The Rhetorical Significance of Liturgical Prayer

Last week I discussed the importance of examining what our prayers communicate about our theology. I have been attempting to be more aware of the implications of my own prayers — whether borrowed (ones commonly used in liturgy) or original (my own impromptu daily petitions). In doing so, the rhetorical significance of liturgical prayer has become apparent to me. There is formative theological richness to prayers that have been part of church history for centuries. Assuming that these prayers encase vital elements of our theology and faith, it follows that our habitual incorporation of these prayers will begin to influence our impromptu ones, as well as various other actions in our daily lives.

I have become aware that my own daily petitions, and I suspect those of other Christians as well, often include imbalanced language when it comes to important doctrines and theological concepts. An example that illustrates this phenomenon is found in the often ego-centric petitions for forgiveness in our prayer language, de-emphasizing or excluding altogether confessions of forgiveness for the transgressions of others. Two prayers used regularly in Christian liturgy express a “collective” and “communal” theological understanding of forgiveness.

The first, The Lord’s Prayer, most of us know by heart. The second, is the well-known and often recited Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The Lord’s Prayer certainly carries a great deal of theological and rhetorical significance, as it is the primary example of prayer that Jesus gave to His followers. The line that applies to forgiveness has been spoken tens of thousands of times by believers over the centuries: “…And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Other translations use “trespasses” as the synonym for “sins,” but the meaning is the same — our own forgiveness is absolutely conditional on our act of forgiving others. 

We see this illustrated and emphasized again in Matthew 18 with Christ’s “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” St. Francis’s prayer echoes Christ’s command to forgive “seventy times seven” with the phrase, “in pardoning we are pardoned.” I think the poetic context is significant in this piece of rhetoric — so here is an excerpt from the prayer:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The entire prayer is beautiful; but more than that, the concept of acknowledging how our individual forgiveness by God is directly connected to how we deal with the transgressions of others is powerful in its daily application. If our own forgiveness is conditional on us forgiving others, then it would follow that our daily petitions for our own forgiveness should be equally matched by our expressions of forgiving others — which is precisely the example of prayer language that Christ left with his followers.

If this is the case, then we can see how the theologically rich prayers of liturgy have an important place in our daily lives. They serve as a theological compass for all our other personal prayers and petitions. They force us to interact with and question the theological significance and validity of our own original, impromptu prayers to God.