There’s so much to this word from the Our Father that a great deal is lost in translation.
Sometimes I’ll pick one word from a memorized prayer, and focus on it in a particular way to help myself remember that prayer is prayer, and that even when repeating the same prayers over and over, the Lord can still be communicating something new to me. Recently I picked the word “daily” from the Our Father. “Give us this day our daily bread.”
I wrote a few days ago about how the Aramaic word Jesus used for mercy had an incredible fullness to it and could only be understood in the context of all-encompassing nourishment and relationship.
In a similar fashion, we run into the same sense of totality and all-encompassing nourishment in this line from the Our Father. It seems like Jesus couldn’t emphasize enough just how completely the Father cares for us.
The original word, epiousion, occurs only in the context of the Lord’s Prayer in Scripture, and hasn’t been found in any other ancient Greek writings. Its meaning, as we understand it, came from a linguistic analysis of the word’s structure, which seems to be a combination of epi, meaning above and beyond, and ousious, meaning substance, or essence.
The early Church Fathers translated this word in multiple ways.
The “daily” translation traces back to Tertullian. St. Jerome translated the same word once as “tomorrow” and once as “supersubstantial.” Both of these translations establish a strong connection between the “daily bread” and the Eucharist. Still other translations include “super-essential,” perpetual” or “continual.”
To encapsulate the breadth of the word’s meaning, we are asking our Father in Heaven to give us, today, our daily – tomorrow – continual – perpetual – super-substantial – super-essential bread.
By instructing us to ask for our daily bread, the Lord is basically telling us to pray, in faith, for our Father to smother us in everything we could possibly need, now and forever.
When I was young, I noticed that my mom always cooked more than we needed. Extra food never went to waste. Sometimes we had unexpected guests; other times we had leftovers for lunch the next day or put some in the freezer. Knowing that there was always enough food to go around was something I took for granted, and without my even realizing it, it made me feel very secure.
There is likewise a great sense of safety and security underlying the petition we make when praying the Our Father. Our Lord has told us that if we ask for something in his name, it will be granted. There are no “ifs” involved – the Lord will provide, without fail.
Do we believe this?
In times of plenty, it’s easy to believe and feel confident that God is providing for us. But it is impossible to truly speak of confidence in God and the daily sustenance he provides without addressing the dissonance we can feel during times of want, when God’s providence isn’t experienced as tangibly.
How can we reconcile the petition we place before our Father asking him to provide all we need, with the stark reality of hunger, poverty and want in the world?
We can always explain it in light of eternity, with the faith that God can bring good out of hardship. Instead of looking for relief, we can foster hope.
But I would like to highlight another dimension to this as well: our identity as the Body of Christ. It is no coincidence that the term “Body of Christ” refers both to the sacrament of the Eucharist, through which God gives us infinite spiritual nourishment, and also to us, the People of God, the Church. We too are part of the sustenance God provides. He wills for his grace and providence to be incarnated through us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the petition for our “daily bread” is not isolated, but is a call to solidarity and responsibility:
“The drama of hunger in the world calls Christians who pray sincerely to exercise responsibility toward their brethren, both in their personal behavior and in their solidarity with the human family. The petition of the Lord’s Prayer cannot be isolated from the parables of the poor man Lazarus and of the Last Judgment.” (CCC 2831)
It also exhorts us to “communicate and share both material and spiritual goods, not by coercion, but out of love so that the abundance of some may remedy the needs of others” (CCC 2833).
This is something to think about the next time we pray the Lord’s Prayer or receive Communion. As part of the Body of Christ, we are called to freely give what we freely receive, to open our hearts to God’s blessing by receiving our daily bread and then to go forth and BE that daily bread, broken and shared for all to receive.
Aleteia contributor Russell Saltzman leads readers through each phrase of the Our Father. See those articles here: