I have always been fascinated by the etymology of words. Perhaps this interest explains why I studied so many languages in school, or perhaps this interest arose from my studies of those very languages. In high school I studied German and French. In college I learned Ancient Greek, Latin and Biblical Hebrew. In seminary I added one more—Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic used widely around the time of Jesus and closely related to the Palestinian Aramaic that Jesus spoke.
English, the native language of many of us, belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. It is one of the many languages that comprise the Germanic language family that includes, for example, modern German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. For a time, Britain was part of the Roman Empire, and Latin was spoken there. In 122 A.D. the Emperor Hadrian began building a wall to mark the northernmost boundary of Roman Britain and to serve to keep the “barbarians” out. Later, because of numerous raids by the Norse and other barbarian tribes across the Northern boundaries of the empire, the Celtic languages native to the place were changed or influenced by a variety of Germanic linguistic influences. After the Norman invasion in 1066 A.D., French was spoken by the nobility in England, and English remained the “vulgar” tongue, the language of the common people.
Words contain in themselves not only a history of meaning but also a cultural history. Some words meant one thing in an earlier time and place and mean something entirely different today.
A few years ago I was asked to give a talk at a church gathering on the Lord’s Prayer. As I prepared my talk—and especially as I reflected on the meaning of the phrase “give us this day our daily bread”— I discovered the etymology of the English word “lord.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “lord” is derived from the Old English word hláford, once hláfweard, which means “loaf-ward,” that is, the “keeper of the loaf.” A lord, then, is the bread-keeper for the family. He was the head of the household in relation to all who ate his bread.
In the ancient world the making of a loaf of bread did not happen overnight. First the wheat had to be grown, tended, harvested and ground into flour. Then the flour had to be mixed with other ingredients and baked. Because most of us today buy our bread from a store, we forget how time-consuming the making of bread from start to finish really is. In the ancient world bread was a valuable commodity, and that commodity needed someone to protect it from anything that might harm, unlawfully take or destroy it.
As everyone on a low-carbohydrate diet today knows, bread is a source of sustained energy for the human body. Where there is enough bread, there is life.
In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God, who is “Lord”—the “loaf-keeper”—of all creation, to give us the “bread” we need each day to live. We do not ask the Lord for more than we need, but only for what we need to survive and flourish.
In God’s economy there is always enough bread for all. In human economies there often is not abundance, but scarcity. There is scarcity because the resources of the planet are limited; God calls on us to shepherd them wisely, but we fail in that duty when some have more than they need for human flourishing while others have nothing. The stories of the feeding of the four thousand and five thousand in the gospels remind us of the abundance of God’s creation — a creation in which there is always enough bread to sustain life for all.
The Eucharist that we celebrate each week is a sign of the abundance of God’s creation and an invitation to all to eat and share in the abundance that God has given us. It is a sign of the economy of God by which the hungry and thirsty are invited into the Lord’s table. We see this in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells the disciples that “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” (John 6:33-4)
When we ask God to give us our daily bread, we recognize that God is the “keeper of the loaf,” and in the Old English sense of the word, God truly is the “Lord” of all creation.