Brief reflections on The Jesus Prayer

We are running a new series called “Soul Space” (shamelessly stolen from the worship at Greenbelt) on Sunday evenings at my church.  They are meant to be a space for reflection, and finding a quite space for God in prayer.

Last night Serena  and I led a service built around the Jesus Prayer.  Here are the notes I used for the talk/reflection.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.So, where does this prayer come from?  Eastern Orthodox tradition.  One of the most profound and mystical prayers for that church.  Can probably be traced back to Saint Diadochos of Photiki, a fifth century bishop from Greece.  He took part in the Council of Chalcedon which is well known for proclaiming the full divinity and full humanity of Christ.  (Of course there was no “Orthodox” church at that time…)

What does the prayer mean?  Despite being so short, it is theologically very dense.

Begin by addressing Jesus as Lord Jesus Christ, only son of God.

Jesus – We call on Jesus’ name.  We read in John’s gospel that “Hitherto you have asked nothing in My Name; ask and you will receive it, that your joy may be full”.  Jesus himself invites us to call on his name when we pray.

Christ – It’s easy to think of Christ as simply Jesus’ surname.  Actually a title.  Christ = kristos is the Greek version of the Hebrew Messiah.  Literally means “anointed one” one who has been anointed with holy oil to sacred kingship – a signifier of someone singled out as special in God’s eyes.

Son of God.  Again demonstrates Jesus’ unique relationship to God the Father.

Lord – Another title.  Could simply be a term of respect.  But, the word Lord = kyrios is used in Greek to translate the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH.  We are addressing Jesus, who is not only singled out by God as special, but is part of the Godhead Himself.  Perhaps appropriate the prayer emerged around the time the doctrine of Christ’s full humanity and divinity was crystallised.

So we begin the prayer by addressing God the Son, Jesus.

The second half of the prayer is a plea for mercy.  After such a fitting invocation in the first half of the prayer, the second half of the prayer could have been any heartfelt prayer: a prayer of thanks for God’s goodness, a prayer of thanks for God’s mercy, a prayer for God’s guidance, or a prayer for the state of the world.  But no, the prayer is a very personal plea for God’s mercy, Christ’s mercy.

Our modern idea of mercy might bring out ideas of clemency, forgiving one who is supposed to be punished, kindness, compassion or alleviation from distress.  That does only give one facet of the Greek word “eleison”.  The word eleison comes from the same root as words meaning olive and olive oil.  If we think of the olive, perhaps we think of the olive branch in the story of Noah’s flood, the signal that brought the end of the calamitous flood, the signal of peace at last.  Olive oil perhaps brings us back to the idea of anointing again, Jesus as Messiah pouring the oil of healing into our souls.

And finally sin.  We are asking for healing, for mercy because of our sin.  Now not the time for lengthy discussion.  This really the first part of repentance: acknowledging we are sinners, acknowleding we have a problem, if you like, and that we need God’s help, Christ’s help to fix it.

Perhaps another way of thinking of Christ’s mercy for our sins, Christ’s forgiveness for our sins is being brought back into the fold with God.  Earlier – mercy from same root as olive tree.  Paul in chapter 11 of the epistle to the Romans talks about the Gentiles as a wild olive shoot being grafted onto the old root.  When we ask forgiveness for our sins and receive Christ’s mercy we are acknowledging that we have in some sense fallen away from where we should be, and that we want to regrafted, reconnected to God.  And so hearing our genuine repentance for sins Christ gently picks us up and reconnects us back to God.  And as a new branch is bound on, tied on to an older root, we are bound into God by Christ’s love and healing work on the cross.

So, a short prayer, but a lot going on.

Who can use it?  Easy answer, anybody.

When can you use it?  Again, easy answer, anytime!  The beauty of the prayer is it is short.  You can use it as you go to work (train, car, walk), as you eat your lunch, as you do anything!  We do not need to think of the form of words to address the Lord (and we know how inadequate they are), we can just be with God.

The shortness of the prayer allows it to be used in any moment of our day.  Short prayer useful for achieving a state of constant prayer.  Pray without ceasing – Paul in Thessalonians.  It is also a short prayer that can be at hand at moments when you feel tempted or tried.

The practice of using the prayer is that it somehow becomes who you are. By praying the prayer in the “good times” it starts to become so natural that it becomes part of you.  You then have the prayer within for the “bad times”.  From testimony I’ve read, in times of tragedy it’s as if in the midst of your grief this prayer can simply break through.  The words for praying to God won’t come, but they don’t need to come – the words are there already.  God uses the words of this prayer you’ve learnt by heart…in your heart, so that you can open those channels of communication with God again.

I’ve been trying to pray the prayer regularly, but a long way off really getting to grips with.  But that is the point of a spiritual PRACTICE like prayer, it is about practising!  An orthodox nun Mother Alexandria said regarding the Jesus Prayer “We cannot, of course, attain this continuity of prayer all at once, but it is achievable; for all that is worthwhile we must ‘run with patience the race that is set before us'”

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.  Amen.