Wednesday Lenten Lessons

“The Prayer Language of the Church; its Origin and Meaning”

by Archpriest Timothy Baclig

I. Review of Introduction
Last week I introduced our topic: “The Prayer Language of the Church” and highlighted:

  1. That many of the prayers of our services (referred to as “quietly” said by the priest) are not heard by the congregation but provide us with a deeper understanding of what we believe when examined closely;
  2. That the collective prayers of the church comprise the “mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:10-16) or the “Biblical prayers” that shapes and forms our thinking;
  3. How secularism in our day and the societal norms of independence, self-centeredness and self-sufficiency can have an affect on us and result in a divergent thinking on “spirituality” and deviant behavior from Christian beliefs and conduct;
  4. Just as “being fluent” in another language is to think in another language and not just being able to speak in that language,
  5. Similarly, Christians who are fluent in the prayer language of the church are those whose thoughts and conduct are consistent with what the church believes by the wording her prayers.

The purpose of our theme: understanding the prayer language of the church is: to take time during Great Lent to discover the “mind of the Church” in the prayers of our services. We will do this by examining:

  1. the content of these prayers; what they actually say,
  2. what are the related actions that we are assumed to do by our prayers,
  3. how our requests and petitions are framed in the reflection on the actions of faith by righteous men and women of history,
  4. how we are called to share in faithfulness and obedience with those men and women of faith in history.

II. God’s Sovereignty
As Orthodox Christians the thought of our prayers begins with recognizing and acknowledging God as the Holy Trinity; one God of three modes. He, however, is not three manifestations who was known to man in three separate eras: i.e., God the Father (of the Old Testament), God the Son (of the New Testament) and God the Holy Spirit (of our day). No. Our eternal God was, is, and will ever be the divine and Holy Trinity of all ages: who has revealed Himself (in time) to us as the person of His Divine Son and who indwells us (today) by His Spirit by virtue of Holy Baptism.

And even while we know God by knowing His Son, just as He has said, “He who has seen me, has seen the Father…” (John 14:9), we also  believe: no one of us who is created has ever fully known, or can completely know God the Father — who is described in our Liturgy as: “Ineffable” (indescribable), “invisible,” “incomprehensible” (unknowable), “uncircumscript” (has no limits nor can be contained), uncreated, “immutable” (unchangeable over time) and “inconceivable;” “yet ever existing and eternally the same” [with His] “only begotten Son and
Spirit” (St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great).

This is precisely what we mean when we say that our God is sovereign. In other words, even while we know God as He who by becoming Man (in the person of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ in the days of Pontius Pilate); who demonstrated God’s supreme love and the forgiveness of sins by His Death on the Cross; and even while we also know our God as the indwelling Spirit (known as Christ’s Spirit), who was sent by the Father, and provides us with His divine grace and mercy, there is nothing that you and I can do to change God’s absolute sovereignty. None of our definitions even “define” Him. In other words, even in saying, “God is love,” we must also say, “love is not God!” And even in saying, “God is sovereign,” sovereignty is not God! No one can put God in a box. What does and will matter is: our response to what God has accomplished through His Son and is accomplishing by His Spirit in our lives as we grow to know Him and to be united with Him.

This coming Sunday in the Orthodox Church we will commemorate St. Gregory Palamas whose teaching is a focus on this point: We participate in God’s divine grace as we navigate through life’s experiences with its opportunities and challenges. And while He can offer His grace in any way He chooses, our participation in the fullness of His grace is assured through the life of His Church and its Sacraments.

Last week, we were reminded from our Church’s iconographic tradition that while images of His Son (who became Man) and His Divine Spirit (who “descended in the form of a dove”) exist, there is no acceptable image that portrays God the Father — the “Almighty,” “Fountainhead of life.” There can also be no visual image of God’s divine essence.

Our Church’s prayers, therefore, speak of what we know (from history and from the experience of witnesses of all who have been faithful to doing His will as recorded in scripture, the Apostolic writings, patristic sources, and the lives of the Saints). And the language of our prayers therefore testify to: God’s sovereignty; that He is eternal, righteous, a just God: Holy,
Mighty and Immortal; but also a loving, merciful and compassionate God who has revealed Himself (made Himself known) in the person of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; who also through all of the ages has guided the Church by making His Son known to us by His Spirit.

It makes it only proper for us, therefore, to begin our prayers with the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty with expressions of praise and blessing, thanksgiving and glorification. It is clearly heard in the prayer of the Doxology of the morning Orthros service, just before the start of the Divine Liturgy: We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory! O Lord heavenly King, God the Father Almighty, O Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit…. Bear in mind: God’s sovereignty is equally attributed to all persons of the Divine Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit as one God.

Similarly, the anaphora prayer in Liturgy of St. Basil the Great begins with these words: O Thou who dost truly exist, Master, Lord God, Father  Almighty adorable; it is truly meet and just, and befitting the majesty of Thy holiness that we should magnify Thee, praise Thee, bless Thee, worship Thee, give thanks unto Thee and glorify Thee, the only truly existing God…
Holy art Thou, of a truth, and all-holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Thy holiness, and just art Thou in all Thy works; for in righteousness and judgment Thou hast ordered all things for us.

So then having established that our God is sovereign, let us look at a few phrases expressed within the body of our devotional prayers of the Church that tell us a little more about what our prayer language means. I have selected three prayers found in our Prayer Book: 1) A Prayer Before Commencing Any Task, 2) A Prayer of a Sick Person, and 3) A Prayer in a
Time of Trouble. After reading them I have a few questions for you to consider as homework. We will continue our discussion next week. Please feel free to respond to these questions in a private discussion with me via e-mail if you wish at: pastor@stmichaelvannuys.org

While considering the prayer language heard within the context of each of these three devotional prayers, it is important to keep in mind that there are opportunities and challenges in the circumstances our lives that are within our power to possibly change, and those that are not. We believe and understand that God does not desire the death of a sinner, nor despises the sinner, but has appointed repentance unto salvation (St. John Chrysostom). Also that there are, in fact, decisions that are within our power to make. Personal decisions, however, lead to consequences, and the consequences of those decisions involve either one’s acceptance or the denial of personal responsibility. It must also be said that one’s choice not to decide may also lead to consequences that may or may not be to one’s own good.

It must again be emphasized that the three prayers chosen for our review from our Prayer Book are devotional prayers. They are our personal prayers that we say privately unlike the corporate prayers of our church services. I have also included two corresponding prayers: For the Sick. A comparison of the wording found in the prayer Of a Sick Person reveals a distinct difference that should also be noticed.

Finally, I have added portions of four prayers (page 8) from the litany’s of the morning Orthros service (done by the priest “quietly”). There are selected phrases boldly highlighted within each of the prayers to also add to our discussion on the questions provided below.

A Prayer Before Commencing Any Task

Almighty God, our Help and Refuge, Fountain of wisdom and Tower of strength, who knowest that I can do nothing without thy guidance and help; assist me, I pray thee, and direct me to divine wisdom and power, that I may accomplish this task, and whatever I may undertake to do, faithfully and diligently, according to thy will, so that it may be profitable to myself and others, and to the glory of thy Holy Name. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

A Prayer of a Sick Person

O Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, Physician of souls and bodies, who didst become man and suffer death on the Cross for our salvation, and through thy tender love and compassion didst heal all manner of sickness and affliction; do thou O Lord, visit me in my suffering, and grant me grace and strength to bear this sickness with which I am  afflicted, with Christian patience and submission to thy will, trusting in thy loving kindness and tender mercy. Bless, I pray thee, the means used for my recovery, and those who administer them. I know O Lord, that I justly deserve any punishment thou mayest inflict upon me for I have so often offended thee and sinned against thee, in thought, word and deed. Therefore, I humbly pray thee, look upon my weakness, and deal not with me after my sins, but according to the multitude of thy mercies. Have compassion on me, and let mercy and justice meet; and deliver me from this sickness and suffering I am undergoing. Grant that my sickness may be the means of my true repentance and amendment of my life according to thy will, that I may spend the rest of my days in thy love and fear: that my soul, being helped by thy grace and sanctified by thy Holy Mysteries, may be prepared for its passage to the Eternal Life, and there, in the company of thy blessed Saints, may praise and glorify thee with thy Eternal Father and Life-giving Spirit. Amen.

A Prayer in Time of Trouble

O God, our help and assistance, who art just and merciful, and who heareth the supplications of thy people; look down upon me, a miserable sinner, have mercy upon me, and deliver me from this trouble that besets me, for which, I know, I am deservedly suffering. I acknowledge and believe, O Lord, that all trials of this life are given by Thee for our
chastisement, when we drift away from thee, and disobey thy commandments; deal not with me after my sins, but according to thy bountiful mercies, for I am the work of Thy hands, and thou knowest my weakness. Grant me, I beseech thee, thy divine helping grace, and endow me with patience and strength to endure my tribulations with
complete submission to Thy Will. Thou knowest my misery and suffering and to Thee, my only hope and refuge, I flee for relief and comfort; trusting to thine infinite love and compassion that in due time, when thou knowest best, thou wilt deliver me from this trouble, and turn my distress into comfort, when I shall rejoice in thy mercy, and exalt and
praise thy Holy Name, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Questions to Consider:

How might we describe our attitude and/or posture in the phrases of the language expressed in these prayers?

How might we describe God’s ultimate purpose as it pertains to our lives?

Does this mean that we have no choice and that there is nothing within our power to do in submitting to a sovereign Lord?

Does this mean that asking or petitioning God in prayer is of no effect or consequence?

Is there any evidence in scripture or within the history of our church that gives merit to “bargaining with God?”

Prayers for the Sick

O Lord Almighty, the Healer of our souls and bodies, You Who put down and raise up, Who chastise and heal also; do You now, in Your great mercy, visit our brother (sister) (Name),  who is sick. Stretch forth Your hand that is full of healing and health, and get him (her) up from his (her) bed, and cure him (her) of his (her) illness. Put away from him (her) the spirit of disease and of every malady, pain and fever to which he (she) is bound; and if he (she) has sins and transgressions, grant to him (her) remission and forgiveness, in that You love mankind; yea, Lord my God, pity Your creation, through the compassions of Your Only-Begotten Son, together with Your All-Holy, Good and Lifecreating Spirit, with Whom You are blessed, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

O Lord our God, Who by word alone did heal all diseases, Who did cure the kinswoman of Peter, You Who chastise with pity and heal according to Your goodness; Who are able to put aside every malady and infirmity, do You Yourself, the same Lord, grant aid to this Your servant (Name) and cure him (her) of every sickness of which he (she) is grieved; lift him (her) up from his (her) bed of pain, and send down upon him (her) Your great mercy, and if it be Your Will, give to him (her) health and a complete recovery; for You are the Physician of our souls and bodies, and to You do we send up Glory: to Father, and to Son, and to Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

The following are among the twelve “silent” prayers done by the priest during the morning Orthros service that accompany each litany:

Fourth Orthros Prayer

O Lord God, holy and unsearchable, who didst command the light to shine forth in the darkness; who hast refreshed us by the slumber of the night, and hast raised us up to glorify and supplicate thy goodness: being employed of thine own tender loving-kindness, accept us also who bow down in adoration before thee, and render thanks unto thee according to the measure of our strength; and grant us all our petitions which are unto salvation [see Romans 8:28]. Make us children of the light, and of the day, and heirs of thine everlasting good things…

Fifth Orthros Prayer

O Treasury of good things, Fountain eternal, O Father all-holy who workest wonders, all-powerful and almighty: we adore thee and entreat thee, calling thy mercies and thy compassion to the aid and defense of our lowliness Call to remembrance thy servants, O Lord; accept the morning prayers of us all as incense before thee; and let none of us be found reprobate [see Romans 1:18-25], but encompass us with thy bounties…

Sixth Orthros Prayer

We give thanks unto thee, O Lord God of our salvation; for Thou doest all things which are for the welfare of our life, that we may ever look upward unto thee, our Saviour and the Benefactor of our souls… Wherefore we entreat Thee, O Lord, [grant] unto us grace and power, that we may be enabled with understanding to sing praises unto Thee, and to pray without ceasing, in fear and trembling, working out our own salvation, through the help of Thy Christ…

Seventh Orthros Prayer

O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hast raised us up from our beds, and gathered us together at this hour of prayer: grant us grace in the opening of our lips, and accept our thanksgivings as we have power to make them; and instruct us in thy statues. For we know not how to pray as we ought unless Thou, O Lord, by Thy Holy Spirit, doth guide us [see Romans 8:26]. …