WHO (Our Father, Word by Word)

March 14, 2011 | 10 comments

by Mrs. Darwin

“And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do…” (Mt. 6:7)

We don’t have to question whether each word of the Our Father is worth studying, since in the moment before Jesus gave his disciples the model of prayer, he assured them that it wouldn’t contain any “empty phrases.” So even the word “who”, which most people rush through to get to the fun parts such as “hallowed” and “bread” and “evil”, illuminates God’s nature.

“Who” is a personal pronoun. The pronoun “which” might have implied that the Father is simply a vast cosmic force or an archetype or a remote ideal. But three words into the prayer, Jesus assures us that the Father is, primarily, a person. Unlike an archetype, the Father can and will respond, person to person, to us.

This is huge. It’s awesome, in the literal sense of that abused word. The Father is not only to be worshipped and reverenced and feared, but to be known and to know us in return, as a person. And as a person, He can’t simply be acknowledged (as an archetype) or propitiated (as a force) or studied (as an ideal). Now we have to respond back to His desire to have a relationship with us, which seems like a daunting burden in a world where even forming a good relationship with one’s earthly father can be a royal pain.*

Pope John Paul II offers an answer: “The person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.” This is doubly true of God, who is both a person worthy of love, and Love itself! It might seem a little recursive, maybe, to maintain that the One who is all Love needs our love, which comes from Him in the first place, but Jesus has that covered as well: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:21) The only thing worthy of offering to God is Himself, and the only response to a person is love, and God is Love. This beautiful circle, in which we participate in the life of God by offering Himself to Him, is the perfect reciprocal personal relationship.

Finally, a note for the grammar fans: The Greek of the scriptures had no punctuation, and neither does the first phrase of the Our Father. Thus, the “who” can be both restrictive (the Father’s location is Heaven) and descriptive (of our fathers, we are addressing the one in Heaven, not on earth). The Latin (Pater noster qui es in caelis) and the Greek (Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς) both contain the same construction — according to my classics-major husband, so pick your linguistic bones with him, not me.

*Your father, not mine. My dad is the best ever.


What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “Who”?

Mrs. Darwin is…well, she’s the type of woman who can write erudite comparisons of phraseology of various classical languages and knows how to make her keyboard do those crazy-looking Greek letters. She’s also a homeschooling mother of five. Her blog, that she writes along with her husband, was a big influence in my conversion to Catholicism.

Click here to see all the posts in this series


  1. Maureen

    Of course, “which art in Heaven” also has a venerable history. The point is that, in Middle English and even now in modern English, “which” is often a pronoun of persons and not of things. Both “who” and “which” ultimately derive from the same Indo-European root, *khwi-, which probably did mean “who”. The Latin “qui” also comes from *khwi-, and no surprise there. Of course, in Old English, the translations of the Lord’s Prayer didn’t use either construction. It was “Faeder ure, Thu the eart on heafonum.” (Our Father, Thou that art in Heaven.) In Middle English, it was “Oure fadir, that art in heavenes”. (And of course, both eras of the language had big regional differences in vocab and even grammar. There wasn’t just a single version of the prayer in existence.)

    The thing is, the way English grammar works now is not the way it worked then. There’s a lot of similarities, but there are stark differences. Having an accusative case for “heofon”, for instance.

    Of course, once a construction has changed and a vocabulary has changed, it’s time for the vernacular translation to change also. “Who” has become more appropriate. But it’s not as if the English were spending several centuries unaware that the Father was a Person.

    (And yes, I’ve always been a nitpicker. Sorry. But it’s not a small nit. It’s our beautiful language’s beautiful history.)

  2. Maureen

    Ah. The other surviving OE translations say:

    “Faeder ure the aert on hefone” is another translation.

    “…. Faede, Thu the on heofonum eardast”, which is another region’s way of saying “Thou that art in Heaven”. (It’s a verse translation.)

    “…Thu eart ure Faeder… Thu eart on heofonum” is in another verse

    “Thu the on heofonum eart” is in yet another verse translation.

    Of course, if you’re addressing someone as Thou, it’s fairly clear that you are addressing Him directly (in the intimate 2nd person singular), and that He is a Person. 🙂

  3. BettyDuffy

    You’ve given a lovely reflection upon the word “who.” Enjoying this series and the guest posters very much.

  4. Jenny C.

    I have to take issue with your characterization of the restrictive case of “who.” Just kidding. I’m not a rude nerd who polices comboxes, or else I’d be over at Mark Shea’s blog with my friends.

  5. Maureen

    It is a lovely reflection, and it does chime perfectly well with today’s grammar. Please don’t take all this as a knock against your essay!

    I totally support us modern English speakers saying “who”. 🙂

    I just really had no idea how strong the historical internal grammatical rules were against certain uses of who (or hwa) until now. I’m sure scads of papers have been written about this, but I missed it. Anyway, I thought maybe it came out of Scots… but no, Middle Scots also said “Our Fader that art in hevenis”. I swear to you, there’s no “quho” or “wha” being used with the second person until James I (well, he was James the something else of Scotland then) wrote a letter to Elizabeth I, saying “ye quho”. In Old English, you could ask “Hwa eart thu?”, but that was about it.

    Of course, a lot of it may have just been sound influences. It’s not easy to say “hwa eart in heofonum”. You probably would have found yourself “hweart”, which would sound like “wert in heaven”, which would be heretical! Slurring together “thu eart” or “the eart” would still be understandable.

    Shutting up now…. 🙂

  6. Maureen

    Ha! Here’s a nice short explanation online! I should have just looked at Language Log in the first place! Feel free to delete my other comments on the matter, because this is a much better explanation. (Although it should say that an implied “thou” or “you” affecting tense is pretty common in English through history, and it’s not just a Lord’s Prayer thing. The problem is, without “thou” staring them in the face, people forgetting it’s intimate 2nd person and shifting mentally over to a sort of dry impersonal 3rd; and he has examples of it happening, which supports your essay.)

  7. Sheba

    I cant thank everyone enough for these posts and all the posts from Jen. There is so much wisdom for growing Catholics like me. Thank you and thank you again!

  8. amy2boys

    Wonderful reflection – thank you so much!

  9. Keystone

    I went deaf a few years ago, after a few decades in marketing.
    Years of talking will be followed by years more of silence for me.
    In learning a new language (ASL) American Sign Language, “who” has been among my most dificult words. It has two versions and the first version has two versions of its own!

    Version 1 is common. Form your hand to look through it like a telescope.
    Now, insert your thumb into the hole created. (Four fingers now rest over your thumb). Lift only your index finger up.
    You now have the letter “X” in ASL.

    Move all of this to just below your lips, and rest it on your chin.
    Form your lips as if you are softly blowing air out. Simultaneously, flutter your index in front of your lips, maintaining all other fingers as formed above. This is the most common “WHO” in ASL.

    There is a second derivative of this form, but space forbids the details. Let’s go tradional (rarely used now).
    Point your right index finger out, as you would point to anything
    (your thumb touches your middle finger, which is closed.

    Point the index at your own mouth, and form the word “WHO”, as you softly blow air out in formation. At this, you draw a “circle” around your mouth, using the pointed index to draw, counter clockwise around the mouth.
    That word is “WHO”.

    One of the most famous rock bands globally performed at a recent Superbowl Halftime. Their name? The WHO.

    And WHO could forget Dr. Seuss and his famous book,”Horton Hears a WHO”?

    Who takes first place when teaching children the fundamentals; Who, what, where, when, why, and how.

    I started an online folder to put each blog post in called “Our Father”.
    So far, it contains OUR, FATHER, and WHO. The rest will get there.

    This was an important word to Jesus Christ as He tried to draw two points. Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and Christ used His powerful Sermon on the Mount,to draw a straight line from you….to God the Father.
    He uses that sermon in Matthew 5, to describe “Who Are Blessed”.

    The Beatitudes
    He said:
    3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    4 Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
    5 Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
    6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
    7 Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
    8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
    9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
    10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

    Even saying the word “WHO” produces a steady breath, outward, as if the Holy Spirit is being released in your air, to those around you listening to your words.

    God is “WHO”, but he loved the people so much, He sent His Son, to cleanse the temple inside each person, and the Holy Spirit would then dwell forever, inside every “WHO”.

    Instead of Our Father Who….in heaven, He sent His Son Christ.
    Emmanuel means “God with US”. This opens Matthew with the Christmas birth story.
    “GOD WITH US.”
    ~~~Matthew 1:23

    Matthew closes the same way in Chapter 28:20 with Christ saying:
    “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

    Matthew is a “bookend of WHO”; God with us….to I am with you always….and, forever.
    And when the Resurrection followed the Cross, the “WHO” in heaven, became “WHO” in us.

    The story?
    He came from His place
    To Our place
    To take Our place
    So WE could go to His place.

    Always remember …. WHO!

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