“Earth” is one of those words that has one good, solid, fundamental meaning — the stuff we stand on, the solid ground — and a hundred metaphorical meanings that sometimes obscure the simple word itself. It’s dirt; it’s a planet; it’s “land” — not the waters, not the air — what you leave when your plane takes off and return to when it touches down. “Earthy” means plain, honest; “earth tones” are muted, flat colors; we have the fine old pagan metaphor of “Mother Earth” to call upon. We call ourselves “earthlings” from time to time, thinking we name our species after our home planet; but we’ve known it as “the stuff we stand on” longer than as a celestial body, so really the name “earthling” derives, too, from plain old dirt.
(Not so different from “Adam, ” when you think of it. Humans have been identifying with dirt for a long time. Or, as my mother used to tell me when as a kid I’d crossed some line, Your name is mud.)
So which of all these meanings and metaphors is the Lord employing when he teaches us to pray?
Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
What do I mean when I recite “on earth?” It’s got to be more than “standing on the dirt.” When turbulence frightens some poor nervous airplane passenger into a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, he has no doubt that “on earth” includes him and his seatmates and the pilot. Nor does it exclude the astronauts in orbit, or even the purpose and action of machines that we might someday send to the far reaches of the stars.
But “Earth” can’t be so expansive that it means “wherever the people are and act, ” either, because some humans are in heaven and the phrasing distinguishes the two.
From sources outside the prayer, we know of other conditions of personal existence, bringing the total to four. There’s Heaven. There’s Hell. We know about Purgatory.
And there’s Earth.
By process of elimination, “Earth” — the place that is neither heaven, nor hell, nor purgatory — has to encompass not just the thin little dirty rind of our planet, from the depths of the oceans to the heights of the skies, but the whole of all the other planets, all the other stars and galaxies, every material location, every event cosmic and common — even the stuff we call “space” and “time.” And maybe it’s more even than that. Back to the words of the prayer itself:
The prayer teaches us that Heaven is the place where God’s will is done.
It also teaches us that Earth is the place where God’s will may be done.
Heaven is the reality, Earth the shadow. Heaven is the model to which, in praying, I strive to conform the Earth. What’s interesting about this is that I don’t actually need to know any details about Heaven or about God’s will that is done there, in order to beg God to please make it happen just that way here on Earth. I only need to be willing to ask that, however God’s will is done there, can he please let it be done here, too?
Which, if you think about it, is a rather astounding leap of Faith that Jesus asks us to make. He teaches us to ask an omnipotent being for something we have never seen: God’s will done perfectly (“as it is in Heaven.”). When I pray the prayer He taught us, I am asking him, Hit me with everything you’ve got. To put it bluntly, I don’t even know for sure that I would like it at all if I got it! None of us know what God’s perfect will done on Earth would look like. An Earth, as “earthy” as it’s ever been, but transformed and perfected. Jesus urges us, “Trade this Earth in, for what’s behind door number two.”
This Earth — our Earth — has been since its creation the place where God’s will may be done. Strange to think that before the fall, Adam and Eve could say, “God’s will may be done, and it is.” Only after did Earth become a place where God’s will may be done, but is not.
So: wrapped up in that word, “earth, ” is the entire mystery of a God that would make anything at all besides Himself. Why is there Earth, and not just Heaven?
It’s strange to think, too, that if Earth is the place where God’s will may be done, that though I am told to ask God to make it happen (everywhere on Earth, I suppose, for that’s what “perfectly” would mean, and that’s how it is in Heaven, our model), there’s also a little tiny part of it all that’s under my direct control. In me and around me is a little place where God’s will may be done, and by my own hands. I am not Earth, but I have a little Earth to tend for Him. May I tend it in accord with His will.
Erin Arlinghaus blogs at Bearing Blog. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children. (And I cannot resist telling you that when we were emailing about what to write for her bio, she said: “I thought about listing things I blog about, but kept coming up with ‘tasty recipes’ and ‘gluttony’ in the same list.” Which is why her blog is great.)