Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. ‘What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices?’, asks God. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands?’
What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel. The hour will come, he says, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit, and so he looks for worshippers who are like himself.
We are true worshippers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own.
We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God.
Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe.
Of old, prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger, even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove all sense of pain by the grace it wins for others. But it gives the armour of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed. It strengthens the power of grace, so that faith may know what it is
gaining from the Lord, and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.
Tertullian, Treatise on Prayer
Reflection – There are some real gems in the Office of Readings this time of year, and I thought I would spend the week sharing some of them that have struck me. This 2nd century treatise on prayer came up last week, and is especially beautiful.
Prayer as replacing the sacrificial animals is a rich image, and Tertullian has a good time (it seems to me) playing with it. The animals were fattened on grain; prayer is fattened on faith. The animals were housed and tended and kept safe by the shepherds; prayer is shepherded by truth. The animals were kept unblemished and clean; with prayer this happens through the fight against sin and impurity of heart; the animals were borne to the altar by their handlers; the ‘handlers’ of prayer are the psalms and hymns and inspired texts of the Word of God.
This is not just playful literary imagery, though. This is really exactly how it works. Especially, it seems to me, the whole connection of psalmody and scripture with the bearing of our prayers to the altar of God. Often we do feel a bit lost, a bit aimless in our praying. Many people struggle to know how to pray or flounder in prayer. The place of Scripture in the prayer life of the Christian cannot be overstated.
We are a people of the Word. Christ is the Word of God, and the whole of our prayer, if it is Christian prayer, is a gathering of all our human words into a union the One Divine Word, a gathering that itself is a work of the Spirit in us.
We are re-worded in prayer, all of our human knowledge and affections, longings and understandings, brought into, purified, corrected, strengthened, healed, restored, into the knowledge and love of the Trinity, made accessible to us in Jesus Christ.
But it is the specific use of Scripture, the Gospels and psalms in a particular way, to incarnate that ‘re-wording’ in concrete specific terms. The Gospels, since they are Christ’s own words and deeds. The psalms, because they were Christ’s own prayers in his life on earth. And so, while prayer has manifold forms and expressions, we can never get away from the ancient practice of lectio divina, of the reading of the Word of God in the context of deep personal prayer and meditation.
We are re-worded by this, and this re-wording is vital in all of our lives. All our words, so many words, so much verbiage (ahem, speaking for myself…), and all of it needs to be brought into The Word, submitted, corrected, purified. Without this, it’s all ‘vanity of vanities and a chasing after wind,’ as Ecclesiastes put it just the other day. But with this re-wording, this Christifying of our words and innermost being, that ‘wind’ becomes the Breath of God and the Spirit of love and truth bearing us into the heart of the Trinity. And that’s what prayer is really about, isn’t it?