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What is the Jesus Prayer?

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May 8, 2018

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God, Amen.  

Today my beloved we discuss a very important form of prayer that the Church handed down to us a very long time ago. Today we ask, “What is the Jesus Prayer?” Where does it come from, how ought we use it, what does it mean? Let’s take a look at it together.  

The Jesus Prayer, which is also called the Prayer of the Heart, or the Arrow Prayer is a very short, one sentence prayer, that is often prayed repetitively to help a Christian align their mind and heart towards God in prayer. The prayer itself has a short, and slightly longer version. The Short one simply is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me” and the slightly longer one, is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a Sinner”. Both are used today by many Orthodox and non-orthodox Christians across the globe, however as Orthodox Christians we typically use the longer version in our prayers. Now before we get into why use this prayer and what it means to use these specific words, lets first take a look at it’s origins both historical and scriptural.  

 

St Paul in his epistle to the Thessalonians he writes to them and he says something that is very difficult for us to understand today. He says in 1 Thessalonians 5:  

“16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 

Now being joyful and giving thanks are two things that we can understand that St Paul wants is to be in these two states of mind and heart at all times… but what about prayer? How can a person pray without ceasing? The early Egyptian Monastics  of the 4th and 5th century wanted to constantly be in communication and communion with God. They took St Paul’s exhortation seriously and wanted to live it! We believe that it was these desert communities, filled with men and women who lived an ascetic life for God, that began to formulate this practice and planted the first seeds of the Jesus Prayer.  

Scripturally, the Jesus Prayer is inspired from two well known New Testament passages. The first being that of the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector in the gospel of Luke. While the Pharisee judged his brother and exalted himself, scripture says  

Luke 18: 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  

It is this Tax Collector’s humble prayer that the Church retained as a formula for our constant prayer of the heart. We also have in the gospel of Matthew the story of the two blind men who cried out to the Lord for mercy: Matthew 9: 27-30 says:  

When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” 28 And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.” 30 And their eyes were opened.  

Again, we see a plea for mercy, and the Lord hearing his children’s cry and showing them compassion. It is on these passages that the Church frames the Jesus Prayer. For us to better understand it’s meaning, let’s dissect it piece by piece.  

 

 In the book On God and Christ, St Gregory the Theologian teaches us the following :  

“It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe: indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing else besides.” [St. Gregory Nazianzus (On God and Christ, Oration 27 sect. 4.] 

And so the Church hands down to us a prayer, short and yet so powerful, so that as we take every breath, we can have God on our mind and in our hearts. Let’s look at the words of the prayer. 

The Jesus Prayer begins with the word “Lord”:  A title given to Christ our God, a title that we do not share with any other earthly person. It is not merely a word thrown around to honor Him, it is truly an act of worship and a confession of faith. The word Lord, or Kerios in Greek is the same title that our forefathers in the 4th century decided to use when formulating the first part of the Nicean Creed which says “We believe in one LORD Jesus Christ…”  

After declaring Him Lord, we call him by His name; “Jesus”! This is name of the Lord that was revealed by God through the angel Gabriel to St Mary, telling her “you shall call his name Jesus”. While people in the old testament were filled with fear and would not dare call utter God’s name, we today are encouraged through God’s grace to call Him by His name and to have that type of intimate relationship with Him.  

And yet as soon as we call on His name, we are reminded of Who He is – the Christ! The Word Christ means “The anointed or sanctified one”. In the gospels the Lord asks His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” a very important question for all people to consider specially today. Here we as Christians join our voices to St Peter’s when he confesses that the Lord Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God”. In calling him Christ, we make a heavenly declaration of WHO the Lord is.  

Naturally, as soon as we call Him Christ, we complete it as St Peter did by also declaring that this Christ is no prophet, nor a righteous man, but truly he is the “Son of God”. This is the remainder of our confession of who Christ is, revealing who He is in comparison to God the Father. Again, we see glimpses of how this prayer is perfectly aligned with the Creed and is a Trinitarian prayer.   

We then say “Have Mercy”. We suddenly remember the blind men who said, “son of David, have mercy on us.” In their desperation they sought out his mercy, and they found it. You see, when we pray “have mercy” this is not merely a request, but also an admission of who we think the Lord is. It is because we know that He is compassionate and loving and merciful, that we turn to him for mercy. After all if we did not think he was all these things, surely we would not waste our time asking him to be something he is not.   

And although we know that He is merciful to all, we specifically say have mercy “on me”. It makes this a  personal prayer, a declaration of an intimate relationship with our Savior. We are making an appeal that shows that we are personally requesting Him and all that He has to offer. It is almost as if we are saying Lord, “I” ask you! 

And now, after I have confessed who He is, and what He has to offer me, I then declare who I am; “A sinner”. This becomes a sincere confession, an acknowledgement of who I am. In calling ourselves sinners, we have done two things; we proclaim who we truly are: people who are plagued with the illness of sin; and therefore we also we are proclaiming that he is the great physician and healer of our souls.   

It is truly incredible how much beauty, depth and power can be found in a short 12-word sentence. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on my a sinner. And so the Church gave us this Prayer – to constantly have the name of the Lord on our lips. To call on Him, be reminded of Him, and be united to Him. Many will pray it while making the sign of the Cross, some will do it while doing their daily prostrations, and there are also those who will use a Prayer Rope to aid them in the Jesus Prayer. In all cases, we encourage all of our listeners to seek guidance from the spiritual fathers, and to begin praying the Jesus prayer.  

Remember,  Know your faith, live your faith, and teach your faith.  

And to God be the Glory, now and forever, and unto the ages of all ages. Amen.  

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