The Jesus Prayer

Saturday in the Third Week of Lent: Hosea 6:1-6, Luke 18: 9-14.

Today’s readings seem to be about us — about our fidelity and about how we pray. But just under the surface, they reveal themselves to be all about Jesus Christ, body and soul, as befits prayer itself. Reflecting on these readings, it is easy to see how the short Jesus prayer has become such a mainstay of the Church (especially the Eastern Orthodox Churches).

In the reading from Hosea, we hear the Word of God promise His coming through the mouth of the prophet: “on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence.” This reference to the world-changing Resurrection of Christ is joined by a call to action on our part. Hosea says, “Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD.” I love this little repetition and reframing. We want to know the Lord but also that we may never truly fathom Him. The emphasis turns to striving to know the Lord. This effort shows our pure intentions, our focus, our dedication to God, and the way we enact this striving to know the Lord is through prayer. God speaks to this very thing through Hosea: “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” He wants us to want Him. He wants us to love Him and know Him, certainly more than burnt offerings and ritual sacrifice. Ours is a God who wants a personal relationship with us, deeper than any other relationship we can forge on earth.

I love the poetry of the scriptures, too. Hosea uses some wonderful imagery to urge us into right relationship with God: “as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day!” I love the prophet’s faith. I love that the Lord’s coming is as “certain as the dawn.” This is unshakable faith, for what do we rely on more than the changing of night into day? And the light that He brings is His judgment, His Truth, aka Jesus Christ, the Word of God in the flesh. In another life-giving image, Hosea tells us, “He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.” We will hear from many prophets and Christ Himself how physical thirst and spiritual thirst are conjoined. Jesus will perfect Hosea’s prophecy: “but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Yes, He will come to us like spring rain that waters the earth.

The reading from Hosea is a call to anticipate God’s coming in Christ and to strive to know Him. How else do we do this other than prayer?

Dawn (1896), Jules Breton | Wikimedia Commons. This work beautifully expresses Hosea’s message. The dawn arrives and we are expected to be at work, bringing the harvested wheat (souls brought to Christ) and “living water” of Christ to the world.

 

Jesus addresses the question of prayer head-on in the gospel reading comparing the prayer of the Pharisee to that of the tax collector. Jesus describes the Pharisees’ showy devotion that lacks a sincere love of God in their hearts. The Pharisee in the parable “takes up his position” in the temple, which was undoubtedly one where he could be seen clearly, and “spoke this prayer to himself.” This is a huge clue that something’s backward; prayer is always offered to God and spoken to God, whether audibly or inaudibly. The Pharisee is primarily self-focused.

After a cursory “O God” to start, we hear the Pharisee speak of himself during the whole prayer, contrasting his law-abiding deeds with “the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” Let’s note that his window on the world, himself included, is one of judgment. Jesus is clear about not being judgmental: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Mt 7:1). We all know people who are consumed with judging themselves and others (we probably fall into this camp ourselves at times). It is simply not compatible with being a Christian. Judging the worth of another being is something that rightfully belongs only to God. Furthermore, we know that He judges us all to be worth forgiving, worth saving, worth His love. We are asked to follow His lead and offer nothing but His love to the rest of Creation. 

The Pharisee and the Publican (1661), Barent Fabritius | Image from oceansbridge.com.

The next item to note about the Pharisee’s off-kilter prayer is how much he speaks of himself as the agent of action. What a marvelous command of grammatical structure Jesus uses to display the self-centeredness of the Pharisee. Four times we hear the Pharisee put himself as the first person subject of phrases in his prayer: “I thank you,” “I am not like,” “I fast,” and “I pay tithes.” The Pharisee has so sublimated his own sense of self-worth that, apart from being the subject of the phrases, he places himself as the grammatical agent (meaning the cause and initiator of action). This semantic idea is a great way for Jesus to make his point: it’s not just the empty show of devotion that makes the Pharisee a hypocrite, it’s his lack of conversion of heart to place the Lord first, the agent of all. This almost unconscious grammatical structuring of his prayer belies the deep perversion and reversal of order in his being. 

Let’s compare this with what Jesus tells us about the tax collector: “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” We hear much about his physical bearing — standing off, eyes lowered, beating his breast. This is the stance of supplication. It reminds us of the great supplication offered for days by Esther in order to save the Israelites in Babylonia (see the reflection Esther: Model of How to Petition the Father) and of Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace.

The tax collector’s prayer itself is so fundamentally correct that it forms the proto-Jesus Prayer. In this prayer, Jesus gives us another example of how to pray correctly (in addition to the Lord’s Prayer, of course). Let’s dissect it: the tax collector approaches in supplication, addresses God as the agent of action in the world (he says “merciful to me,” and as such he is the object of action, not the agent), and identifies himself as a sinner in need of mercy. And as we reflected this week, mercy is the way of the Kingdom, the currency of the economy of love. Jesus wants us to “pay forward” the mercy God gives us by forgiving “seventy times seven” times (i.e., infinitely). Acknowledging that we need God’s mercy is the first step in becoming more God-like and offering His mercy to others.

The Pharisee and the Publican (1864), Artist: After Sir John Everett Millais, Engraved and Printed by Dalziel Brothers | Creative Commons, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Today’s most common form of the Jesus Prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We can see the marriage of today’s two readings — Hosea’s striving to know God who rises on the third day and the tax collector’s humble prayer for mercy. Praying to the second Person of the Trinity, our great high priest and chief intercessor who descended to earth to dwell and suffer with us, is a key gift in our Christian lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, “The name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies” (2666).

Thus, the Jesus Prayer unites the same correctness of prayer we find in the tax collector with the new reality that Christ brought to history with his death and Resurrection. The Jesus Prayer is powerful and draws us deeper into the mystery of being a part of the Church. “When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and ‘brings forth fruit with patience.’ This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus” (CCC, 2668).

I can testify that I’ve come to a much deeper appreciation of the Jesus Prayer in my own prayer life. I use it often when I find myself not concentrating during the Mass to bring myself back to the sacrifice at the altar. I use it when in Adoration, contemplating the mysteries of our Savior, and I use it now and again during the day when I need to remind myself of my purpose and my center: Christ.

What better time than Lent, in its stillness and silence, to repeat the Jesus Prayer and let it sink in to transform our hearts? Let us take the Church’s instruction to pray in Jesus’s name as we ask God for mercy in the light of our infidelities and sins.

For we know, as certain as the dawn, He will come.

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