“On Earth as it is in Heaven”
Moving on in Our Father, we hear the next petition, “Thy will be done,” though specified “on earth as it is in heaven.” Origen, always interested in offering the deeper hidden meaning of a text explains the passage in this way: “And when this will of God is done by us on earth as it is in heaven, then we shall be like them that are in heaven, inasmuch as we shall bear as they do the image of the Heavenly One.” (On Prayer 26.1)
To pray this prayer is a request to form the image of the heavenly one in us. This image is no other than Christ, who is the “image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation.” (Col 1:15) Origen makes this more explicit when he interprets “heaven” in the petition allegorically as Christ. We on Earth, in seeking to do God’s will, make Christ present on Earth. Cooperating with God’s will, we continue God’s saving work here below. In a strange way, it continues the work of the incarnation.
Byzantine prayer delights in using the familiar psalm trope of God bowing the heavens to describe the incarnation. (cf. Ps 18:9 passim) We pray daily at Vespers with heads bent recalling this fact: “Lord our God, you bowed the heavens and came down for the salvation of the human race.” The Our Father petitions God to bend the heavens into view of this terrestrial existence, using our life as a mirror to reflect the image of the invisible God.
These heavy words do two things. First, relating with God through prayer can’t help but change us. God is working in our prayer no matter what. Second, the words of our prayer are a constant personal challenge. They remind us of our Divine vocation to reflect the divine image, which is formed by the interplay between our prayers and actions, each one informing and reforming us with every prayer uttered and every finger lifted.
Another reason for this prayer is to remind us of our divine vocation. Our end lies in the heaven and our life now is preparation for it. For Maximus the Confessor this prayer cultivates in us a desire for the heavenly citizenship to use the words of St. Paul (cf. Phil 3:20). Maximus writes “Our reason [for saying this prayer] also should therefore be moved to seek God…the force of desire should struggle to possess him… The whole mind should tend to God, stretched out as a sinew by the temper of anger, and burning with longing for the highest reaches of desire.” (Commentary on the Our Father) According to Maximus, petition such as this serves to educate our desire and direct it toward the heavenly. His image of desire reaching out like a taut muscle indicates the kind of passion required, calling to mind the intensity of an olympic athlete.
Sometimes this is forgotten when prayers are recited form rote memory, but in fact we memorize these prayers in order to keep this desire ever before minds. To bend the earth toward heaven and likewise keep our stride toward eternity requires the repetitive discipline that only memorized prayer can provide. In teaching us this prayer, Christ teaches us also how to be in the world.