What does ‘On Earth As It Is In Heaven’ mean?

Punctuation can often be misleading, especially when translators are faced with punctuating a text which has no punctuation. And so when we read the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Saint Matthew we are perhaps accustomed to reading the first part like this,

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Now, of course, this is perfectly acceptable. But there is a possible mistake that is suggested by the punctuation. To which of the first three petitions does the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” belong? The punctuation appears to include it in the third petition alone. In other words, it seems to me that many people understand the first three petitions like this:

  1. Hallowed be Thy name.
  2. Thy kingdom come.
  3. Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.

But fortunately for us who have access to the Catena Aurea we are able to avoid this confined view!

Image result for catena aurea

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of every church father, every church doctor, and even the thoughts of scores of the prominent heretics,  has provided us all a gift of inestimable value by bestowing all of his knowledge on the rest of us in comparatively brief works.

Image result for aquinas

For example, take this little gem from the Theologian known to history as Pseudo-Chrysostom,

These words, “As in heaven so in earth,” must be taken as common to all three preceding petitions.

In other words, the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer should be understood like this,

  1. Hallowed be Thy name on earth as it is heaven.
  2. Thy kingdom come on earth as it is heaven.
  3. Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.

Grammarians might argue that the placement of the phrase “on earth as it is heaven” is appositive. It is placed after the three petitions yet is taken to refer to all of them.

Now, what does this phrase mean? What does it mean to say, for example, Thy kingdom come on earth as it is heaven, or Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven?

Well, perhaps you, as I, have always understood it to mean something very clear and obvious like,

‘May your will be done here on planet earth as it is done perfectly by all the saints and angels in heaven’

This of course is a wonderful understanding of the text, and I suppose qualifies as the literal sense. As we all know, every other interpretation of sacred scripture must be rendered in a way that starts from and does not exclude the literal sense. (except of course when the literal meaning of the words cannot possibly be the first intent of the author e.g. “God is my rock” “if your eye offend thee pluck it out”).

Image result for saint augustine

But among other interpretation of this phrase I find one, suggested by Saint Augustine, particularly marvelous,

“by the heaven and the earth we may understand the spirit and the flesh. As the Apostle says, “In my mind I obey the law of God,” [Rom 7:25] we see the will of God done in the spirit. But in that change which is promised to the righteous there, “Let thy will be done as in heaven, so in earth;” that is, as the spirit does not resist God, so let the body not resist the spirit.”

This especially makes sense when we think of Our Lord’s words to His disciples in the garden,

And he cometh to his disciples and findeth them asleep. And he saith to Peter: What? Could you not watch one hour with me? Watch ye: and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

St. Thomas explains this in greater detail in his own brief commentary on The Lord’s Prayer,

Thus, there is an endless strife between the flesh and the spirit, and man is continually being brought lower by sin. The will of God, therefore, is that man be restored to his primal state so that no more would the flesh rebel against the spirit: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification. “Now, this will of God cannot be fulfilled in this life, but it will be fulfilled in the resurrection of the just, when glorified bodies shall arise incorrupt and most perfect: “It is sown a natural body; it shall rise a spiritual body. “In the just the will of God is fulfilled relative to the spirit, which abides in justice and knowledge and perfect life. Therefore, when we say “Thy will be done,” let us pray that His will also may be done regarding the flesh. Thus, the sense of “Thy will be done on earth” is that it may be done “for our flesh,” and “as it is in heaven” means in our spirit. Thus, we take “in heaven” for our spirit, and “on earth” as our flesh.

This is a beautiful interpretation of the phrase ‘on earth as it is heaven’ and reminds us that our bodies really are something of earth. We are dust and unto dust we must return. But by praying the Lord’s Prayer often we prepare our bodies for the life of eternal beatitude when flesh shall no longer war against spirit, and,

The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds (Wisdom 3:7).

About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
This entry was posted in Aquinas, Augustine, Catena Aurea, Lord's Prayer and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What does ‘On Earth As It Is In Heaven’ mean?

  1. danno2281 says:

    Interesting. I had always applied it only to the third petition where it would have us seek to do His will joyfully and immediately. This adds a whole new dimension to my prayer. Thank you.

  2. Brian Kelly says:

    Very interesting, thank you Mr. Langley. Reminds me of a peculiar rendition of the Last Gospel by Saint Augustine. He held that “without Him was made nothing” should end with a period. Then, it would follow “That which was made in Him was life.” Thus, He was suggesting that in God’s mind all things are alive. Not, of course, in themselves, but as they exist in the Living Creator’s Eternal Mind. I don’t agree with the doctor on this one. Probably because it is over my head.

    • marklangley says:

      Thank you Mr. Kelly! Wow, that is a mind blowing interpretation. I love it! Your explanation has convinced me, especially when I consider how it seems to be consistent (not exactly sure why- but it just does) with our notion of eternal life and the beatific vision.

  3. John Johnson says:

    We cannot know what Jesus said in Aramaic, but Matthew was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write in Greek. I cannot read Greek. If the Fathers saw the clause as referring to all three, I gladly accept that interpretation. In fact, I like it. The Vulgate Latin, with the punctuation it uses, should certainly be taken to mean it the way we usually understand it. But the Church accepted English translation must be understood that way. For it to refer to all three, the clause should read: “as they are in heaven.”
    This next point may seem trivial, and I may sound pompous making it, but your argument involves grammar and some credibility is lost when you use a phrase such as “like I.” “Like” is a preposition.

    • marklangley says:

      Thanks John. I struggled with that phrase “like I” and have to admit that it did bother me.
      I changed the “like” to “as” hoping that this fix will restore some credibility. 🙂

  4. jameshswetnam says:

    Read the website “James Swetnam’s Thoughts on Scripture” for a different interpretation from those give above. –James Swetnam, S.J.

  5. jameshswetnam says:

    Read “James Swetnam’s Thoughts on Scripture”, Item #21.
    James Swetnam, S.J.

  6. Bob H says:

    I like to keep it simple. The words of Christ, which he received from the Father in heaven, should be done on earth in order for the Kingdom of the Father to come. Man was separated from that heavenly union because of the sin of Adam, but that union was renewed for those who accept Christ’s teaching from the Father. Because we are still bound by the earthly, we still struggle to do God’s will, and when we do struggle, we ask to be delivered.

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