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Dear Friend in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most recited prayer in human history. Many churches pray the Lord’s Prayer every week in their worship service. Catechisms often devote a question and answer to each petition of the prayer. And of course, pastors have managed to preach an entire sermon series or two on it. Martin Luther captured both the benefit of regularly reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the danger of repeating it too often with a disengaged spirit.
“To this day I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great pity that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world! How many pray the Lord’s Prayer several thousand times in the course of a year, and if they were to keep on doing so for a thousand years they would not have tasted nor prayed one iota, one dot, of it! In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth (as are the name and word of God). Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.”
Unfortunately, there is no redeeming or edifying art of the Lord’s Prayer Lucas Cranach the Elder to counter Martin Luther’s claim. You can find plenty of folded hands and adoring faces in Wittenberg, but you will not find a portion of Cranach’s famous altar painting dedicated to the Lord’s Prayer. He did, however, create a powerful image of how we should live and act as people of prayer- as a family beneath one, heavenly Father.
In 1529, Cranach presented the first of his paintings entitled the “Allegory of Law and Gospel,” or “Law and Grace.” In addition, he provided a wood cut version as well. Over the next two decades, Cranach made numerous, evolving versions. Another German painter Hans Holbein created a similar image called Old and New Testament. Religious historians Cranach’s painting and woodcut to be the most important image of the Protestant Reformation. Luther himself believed that these images could be viewed as a useful devotional aid, and so he consulted with Cranach on the clarity and simplicity the images. These woodcuts, often printed, in Wittenberg complemented Luther’s newly published Small Catechism.
The painting of the “Allegory of Law and Grace” is an antithetical image based on antithesis, or play of opposites. It was a common form of teaching often employed by artists at the time of the Reformation. It was also a very effective tool for Protestants to promote their movement. This can be seen in a picture called Working in the Vineyard. On the left are the priests and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, and on the right side are the Protestants including Luther working in the vineyard. Or it was used to teach the power of God’s word. On the left is a picture of the Crucified Christ experienced in preaching and the sacraments, on the right side is an image of the torment of hell. Protestants, however, weren’t; the only ones to use contemporary for propaganda. The Roman Catholic Church placed Luther’s image and the devil together.
In the “Allegory of Law and Grace,” the visual space is divided down the center by a tree, to the left of which is depicted as the Law as expounded in the Old Testament. In the left background, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of life after being tempted by the serpent. As a result of this original sin, man is the prey of death and the Devil, though he can only be chased, indicated by the two figures hounding Man into the jaws of hell. This is Man under the Law, signified by Moses holding the tables of the Ten Commandments, with other Old Testament prophets behind him. In the clouds above, Christ as Lord of the world sits judging man, with the sword and the lily in his sides. Two figures, Mary and John the Baptist, seek to intercede for sinful man, although in vain. The gloomy message of the Old Testament and the Law, which only condemn man, is also signified in the barren branches on the Old Testament side of the antithesis formed by the central tree.
In opposition to the hardness of the Law, the Gospel brings hope, signified by the blooming branches on the New Testament side of the tree. In the background is depicted, however, an Old Testament scene, the brazen serpent, the figure of Christ’s saving death on the cross. On the hill in the right background Mary receives the rays of heavenly grace, signifying the incarnation, further indicated by the angel bearing the cross down to her. To the left, further indicated by the angel brings the news of the birth of the Savior to the shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem. The main figures on this side depict the events through which the Gospel message is realized. The crucified Christ sheds his saving blood in a stream onto man. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the dove through which the stream passes, this becomes the saving water of baptism. Man has his attention called to the sacrificial death of Christ by the figure of John the Baptist. Beneath the crucifix is the paschal lamb, the symbol of Christ’s victorious death, which is completed by his resurrection. This is depicted in the bottom right-hand corner, where Christ overcomes death and the apocalyptic beast, representing the Devil. This completes man’s release from sin and death, neatly balancing the corresponding depiction on the far left.
Luther taught that the entire life of a Christian was to be lived in the Kingdom of God’s grace. We do not merit God’s love and salvation by our own words and deeds, but it comes to us freely as a gift from God. Luther, however, also firmly believed that God would judge us all one day. And that none of us, living by the law would receive God’s salvation- not by the intercession of the saints, nor by fulfilling the law, or even by living a holier life than our neighbors. God’s judgement on sin was final. The paradox of the image should be clear. The very same man Jesus who is seated on the throne, and sends forth that judgment, is the same Jesus who destroys the power of death and conquers the Devil. The Heavenly Father above all creation is both a God of Law, and a God of everlasting mercy.
So what is the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer? It is certainly not to placate an angry God or to dissuade God from sending judgment upon on the world. But rather, the purpose of the prayer is to help teach us and mold us into becoming the worthy sons and daughters of God who will abide in his Kingdom of grace. In the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in Heaven,” our Lord Jesus has teaches us to trust that God is not as a divine wishing well, a holy bargaining table or even a heavenly last resort. But Jesus teaches us to pray so that we may experience the divine gifts of the new life he offers as if from a father’s loving hand. And these gifts, and so many more, come to us from a God who invites us to know him and call him our Father. And that is just the beginning. We ask in this prayer that we may be his children, and that we may dare to come to him boldly and in complete confidence. And it is through the prayer, that we seek meet the Holy Spirit who will help to live holy lives as examples for others to see. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.