Tag Archives: prayer

Homily: “On the most blessed and holy Trinity”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on Trinity Sunday, 2017.

I have said previously and will say again in the future that the Collects of the Anglican tradition, including those in our 1979 Prayer Book, are a goldmine. They are a goldmine for both theology and prayer, and even moreso are a goldmine for the proper balance between theology and prayer that found in the language. It is because the Collects are so important that they are to be prayed not just on Sunday at Mass, but prayed, along with other Collects, every day of the week that begins on Sunday, particularly in the daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

It is not every Sunday that the Collect perfectly matches with the Readings. But on this a solemn day, the Feast of the Most Blessed Trinity, a Feast celebrated throughout the western Church within the Catholic tradition, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, the Collect of the Day is composed in relationship to the Readings. Let us hear again the Collect and then consider how it helps us understand the readings provided us by the Lectionary of the Church. Continue reading

Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 3”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 27, Year C).

Today is Stewardship Sunday. This is the day each year when we reflect on what it means to be a steward. A steward is someone who looks after something, protects something. Specific to us, we reflect on what it means to look after this church, and what it means to protect this church. By “church,” we mean certainly the physical structures, care of the buildings, the roof, the furnace, the organ, the windows; we also mean care of the people who worship here; and we also mean protecting and caring for the culture in this church, the “feel” of being here that we often do not notice because it is so obvious, the sense of life, the sense of sacred in this space, the sense of holiness and the active, burning and real presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

No mature or even semi-mature person needs to be told that the care and protection of a church’s physical structures, the people, and sacrality requires an ongoing financial commitment on the part of the members of that church. Later this week you will receive in the mail pledge cards that ask you to tell the treasurer of the church the amount of your pledge for next year, so that the treasurer, along with the Vestry, can make an intelligent budget for our church in the two thousand seventeenth year after the birth of Our Lord.

It is said, of course that we give to the church not only treasure, but also time and talent. This is true, but there is more to it than that. First and foremost, we are to give our prayer. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our heart must be in our prayer life. Some kind of prayer every day of the week — both using the official prayers of the Church in the daily Offices, and personal prayer through our conversations with God — comes before money in importance to church stewardship. As an aid to healthy prayer, the Church commends the practice of self-sacrifice, of self-denial. We all need activities that bring to us private joy. Yet can we commit or recommit to an activity the sole purpose of which is to give greater glory to God? Attending a weekday service at either of the two churches in this Parish, praying Morning or Evening Prayer at home, finding a godly book to read devotionally, beginning a contemplative or silent prayer practice, are good places to start.

And let us never forget mercy! “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Being merciful is another primary way to practice stewardship. It begins with being kind, forgiving and patient with those in our parish family, and continues of course to those in our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces. The classic “corporate works of mercy” —to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned, to bury the dead—flow out of our prayer life and flow out of our practice of self-denial.

Our works of mercy, and in fact all of our prayer, sacrifice, and acts of stewardship as I have described, presuppose the virtue of Faith as a growing habit of wanting to learn about the character of God, the nature of Jesus Christ who never abandons us to the power of death, who comes to our help, so that in seeking Him we might find Him. God is a stupendously rich Reality — the alone boundlessly rich Reality. His outward action throughout the Universe — His creation, preservation and direction of the world at large — is immensely rich.

All of this is to say that our works of mercy, our prayer, our sacrifice—our stewardship—very much reflect our sense of Hope. This is true certainly in the common sense of the word, whereby we have trust that goals difficult to achieve can be reached. Can this Parish survive twenty, thirty, fifty more years? It may seem today to be a difficult goal to achieve. Yet Hope in the Christian context, as a theological virtue, as a habit, is based on the conviction that God wants all things to live and is constantly at work to lead us to fulfillment. Hope is the habit of feeling confident in His abiding assistance. If we feel confident of God’s abiding assistance, then we display to some degree a truly Christian Hope. And if we display Christian Hope, then our stewardship—prayer, sacrifice, works of mercy, and, yes, a pledge of money for the next year—is certainly necessary, but also natural, fitting, and joyful. Our stewardship becomes a blessing, because it comes from our love of God, it is filled with God’s Spirit, and received by God to the greater glory of His Holy Name.

In order to underscore the importance of Hope to Christian Stewardship, I want to read a summary of an event that happened one week ago, on Oct 30. This summary comes from the Times of Israel, on their website. The title of the article is “First Mass in Two Years held in Iraq’s Main Christian town”:

A handful of faithful gathered in a burnt out church Sunday for the first mass to be celebrated in two years in Qaraqosh, which was once Iraq’s main Christian town. Iraqi forces retook Qaraqosh from the Islamic State group days earlier, as part of a massive offensive to wrest back the country’s second city Mosul.

Hear the words of Yohanna Petros Mouche, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, who officiated the Mass with four priests: “After two years and three months in exile, I just celebrated the Eucharist in the cathedral of the Immaculate Conception the Islamic State wanted to destroy. But in my heart it was always there.”

In June 2014, IS jihadists took over swathes of Iraq, also taking Mosul where the archbishop was based. He moved to Qaraqosh, a town with a mostly Christian population of around 50,000 that was controlled by Kurdish forces and lies east of Mosul in the Nineveh plain. But a second jihadist sweep towards Kurdish-controlled areas two months later forced around 120,000 Iraqi Christians and members of other minorities to leave their towns and villages. “We had no other choice but to convert or become slaves. We fled to preserve our faith. Now we’re going to need international protection,” a priest said.

Donning a resplendent chasuble and stole, Mouche led mass on an improvised altar in front of a modest congregation. [Let me add photographs suggest a congregation of about three dozen, standing for the entire Mass around a small altar with tea lights for candles; the church itself is in ruins, blackened and grey, full of ashes everywhere. The scene looks post-apocalyptic to say the least.]

“I can’t describe what I’m feeling. This is my land, my church,” said a local militiaman who attended the Mass. “They used everything against us: they shot at us, they sent car bombs, suicide attackers. Despite all this, we’re here.” The bell tower of the church was damaged, statues decapitated and missals and other books strewn across the nave floor, which is still covered in soot from the fire the jihadists lit when they retreated. But some of the crosses have already been replaced and a new icon was laid on the main altar, where the armed militiamen took turns to light candles.

“This church is such a powerful symbol that if we hadn’t found it like this, damaged but still standing, I’m not sure residents would have wanted to come back,” Mouche said. “But the fact that it’s still here gives us hope.”

And the fact that we are still here gives us hope.

“Prayer and Incarnation”

By Martin Thornton[1]

Contemporary theology is in confusion: which is at least to start with a proposition that nobody is likely to dispute. It is neither my present task, nor is it within my competence, to try to unravel the tangle; I am to be concerned with an examination of incarnational prayer within the contemporary situation. Nevertheless theology and prayer are inextricably bound together; theology without prayer is sterile, while prayer without theology can be over-fertile, giving birth to all sorts of outrageous monsters.

“Theology may be defined as the study which, through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith in the clearest and most coherent language available.”[2] Thus: “ . . . some experience of the life of faith precedes theology and may indeed be said to motivate it.”[3] “Participation in a religious faith,” “experience of the life of faith,” are reasonable definitions of prayer: so prayer precedes and motivates theology. Conversely theology guides prayer, supplying it with an intelligible structure and foundation.

Modern controversy remains peripheral to my purpose, yet in view of this theology-prayer interplay, some attention must be given to it. After that it will be necessary to reverse the process and take a look at contemporary trends in spirituality: how in fact do modern people pray? What is their aspiration and attrait? What sort of questions and problems most frequently confront the spiritual director? Only after such a preliminary skirmish can we get down to our real business: an examination of incarnational-or christological-prayer as it impinges on the experience of the modern faithful.

I

For present purposes the current debate might be seen as between the “orthodox” (a significant word since it means right worship instead of, or at least as well as, right belief) and the “radical.” This is an oversimplification: radical theologians may come up with a refined and enlightened orthodoxy, while all of the orthodox would be happy to be called radical in the literal sense of getting to the root of the matter; their objection is to the theory that you must cut down and burn the whole traditional tree in order to reach that root. However, the rough distinction should be fairly clear. Let us settle for orthodoxy as sanely conservative, paying humble if not uncritical homage to the wisdom of the past, regarding tradition not as antiquarian but as a living lifeline; as against the tear-it-all-down-and-start-from-scratch school. To narrow the context, we are concerned with those to whom the principles enshrined in the definition of Chalcedon are true, however validly the statement may be criticized, reinterpreted, or put into a different philosophical frame; and those to whom this formula, especially as it touches upon the full divinity of Jesus Christ, is regarded as suspect, inadequate, unintelligible or superfluous.

Given a controversy of this sort, it is impossible for a struggling Christian to remain unbiased; whatever one’s intellectual integrity and logical discipline, it is inevitable that the process of prayer itself, one’s intuition, faith-venture, experience, instincts, or whatever, will incline towards one side or the other. It is more honest to state one’s bias quite bluntly, inviting readers to adjust their response accordingly, than to claim impartiality. I am on the orthodox side, which brings me to a prior objection to the opposing viewpoint.

Much radical theology (another necessary generalisation within the brief compass of this essay) inclines to an arid intellectualism; a kind of neo-rationalism. What cannot be logically demonstrated or intellectually explained must perforce be dismissed. This is not only arrogant but curiously old fashioned; rationalism is itself two centuries out of date, and more recently I thought I heard something like its death knell in James Ward’s Psychological Principles, in F. R. Tennant’s tirade against the “psychologist’s fallacy,” and in A. N. Whitehead’s ‘philosophy of organism.’ Even more curious is that this outlook runs counter to contemporary, existential-and indeed biblical-emphasis upon the synthetic wholeness of human experience. The contemporary stance might be expressed as something like: “I ex-ist, stand out in creation as self-conscious being, therefore I am.” Some of our radicals would appear to go back to quasi-Cartesianism: “I think, so perhaps I am, but nothing will convince me except cerebration.” One suspects this school to be confusing belief with faith, and then failing to see the connection between them: more simply, are they leaving prayer on one side? Or to introduce Professor Macquarrie’s important distinction, are they confusing theology with philosophy of religion?[4]

There is nothing to be said in favour of obscurantism, or in favour of blind faith. There is much to be said for intellectual integrity, but the first step towards it is the admission of intellectual inadequacy, especially when we are dealing with the superior human aspiration like prayer. All of which is not to side with the simple faithful against the professional academic, to set piety against theology, but to insist upon the necessity of their marriage. Moreover, however interdependent the marriage partners, it is prayer, “participation in a religious faith,” that “precedes and motivates” theology. Total faith-experience, not just intellection, is our premise.

My second criticism of much (obviously not all) radical theology is that it is inclined to be narrowly biblicist. The New Testament is placed against its widest contemporary background, all the scholarly tools of the critical trade being brought to work upon it. But it is then abstracted from its ecclesiastical context. If theology is as defined, as the Church clarifying its experience, then the total, ongoing life of the Church cannot be ignored: “the theologian speaks out of the community of faith, the philosopher of religion is an individual investigator.”[5] The biblical interpretations of the Fathers and the Schoolmen may be questioned by contemporary scholarship, but they cannot be ignored, and the doctrinal formulations arising from Patristic and Scholastic interpretation cannot be dismissed. You cannot reach the root by cutting down the tree. I find it difficult to subscribe to the view that the Church, however defined, was infallibly inspired when it wrote the New Testament and formulated the canon, and has been consistently wrong ever since.

It is conceivable that the Church might have interpreted the experience of the Last Supper as a dominical exhortation to a sort of extended, secularised, grace-before-meals, while developing a liturgical extravaganza at the heart of which was ceremonial feet-washing. According to the Fourth Gospel, should not something like this be the central act of Christian worship? But no New Testament scholar however objectively glued to the text, can ignore the fact that throughout its progressive life-history, the Church has thought and acted differently. In fine, you cannot do theology, even biblical theology, without reference to how the Church, that is Christian people, felt, thought, prayed and worshipped, throughout the ages, not excluding our own. Biblicism reduces itself to religious philosophy.

My last dissatisfaction with the radical school is that it appears to be deficient in pastoral perception. This needs explanation. I have no use for the view that all theology ought to be immediately applicable to the practical situation; that books and lectures that do not inspire parish priests to produce next Sunday’s sermon with added zeal are to be dismissed as academic and useless. But if we stick to our definitions, theology should articulate the total experience of the living Church, which includes the prayer and experience of its individual members. If Auntie Emily tells of visions of angels behind the henhouse it is the business of theology to discern, investigate, diagnose and guide. In my experience, which is inevitably both narrow and biased, orthodoxy is surprisingly good at this; its theology may be written in what looks like metaphysical obscurity, yet it manages to keep one foot firmly on the ground, behind the henhouse. Radical theology is inclined to be academic in the wrong sense, which is itself unorthodox. The vast Augustinian corpus for example: De Trinitate, Confessions, Enchiridion, et al, may not be easy reading but it is all pastorally orientated. It is the work not of an academic but of a struggling Christian and a Bishop dealing with a diocese. It is all embedded in prayer and a sunny spot behind the henhouse is not a bad place from which to tackle it. Radical theology looks lost outside the senior common room.

II

That launches us upon our investigation from the opposite, and primary, position: how do modern people pray? What is their aspiration, attrait, learning, experience, which it is the business of theology to clarify and articulate?

Riding rough-shod over the sophistries, we must begin with some explanation of what I choose to call the existential stance. By this I refer to the instinctive, intuitive, conditioned outlook of modern Western people, especially in so far as it differs from the outlook of the recent past. The change has come about in the last century, perhaps since 1900, perhaps 1914; that is for the sociologists and professional historian-anthropologists to argue about. The point is that modern people think and live according to existential, rather than substantive, principles and interpretations. Modern people in the Western world are existentialists, even if they would be surprised to be so described and even if they have never heard of Sartre or Heidegger. I support this viewpoint by asking a simple question: what is a rolling-pin? The Fathers of the Church, the Schoolmen, the Caroline Divines and the Victorians would answer that it was a cylindrical piece of wood; modern people would define it as a tool you made pastry with. The first is the substantive answer: what is it made of, what are its attributes? The second is the existential answer: what is it for? how is it used and experienced?

The change is recent. The Victorians spoke of gold-sovereigns, we do not talk about paper-pounds, because we are no longer interested in what money is made of, only in what we can do with it, how we can experience its worth.

I am almost forced to change sides and throw in my lot with the radicals, who recognise that our credal formulae, including Chalcedon, are written in language that makes little sense to modern people, and which is no satisfactory guide to contemporary christological prayer. To the modern Christian, a list of the divine attributes is as helpful as a wooden cylinder is to a budding cook. Is Jesus a redemptive presence or a metaphysical complex of natures and persons and substances? My orthodoxy here recognises the genuine strengths of the radical position. But will the radical respond by mitigating his intellectualist, biblicist, and anti-pastoral emphases, and begin at the beginning: how do modern people pray? And which of us can best guide them?

The first result of this change of outlook is an emphasis, either recognised or subconscious, upon total integrated being rather than psychological analysis of the person. In current jargon, prayer concerns the whole being, it is a total response, an absolute commitment. If the movement may properly be called existential, it is also both biblical and dominical: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” But if we recognise the biblical doctrine of man, this must mean all at once not faculty by faculty.

This accounts for the modern reaction against Ignatian-type mental prayer, and consequent movement towards simple contemplation. The one is discursive, analytic and intellectualist—“mental” in fact—while the other is concerned with total synthetic experience. So Ignatian-type mental prayer would appear to be the natural carry over from a good deal of radical theology today, hinting that such theology is not only out of step with contemporary philosophy but also out-of-date for modern pastoral practice.

The emphasis is on relationship, in Christian context baptismal relationship. Modern prayer begins not with something one does but with the acceptance and working out of a status that one has been given. In the next section I hope to show that this, too, fits in very well with orthodoxy, and that we are liable to come to a savage full-stop without incarnational and christological orthodoxy.

If spiritual direction is to be competent, such christological orthodoxy expressed in contemporary, non-substantive terms, can prove a great stimulus, especially with incarnational contemplation. On the other hand, contemporary spiritual guidance would lose much efficiency if Chalcedon were completely thrown away. Despite five centuries of legitimate criticism, the condemnation of the four heresiarchs still offers invaluable safeguards and warnings. When put together, ancient and modern interpretations of orthodox christology combine vital experience with clarity of thought.

III

Precisely what is meant by incarnational prayer? This question can now be examined in the light of the foregoing, and such examination should throw light on its congruence with radical and orthodox christologies.

I suggest that four main types, or stages, of prayer come under the general heading of incarnational. They overlap, yet they are progressive stages in which incarnational theology needs to become more sophisticated and more important.

The first stage is prayer based upon the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. What did Jesus teach about prayer? Comparatively little, but enough to give some sort of guidance. The Pater Noster itself can be studied and analysed to give rise to specific forms and methods. The example of Jesus is more fruitful: did he himself adopt any specific method, outlook or ascetical structure? This question has been fully examined by many scholars and, despite obvious disagreements in interpretation, a clearer pattern emerges.[6]

The living and praying Christian is guided by the scholars, but he also needs guidance from Christ himself, which means meditation upon his words, works and acts. Some kind of Ignatian-type, discursive exercise comes in at this point.

The christological assumptions of those making this type of prayer will colour its value and authority. Yet it is not wholly incompatible with radical, quasi-Arian interpretation; Jesus is a significant teacher of prayer, who may be studied in the same way as St Bernard can be studied. But there are snags when this sort of christology is placed in its wider New Testament context, and still more when it is widened into the whole ascetical tradition of the Church. The holy women and St Thomas the Twin worshipped Christ; to devout Jews to whom idolatry is the sin of sins, this can only mean that they regarded his as divine: Chalcedon grows out of the experience of the living Church. Moreover, the multifarious and diverse schools of prayer which later arose not only followed Chalcedon, but they would all fall to pieces without it.

The second stage of incarnational prayer is that which sees Jesus as Mediator and Intercessor. This might be stretched into compatibility with an Arian christology: Jesus is invoked to mediate and intercede after the fashion of the invocation of the saints. But more difficulties arise. Why should any mediator between God and man be required—the time-honoured Protestant question? Because of the infinite gulf between them. We are inevitably led into the doctrine of the Trinity without which no christology makes sense. Jesus points to the transcendent Father. The New Testament is clear about that if it is clear about anything, and yet the error of immanentalism is rife in contemporary prayer, life and thought. If man was made but little lower than the angels it is forgotten that the angels were made infinitely lower than God. So any genuine mediator must be considerably more than human: Cur Deus Homo? is still a good question. Perhaps a quasi-Arianism, or some more sophisticated Arian interpretation might still just be possible. But if that is so we have departed from meditation and descended to invocation, or straight intercession. But invocation-intercession, in any Christian sense, depends on the doctrine of the Church, which in turn depends—as we shall see later—on orthodox christology.

The third stage of prayer is that which arises from the idea of encounter. Jesus is neither ancient teacher not remote intercessor but living presence: “Lo, I am with you alway.” Prayer now consists in meeting with the living Christ; eucharistically, recollectively, and by way of continuous personal guidance. We no longer live according to remote and objective Christian principles, neither do we rely on some shadowy faith that Jesus makes continual intercession to the Father for us. Jesus is here, over there, in encounter, to talk to, lean on, argue with; he is our friend and brother, present guide and leader. Right action depends not on principles but on what Jesus commands here and now; right prayer depends on his initiative. We approach the situation-casuistry in ethics and the existential interpretation in prayer: there is Christ and here am I, so let us talk, embrace and work things out from where we are.

That looks as if we are drawing nearer to radical christology, especially the type which argues that if Jesus is God, man, and sinless, then he is too remote to enter fully into the human situation. In fact we are drawing further away from this kind of thinking; there are far more snags than we found before. Living encounter must mean a God-man encounter in two senses: first man meeting God, and secondly man meeting God transcendent through the mediation of a God-man. Because if Jesus is Man, pseudo-god, and possibly sinful, then we might find ourselves on happier terms with him than with the Christ of Chalcedon, but we are on no terms at all with God. So prayer has stopped. Moreover, could one reasonably speak of encounter with the living presence of a Man-possibly-sinful-pseudo-God? We can follow the written teaching of the man-Jesus or of St Bernard; we can ask either to intercede for us with the Father; we can believe in the communion of saints in which St Bernard is in some sort of living intercessional rapport with us, but can we realistically encounter the living and resurrected and glorified Bernard? Perhaps, but there is a difficulty and a difference: you cannot put Jesus at the top of the list. If the invocation of St Bernard means anything it depends upon a doctrine of the Church that depends on a christology something like Chalcedon.

The fourth stage is that which is, for reasons explained in section 2 above, generally adopted in pastoral practice and which seems meaningful and attractive to modern Christian people. This is the concept of prayer based upon the Pauline doctrines of the Church and of our status en Christo: the idea of baptismal incorporation.[7] We do not merely encounter Christ, still less follow his teaching or ask for his mediation: we are “in Christ,” incorporated into the Body of Christ. What does this mean in terms of prayer and day-to-day spiritual experience? It means that the sacred humanity of Jesus is ontologically extended to embrace humanity, and in a particularly creative way, baptised humanity. The whole of our nature, the whole of our being, intellect, senses, emotions, intuitions, appetites, and the rest, are made one with their counterparts in the humanity of Christ: we are wedded to Jesus and the twain shall be one flesh: to taste an apple is to participate in the sacred humanity.[8] Prayer becomes contemplative, non-discursive, total and supra-intellectual.

There is overlap; the prayer of incorporation, incarnational and eucharistic, does not preclude the concept of encounter, although it transcends it, neither does it eliminate the notion of mediation or New Testament meditation. But this common stage in incarnational prayer, common in pastoral guidance and not particularly “advanced” but congenial to the modern temper, is wholly dependent upon orthodox christology. You can learn about prayer from both Jesus and St Bernard, you can invoke both to intercede for you, you might, at a stretch, encounter them both, but it is impossible to speak meaningfully about incorporation into the humanity of Bernard. The Jesus of Chalcedon is nearer than the saints so soon as one’s prayer has got off the ground. The conclusion is that if the neo-Arian christology is adopted then Christian prayer is confined to the kindergarten, from which it has no hope of emerging. We could, and strictly speaking should, go on further to stages five, six and seven: into the realms of Christian and christological mysticism. But space, not discounting this writer’s limitations, forbids.

What I have tried to do in this brief essay, having freely admitted to personal prejudice, is to look at theology, both orthodox and radical, from the viewpoint of spiritual and pastoral experience, and of ascetical theology. I have little use for intellectual obscurantism, for blind faith, and still less for the criticism that the wretched radicals disturb the faith of simple Christians; a little disturbance does simple faith no harm, and if the incarnation is taken seriously and prayerfully, then faith must be severely tested every morning of the year.

From our stance, however, radical theology does not come out of the examination very well, for it would appear to suffer from a threefold restrictiveness: a narrow intellectualism, a narrow biblicism, and a lack of historical perspective. It is nothing very new; all three weaknesses arose in the eighteenth century and led into Deism. Today they go into the opposite direction towards an all-prevailing immanentalism: theology is displaced by religious philosophy, Christ becomes man, the Church is turned into a human society, and religion sinks into moralism. There is no place left for God the Father Almighty, and so for religion. Pastoral prayer—the adjective is superfluous—remains the premise and springboard for theology, and despite the interrelations, it must be the final judge of theology. Its judgement favours orthodoxy because only orthodoxy can support it. Theology is the articulation of the Church’s experience, it is not speculation about God in a vacuum.

[1]. Martin Thornton, “Prayer and Incarnation.” Christian 4, no. 4 (1978), 317-324. Transcribed by Matthew Dallman for the occasion of Martin Thornton’s centenary, 11 Nov 2015; Martin Thornton, pray for us.
[2]. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, revised edition (SCM Press: London, 1977), l.
[3]. Ibid., 5
[4]. Ibid., 21-25.
[5]. Ibid., 2.
[6]. For example, J. Jeremias, The Prayer of Jesus (SCM Press: London, 1962); Lewis Maclachlan, The Teaching of Jesus on Prayer (James Clarke: London, 1960); William Barclay, The Mind of Jesus (SCM Press: London, 1960).
[7]. See E. L. Mascall, Christ, The Christian, and The Church (Longmans: London, 1946), 77ff.
[8]. G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1943), 57-8.

Notes on Luke’s account of the Baptism of our Lord

There are several things to recognize in the account in the Gospel According to St Luke of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. I’ll take note of what I’ve found, doing so in no particular order. Here is the passage (according to the BCP lectionary):

As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

1. One is how appropriate this moment in Scripture is during the celebration of Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearance”. With his baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus “appeared to the world and manifested Himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity” (T. Hopko, The Winter Pascha, ch 31). Epiphany in the West begins with the liturgical meditation upon the role that the Star of Light plays in guiding us to the truth of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth — a guiding that is modeled by the Wise Men who bring gifts to the new King. Their recognition of Christ’s Kingship represents the recognition of Christ’s reality as for all peoples, all nations, all souls. Christ’s reality is a universal reality. In each of the Gospel accounts, Christ’s public ministry began. It “showed itself”. The nature of his mission was disclosed for the first time: to the world, but also (perhaps) to himself.

2. The baptism that all four Evangelists chronicle is not a Christian baptism. Rather, the nature of this baptism is that of a Jewish rite “signifying purification or consecration” (“Baptism”, Jewish Encyclopedia). It was an ascetical act “to form a part of holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God”. To say that the baptized person is now “illuminated” meant to a Jew that he or she “now belongs to Israel, the people beloved of God”. This Jewish rite was an “absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled” by a person and was called a “seal”. In early Jewish literature, never canonical or binding for Christians, Adam and Eve “stood up to the neck in the water, fasting and doing penance—Adam in the Jordan for forty days, Eve in the Tigris for thirty-seven days”. In early Jewish homiletical tradition, the repentance of Israel issues in “the spirit of God (hovering like a bird with outstretched wings), manifested in the spirit of the Messiah, will come [or “the Holy One, blessed be He! will spread His wings and bestow His grace”] upon Israel”, and baptism was required to stand in the presence of God. Unlike Christian baptism, Jewish baptism was repeatable. Thus it was more existential than ontological. For some Jews, daily baptism was required “in order to pronounce the name of God in prayer in perfect purity”. Baptism cleansed from the “impurity of idolatry”: Talmudic commentary understood Pharaoh’s daughter’s bathing in the Nile to have been for this purpose. The theology of baptism in general was derived not primarily from biblical Law but through practice. By way of accrued symbolism, the baptism restored the unclean to an “original state of a new-born ‘little child'”, and the baptized were “suddenly brought from darkness into light” (for all quotes, ibid.)

3. Place matters: the River Jordan itself has a very significant biblical history. It may easily be understood as “sacred space”. The Jordan valley was “well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD” (Gen 13.10). Moses, in leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land, never crossed the River Jordan. This River was a boundary to the Promised Land — “the place where God would dwell with His people providing them with the endless blessings of His presence” (Hopko, ch 33). Moses instead died before crossing this boundary. This might be symbolically understood that for us the Law is necessary to salvation, but not itself sufficient. The Law is not enough. It was Moses’ successor, Joshua (which literally means Savior, and is the Hebrew form of the Greek word Jesus) who leads the children of Israel to the Promised Land. Joshua’s crossing issued in a parting of the waters in the presence of God’s people, including the Ark of the Covenant. This allowed the people of God to pass through into their place of final destination. The Lord commanded Joshua to remove twelve stones from the Jordan, where the priests stood, and pile them together for an eternal memorial of this miracle given by the Lord (Josh 1-4). Additionally, The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2  Kings 5:14; 6:6). Thus the River Jordan is a “sacred space” because it is part of the “living memory” of Israel. That Christ washed in these waters means that we wash in these waters through our baptism, the action of which is His. We cannot just wash in “any old river” and be clean; God says no. “Only through the Jordan do we enter into the land of the living, the promised land of God’s kingdom” (Hopko, ch 33). The waters of the Jordan sanctify us forever.

trinity4. Continuing the theme of “appearance” and “manifestation” from paragraph 1, this event manifests for the first time the mystery of Holy Trinity. This is the true nature of reality. The true nature of reality is triune — that is, God is Holy Trinity. This is a truly great mystery. Triunity was hinted at dimly and in shadows through the previous covenants with Israel. Blessed Mary, Our Lady, surely had some glimpse of triune reality in her life lived as a Jewish woman (soaked in Scripture), her “Yes” to God through the Annunciation by Gabriel, and her giving birth, nurturing, and pondering in her heart the life of her son, Jesus of Nazareth. We note that with the public emergence and manifestation of Christ as Messiah comes the emergence of the Holy Spirit as a “unique divine person” (Hopko, ch 32). We can observe the pattern by which Jesus himself recognized triune nature. Amid the communal rite of baptism and a widely shared sense of “expectation” and discernment, heaven opened: God the Father “spoke” to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form as a dove, descended upon him. This pattern involves prayer, experience, reflection, sacred space, and a corporate (rather than individual) basis for life. (This pattern is repeated and retrieved by the apostles in the Lukan narrative of Pentecost; and here St Luke more explicitly associates the Holy Spirit with the sense of fire to which John the Baptist alludes.) Thus we can learn from Christ: for how Jesus realizes the triune nature of reality should be a model for how we realize triune nature.

5. Luke’s narrative emphasizes that Christ is the full and final revelation of God. This happens through Luke’s details: What is left out of the the Gospel reading (vv. 19-20) is that Herod imprisoned John. Christ’s anointing (or recognition of triune reality and his own true nature as God the Son) follows after the ministry of John the Baptist rather than overlaps it (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol 3, p. 67). Furthermore, unlike the Markan and Matthean accounts of the Baptism of our Lord, the Lukan account shifts all attention to Jesus. Here there is no sense that John baptized Jesus; Luke “virtually removes John from the scene” (ibid, p. 71).  He extends the distance between John’s baptism and Jesus. Rather, it seems as if the baptism, and triune anointing, occurs amid a crowd of Jewish people. All of this reinforces two conclusions: John the Baptist is the final prophet of the Old Testament, and Jesus Christ (although continuous in many respects with all of the biblical history of the children of Israel) is a unique and singular emergence to the world of God’s nature and God’s identity.

transfiguration6. In addition to comparing this moment to Pentecost, we can compare this moment to the Transfiguration story (Lk 9.28-36). In both cases, we the readers are given access to an “empowerment and declaration that takes place between God and Jesus in the communication that is prayer” (Johnson, p. 71). In both cases, what happens is a mix of public and private, of objective reality and subjective recognition. Particularly in the baptism narrative, we are somehow privy to the thoughts of Christ. This is the first such access we have in Luke. Luke’s first words from the mouth of Jesus are in the temple as a boy of age 12. But here (as in the Lukan Transfiguration narrative)  he does not even speak. He prays, he listens, he experiences. In all of this, he discloses his true nature for others to witness and behold.

7. From Luke there is a strong emphasis on the physical nature of the Holy Spirit. The dove was “in bodily form, as a dove”. It is useful to recall biblical precedents for “structural similarity” (Johnson, 71). Such precedents include the Annunciation (1.35) and the angelic song (2.14) from the infancy narrative. In the Annunciation, the Spirit “comes down” and reveals the name of God; what’s more, this power will “overshadow” Mary. This brings to mind the “hovering” of God’s spirit over the face of the deep in Genesis 1.2, and points again to the Transfiguration narrative, where “a cloud came and overshadowed” Peter, James, and John. And provocatively, Luke’s emphasis on the physical nature the Holy Spirit as a dove calls to mind the dove over the waters in Genesis 8.8 at the end of the flood. There, it was the dove sent by Noah that acted as an agent of completion to the event of the flood. Through the dove, Noah and the rest on the Ark were restored to right relationship with creation. All was well again. Through the dove came a uniting, a reconciling, a harmonizing with creation. And the action of the dove issued in God’s speaking to Noah (which parallels God’s speaking to Jesus), God’s articulation of his covenant with all peoples, a visible disclosure (the rainbow), and a sense of mission for Noah (“be fruitful and multiply”). When we recall that following all Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus is the commencing of Christ’s public ministry, his own mission becomes a fulfillment of the promise God made to Noah.

emmaus8. Concluding thoughts. Any reflection upon Scripture is best served through the lens of ascetical theology. That lens issues in the question: how does this passage impinge on my own life of prayer. Another way to say that is to ask, what can I take from this to help me be a better disciple of Christ, to “delight in his will and walk in his ways”?

The baptism of our Lord in the River Jordan demonstrates to us that prayer life rooted in Christ is trinitarian. When we rooted our prayer life in Christ, we are at the River Jordan with him, and he for us. The way the ancient Jewish people understood baptism (as a daily event) is the way Christians understand prayer (a daily, and even ongoing and continuous happening).

Christian prayer life is a matter of discernment, colloquy, and purification. We discern through patient reflection and contemplation given the facts, situations, and challenges our life poses to us. We colloquy through conversation with God and by opening ourselves to listening to God’s disclosure. We purify through our receiving of the Sacraments, particularly Penance and Eucharist, which restore the holiness of our Baptism and seals the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit throughout our prayer.

As we discern, colloquy and purify we shouldn’t feel the necessity to be able to come to words about our experiences — that is, what are sensing God’s will might be. We can take solace that Christ didn’t immediately come to terms, either. What does give us solace is that our prayer in Christ washes away our separation from him, and from the true nature of reality.

When we root our prayer life in Christ, we acknowledge the words of God the Father, that Jesus is his beloved Son. This acknowledging is praise to God the Father, praise that Christ mediates. Christ-centered prayer likewise gives praise to the Holy Spirit, not a mere afterthought or decoration on this moment, but rather a real, physical, personal Being that unites our biblical imagination with the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, Pentecost, and the covenant and mission that issued from the end of the Flood. Thus Christian prayer is modeled by Christ’s baptism: an act of Christian prayer is an event of Trinity; a life of Christian prayer is a journey to the realization of Trinity. In reuniting with triune reality through prayer in Christ, we become reconciled to God’s creation. And it begins as Christ modeled and thus how St Benedict began his rule: we must listen.