It is well known by many who are familiar with ancient Judaism that the covenant name of God found in the Hebrew Bible, transliterated as Yahweh, was never spoken by Jews. Certainly this was one application of the commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God” (Ex 20:7).
But the practice also demonstrates the extent to which ancient Hebrews went in making sure that references to God were reverent and worshipful. Indeed, even in contemporary usage, many Jewish theologians, when writing about God, inscribe the term as G-d. The purpose is to ensure that God’s name is not defaced and that homage and honor are given to God’s name.
In response to his disciple’s request for him to teach them how to pray, Jesus offers to them what becomes known as the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer opens by addressing God with a term of intimacy, Abba-Father, through which the one who prays kneels before a God who is close to and cares for humanity.
Yet, in offering them an intimate name by which they should address God, Jesus does not domesticate the name or person of God to the extent that we relate to God in exactly the same way that we relate to finite humans. In fact, Jesus is clear to include right after the prescription to call God Abba-Father, statements that express the transcendence of God’s being and the holiness of God’s name.
Although the image of God as Father works very well to express the intimate relationship humanity has with God, the Abba addressed in prayer is not wholly similar to a human father, but transcends human existence and finiteness. Jesus’ reference to God as living in heaven may have been a literal place in the minds of ancients, but we might more fully understand the reference as expressing the breadth of God’s transcendence as one who exists outside of human space and time. While God can act in time and space, specifically through acts of wonder and, for Christians, in the person of Jesus, God, unlike humans, lives in eternal existence outside the finiteness of time and space.
Yet, what exactly does the next petition of the payer, “Hallowed be your name”, mean? To answer this we need to consider the type of statement this is, and then we need to define what “hallowed” and “name” might mean. From there we can gather an understanding of Jesus’ meaning and how it affects our own praying of the Lord’s Prayer.
First, the statement is an appeal asking God to make God’s name hallowed, and thus, in praying this petition, the one who prays recognizes a world that disregards the name of God. Second, the hallowing of God’s name is the hallowing of God’s character as God. Again, the statement assumes a world apart from God, and the petitioner is called to ask God to make God’s character hallowed in the world.
But what about the term “hallowed”? More modern English translations attempt to help us understand the term by translating the statement, “Make your name holy.” While this helps, it does not fully capture the meaning and importance of the petition.
There may be a double meaning to the phrase. One meaning is theological in the sense that ultimately it is God who makes God’s name holy. This idea is expressed through the use of the passive verb, which hides God as the subject of the verb; another practice by ancient Jews to honor the name of God. Thus making God’s name holy can only be accomplished by God. While the fulfillment of this petition will not be achieved until the completion of eschatological time, the prayer does voice the desire of all believers who long for the day that injustice and evil will be vanquished by the holy character of God.
A second meaning, however, is an ethical one. The prayer is a petition that God’s name be revered in and through the faithful living of the followers of Christ. For sure we should not take the Lord’s name in vain in our speech, but more importantly, the prayer calls us to venerate the name of God in our discipleship. Through our discipleship we bear witness to the holy name of God to those who do not know God or who disregard the name of God. And in hallowing God’s name through our living in imitation of Christ, we bring God’s rule of justice into the world, foreshadowing the coming of God’s kingdom.