By Neal Michell
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lent is a time when we intentionally practice liminal experiencesfasting, self-examination, silence, and so onin order to prepare our souls for unplanned liminal experiencesin order that we be delivered from “dying suddenly and unprepared.” Lent is a time to examine our souls and see how they’re doing, that they might be further fortified for the challenges and the battles in this life between good and evil. Without a healthy soul, we find ourselves tossed about by the storms of life, violently and without anchor.
St. Augustine described so well the search of the soul for health in his Confessions: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our souls are restless till they find rest in Thee.” And, of course, our whole life is a continuing process in which God works his sanctification into our souls as we continually seek our rest in Him. The psalmist also describes the longing of our souls for God:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.—Ps. 42:1–2
The Jesus Prayer
First, a word about the Jesus Prayer for those unfamiliar with it.
The classic words to the prayer are as written above:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
The prayer likely goes back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the 5th century. The earliest written source comes from the Philokalia written between the 4th and 15th centuries. It has had a long tradition of devotional use in the Eastern church; it has a strong history among Roman Catholics and has found great favor among Anglicans.
The Jesus Prayer is most well-known through the 19th century Russian work, The Way of a Pilgrim. This is the story of a mendicant who is struck by the phrase “Pray without ceasing,” from 1 Thessalonians 5:17. He visits churches and monasteries to learn how to pray without ceasing. He finally learns the Jesus Prayer from a staret, or spiritual director, who tells him to pray it 6,000 times a day, and then 12,000 times a day as he goes through his day, until he finds the Jesus Prayer spontaneously in his thoughts and on his lips every waking hour. The aim of the Jesus Prayer is union with God.
So, to begin, please read the prayer to yourself slowly — as slowly as you would imagine Mr. Rogers would say it. Read it three times in adoring silence.
Lord. Kyrie. The Jesus Prayer begins with Majesty. Psalm 8 calls us to bask in the Majesty of Almighty God: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”
King Solomon invoked this Majesty as he dedicated the temple: “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the Majesty; for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.” The 1979 Book of Common Prayer offers this as one of the offertory sentences to welcome people to the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving.
Jesus . . . Jesus . . . Jesus. When the Blessed Virgin Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. Upon Mary’s greeting of her cousin, the baby John leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb.
Likewise, St. Paul encourages us to rejoice in the Lord Jesus (Phil. 4:4). And he shows us the source of that rejoicing when, in the letter to the Ephesians, he juxtaposes God’s exaltation of Jesus with the self-emptying of Jesus. In the letter to the Philippians, he says that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). Charles Wesley, in his hymn “And Can it Be” reveals the depths of this reality by reminding us simply that he “emptied himself of all but love. … Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” When we say the name Jesus, let us bask in the glory of his amazing, unfathomable, undeserved, and limitless love.
Christ. Messiah. God’s Anointed One. The prolepsis of God’s glory as revealed in the New Testament was the Shekinah glory that appeared to Moses, was in the Tabernacle, appeared during the wilderness wanderings, descended upon the Temple at its dedication, and appeared to Isaiah who cried, “Woe is me!” when he encountered that glory.
The fullness of that glory was present in Jesus. The apostle John tells us in John 1:14 that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” The Greek word for “dwelt” can be translated “tented” or “tabernacled,” calling to mind the Shekinah glory of God descending on the tabernacle. The Glory of God that was encountered in the tabernacle (and appeared to Moses, Solomon, and Isaiah), is now fully present among us. The apostle John would say, “God pitched his tent among us, and we beheld his glory, the very glory of God.”
Son of God,
The most well-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Since 1549, the Book of Common Prayer has directed the priest to recite John 3:16 as one of several verses which serve as “comfortable words” for those who are about to receive Holy Communion. To quote Charles Wesley, “Amazing love! How can it be?” God the Father is the Father of prodigal love that is standing, looking, longing, and waiting for his errant son to return.
St. Paul prays that Christ the Son, the savior, may dwell in our hearts through faith; that we, “being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:18). And this redeeming love is for each and every individual that God has created.
have mercy on me,
Have mercy on me. Kyrie Eleison. When we pray Kyrie Eleison, we are not begging God to be kind to us. We are not supplicants begging for a handout of leftover food or spare change. No, when we pray Kyrie Eleison, we are declaring to our loving heavenly Father, “You who are merciful by nature, be what you are to us. Be merciful, because you are merciful.”
The book of Psalms contains fifteen psalms known of as Psalms of Ascent, or Gradual Psalms, which were sung by Hebrew pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, or possibly while ascending the final steps up to the Temple (Pss. 120–134). Listen to the eager anticipation of the pilgrims articulated in Psalm 122:
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!
Can you feel the anticipation? What are they looking forward to? Psalm 84 describes it:
How lovely is thy dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
As they approach the Temple, as they approach the very threshold, these pilgrims’ anticipation of the presence of the living God is a combination of supplication and confidence in God’s mercy and faithfulness:
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he have mercy upon us. Ps. 123:2
In this Psalm, the eyes of the servants look to the hand of the master, and the maidservants’ eyes look to the hand of the mistress. And what are they looking for? Mercy. God’s mercy. And where is this undeserved but longed for mercy found most profoundly? In the nail-pierced hands of Jesus, the Son of God. The apostle Thomas exclaimed on seeing those hands, “My Lord and my God!” “Amazing love! How can it be?”
A sinner. You. Me. Really, most of us don’t think we’re all that bad. If I were to ask random people what their biggest problem is, they would probably not say that their biggest problem is sin. (Well, they might say it is someone else’s sin inflicted upon them.) No, most people would say that their biggest problem is an out of kilter relationship, or their job, or money problems, or health fears.
There are various ways of translating the word, “sin.” The image of sin from the Greek is that of “missing the mark.” Tim Keller uses the term “idolatry”: putting other things before God. This fits with H. Richard Niebuhr’s image of sin as, essentially, polytheism, having many gods. It is possible to believe in one God but actually and really to be polytheistic, serving many gods. True faith is practical trusting in, relying upon, counting upon something — namely, God, alone.
Our fallen condition leads us to extend grace to ourselves and throw the book at others, to justify our actions and to find fault with others to the full extent of the law. But my biggest problem is really not the other person, it is simply myself: me, a sinner.
When I conclude the Jesus Prayer with describing myself as simply a sinner, I am acknowledging that I have worshipped other gods and asking God to be merciful, because I have nowhere else to go. And it is his divine nature to have mercy. As the old hymn reminds us: “Nothing in my hands I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling.”
In conclusion, I invite you to sing — if you know the hymn tune, it is usually sung to Caswell, or recite it slowly if you do not — the hymn, “Glory be to Jesus”:
1 Glory be to Jesus
who in bitter pains
poured for me the life-blood
from his sacred veins!
2 Grace and life eternal
in that blood I find,
blest be his compassion
3 Blest through endless ages
be the precious stream
which from sin and sorrow
doth the world redeem!
4 Oft as earth exulting
wafts its praise on high,
angel hosts, rejoicing,
make their glad reply.
5 Lift ye then your voices;
swell the mighty flood;
louder still and louder
praise the precious blood.
Finally, repeat the Jesus Prayer to yourself three times — again, at a Mr. Rogers rate of speed. Let this prayer pray itself in you.
The Very Rev. Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was prebendary in the Diocese of Dallas and dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.