Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
"O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." (The Collect for Epiphany I)
Most people have the relation between understanding and prayer completely backwards. They believe that prayer should follow from an understanding of God and his purposes, and so they set themselves the almost impossible task of reinventing Christianity for themselves. They avoid the common prayer of the Church, despite the fact that such prayer has been offered by two thousand years of Christians. Even more telling, they ignore the fact that the common prayer of the Church began with our Lord and his Apostles, so that it forms the bridge to almost another two thousand years of loving and serving God that began with Abraham and the patriarchs.
Four thousand years of the condensed worship of God is a powerful aid to loving and serving God, but people will persist in trying to dream up a religion of their own. The best of them will scour the Scriptures hour after hour, trying to determine for themselves what must be known and believed about God before they begin to pray. It should come as no surprise that their prayers, when they do get around to praying, tend to be rather disjointed and confused. A single human lifetime simply cannot reproduce the results of 200 generations of prayer.
Nevertheless, the "learn then pray" method sounds tremendously plausible, until we apply it to some other part of life, such as marriage. Imagine a young man who pledges himself not to marry, or even to speak to a woman about anything of consequence, until he has studied women thoroughly and can claim to understand them. Imagine, too, that he sets the rule for himself that he will accept nothing that anyone else has ever had to say about women or marriage until he has proved it for himself. Such a man, unless he abandons his quest for perfect knowledge, will likely never become a husband. But if he does marry, pity the poor woman who is married to a man convinced that he knows everything about women and marriage.
Prayer is much more like falling in love than it is like diagramming a sentence or solving a geometric equation. True love, however, isn’t "just a feeling" any more than it is a "mental exercise." True love is a way of acting. It is the dedication of one’s entire person to the welfare, honor, and praise of another person, in every way that such a person is lovable, and in the case of fallen human beings, despite everything that is unlovable.
Thus our Lord can command us to love our enemies, even if we don’t feel like it, and even when our fallen "common sense" tells us that it is "crazy" to do so (see Matt 5:44). We can still love our enemies for what God intends them to be, against all the evidence, even as our Lord loves us, despite ourselves and contrary to what we deserve, even unto the death of the Cross. Jesus Christ loves us on the cross, sacrificing his body and his blood, giving up his rightful dignity as the eternal Son of God, with his whole heart, with his whole soul, and with his whole mind. He worships his Father from the cross in this complete and total way, providing us with the perfect picture of both love and worship at the same time.
To love or to pray properly, then, we must have the perfect example of Jesus Christ on the cross before us, and we have to recognize that the cross comes before Easter. The prayer is first, and then the answer. The self-sacrifice is first, and then come the fulfillment of God’s promises and an intimacy with his power. We must speak to God first in prayer, and then enter into communion with him. And we should no more expect to exhaust the knowledge of our communion with God, than we should expect to achieve an exhaustive and complete knowledge of our husbands and wives in marriage.
Marriage, after all, is a consistently used symbol or "type" of the relation between God and his Church in both the Old and the New Testaments. But if we cannot reasonably expect to learn all there is to know about a created man or woman in marriage, why should we expect to learn all there is to know about the God who created all things, a God who is an indivisible union of Three Divine Persons, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost? A life together leads to knowledge, and not the other way around. And a life with God begins with prayer, to be worked out, not in our heads, but in eternally continuing fellowship and communion.
Today’s collect, a very old Christian prayer indeed, gets the matter exactly right. We ask God to receive our prayers, so that we may learn to "perceive and know" what we ought to do, and so that we may receive the grace and power "faithfully to fulfill the same." It was this collect, already in use in the early part of the 5th century, that caused St. Celestine, the bishop of Rome, to remark that "the law of our praying establishes [or "should establish"] the law of our believing." In other words, whatever and however we worship will shape what we know and what we believe. If our prayers are wrong or misdirected, God forbid, then our believing and knowing will be wrong and misdirected, and our living will end up wrong and misdirected.
This principle (lex ordandi, lex credendi) is a powerful observation of human nature and of how prayer "works." It is also a powerful argument for the common prayer of the Church, not as a replacement for private prayer, but as the tried and true place where we must begin our praying, so that our private prayer will be properly directed, and so that we will be drawn ever closer and ever more surely to Almighty God. We can get the same "results" in our praying as Moses, as David, as Jesus Christ, as all the great saints in Jesus Christ did, if we start with the same prayers that they prayed, preserved for us in the common prayer of the Church
If we take another look at today’s lessons, we will see how they demonstrate that the rule of our praying establishes the rule of our believing. Isaiah declares to Israel, in God’s Name: "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee" (60:1). This is a call to worship, but entirely on God’s terms. The Chosen People, whether of the Old or of the New Testament, aren’t called to start by understanding the light, but to reflect the Light (who is Christ) in awe and worship. Our understanding will always be partial, whereas the Light will always be whole and entire. It is the Light himself that dispels the darkness of sin and ignorance, and not our opinions about the Light.
Then God makes a promise: "And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and the kings to the brightness of thy rising" (Isaiah 60: 3). If the chosen people enter the Light of the World, they will be made part of that Light. They will rise as the sun with the Light of the World, and the Light that they worship, the Light that they reflect, will call others to worship and to believe. The movement is always from prayer and worship to knowledge and belief. Isaiah illustrates this movement in the rest of this passage by describing the peoples of the world coming to worship and to meet the true God.
We can take this passage from Isaiah as the prophecy that lies behind the events in our passage from St. Matthew, where we meet the Wise Men from the East who have come to worship the Christ, the Light of the World. But Isaiah gives us more even than a prophecy. He gives us the means to understand what happens on the first Epiphany, the first "showing forth" of Jesus Christ’s glory and light: "And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense; and myrrh" (Matt. 2:11).
The Wise Men meet the Son of God made man, and the first thing they do is to fall on their knees to worship and sacrifice. They had come a long way to meet God, and meeting him, they did not demand answers. They offered their prayers, knowing that the answers that they needed would follow. The law of their prayer was the law of their belief, precisely because God had made them wise.
Their prayer became part of the common prayer that Isaiah prophesied on the basis of the common prayer that began before him, with the call of God to Abraham and his family. Their prayer became part of the common prayer as we have received it from our Lord and the saints. May we become wise in just the same way, on our knees before the Son of God. And may our knowledge of God grow day by day from the communion that he gives us with himself, beginning with the first words of our first prayers.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne