, this is the heart of the spiritual practice of the prayer and the words that invite us to pause and take a moral inventory of our own failures and betrayals. This moment of Jesus' prayer teaches us that our ability to get on in a free and healthy way with the business of our own lives is intimately tied with our ability to release our grievances against others.

"In Matthew's version of the prayer, the word khaubayn was translated as ‘debts' or ‘offenses' by the Greek. Its alternative meanings are ‘hidden past,' ‘secret debt,' ‘hidden, stolen property,' and any ‘inner fruit' that affects the intelligence and the soul negatively. In the version of the prayer from Luke, the word khtahayn is used and usually translated as ‘sins.' From the Aramaic, it could also be rendered as ‘failures,' ‘mistakes,' ‘accidental offenses,' ‘frustrated hopes' or ‘tangled threads' – the latter implying that some mending or restoration is needed."
(N D-K, p 31)

It's also worth noting, I think, that the section about both needing to be forgiven and needing to forgive is tied in the same clause as "give us this day our daily bread." Compassion, forbearance and reciprocal acceptance of one another's imperfect nature is the bread of Jesus' sense of communion.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Let me tell you a little story about this phrase. Several years ago I had a humdinger of a nightmare; a really terrifying dream. I'm lucky not to remember a lot of details but I had an encounter with a malevolent force – a demon or devil of some kind – and my immortal soul was at stake. In ancient times this dream would have sent me right to a shaman or exorcist of some kind. But here's what happened: in the dream, as I was face to face with the devil or one of his minions, I found myself reciting the Lord's Prayer as I backed away. I'm not sure if I actually held my fingers in the sign of the cross like they do in the old vampire flicks, but I might have. P.S. It worked. I woke up, which in a dream is as good as a happy ending.

Most of you know that I work very seriously with dreams and I knew this was an important one. But I was so embarrassed I couldn't, as they say, "work the dream." It took me a year or so to finally acknowledge that my unconscious self – the part of me that is uncritically connected to ancestral memory – had found this prayer a powerful talisman or verbal charm against true, incarnate evil.

And then I read the gospel of Matthew and noticed that in that version, the prayer says not "and deliver us from evil," as I had been used to saying, it says, "deliver us from the evil one."

All I want to say about that is that I suspect there's more to these old collection of words than our intellectual selves might be comfortable acknowledging. As my sister would say, I ain't shoutin, I'm just sayin.

Lead us not into temptation. That's personal. You all know what your temptations are. We are pretty aware of some of our collective temptations, too: greed, selfishness, over-weaning pride, etc. etc.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.

It was customary in the Jewish tradition to close prayers in such a way. Neil Douglas-Klotz says, quite reasonably, that "in Aramaic this closing perfectly summarizes the main themes of the prayer and recapitulates the spiral journey that it represents." (p. 38) He prefers "from gathering to gathering" as a more accurate expression of what got passed to us as "for ever and ever," but for those who have wondered what "amen" really means, and why we sprinkle it all over our religious services to this day, "the word ‘ameyn' seals agreements in the Middle East. It was a solemn oath (and probably better than a written contract)." (p. 38) Saying "amen" is a way of giving power to the words that preceded it. Amen is like saying "truly."

I think of this prayer as one of the many gifts given us by Jesus of Nazareth. I hope that this lengthy reflection on this little prayer of the ages has helped you to hear it with new ears. I am always collecting new translations of the Lord's Prayer (which I prefer to think of as the Prayer of Jesus). A few years ago a friend sent me this version, which I believe was composed by an Anglican community in either New Zealand or Australia. It goes like this:
Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever. Amen.

What do you hear when you hear the prayer of Jesus? After today, I hope you will hear many messages that minister to you. Will those of you who wish to, please join me in saying together the prayer of Jesus, printed in your order of service, or in whatever translation you prefer best.
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.


May you have a blessed week, may the kingdom/queendom of God be made manifest in you and through you,
in all the works of your hands
and all the
intentions of your words
and in all the affectionate prayers of your hearts.
Forever and ever, from gathering to gathering.