Sunday, 18 January 2015

Follow Jesus, Emmanuel: pray without ceasing

"Follow me," says Jesus. Alright, that is presumably why we're here: because we want to follow Jesus. But how?

Once upon a time, in the East, there was a monastery on an island in a remote lake. Now this monastery was well overdue due a visit by whatever the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of an Archdeacon is, just to check that the monks weren't using foreign rites or putting up any new icons without a Faculty. So, the Archdeacon-equivalent set off on the long journey with his retinue of pharisees and penpushers from Moscow or Constantinople or Bedford or wherever, and reaching the coast finally got some stout young fellow he'd met in a bar one night that he didn't really talk about very much any more to row them across. The Abbot welcomed the team with a hearty glass of water and lashings of dry bread, and they got down to business, strutting around the monastery, examining the fittings, asking questions they thought might sound penetrating and insightful, and generally trying to look interested.
As their meanderings progressed, it became apparent that the monks at this monastery were not the most learned bunch. Suspicious, the Archdeacon felt compelled to ask one of them to recite the Lord's Prayer. The monk didn't know it. What about the Hail Mary, then? No, he didn't know that, either. In fact, none of them did. They only knew one prayer, they said.
"Well," spluttered the Archdeacon, "This won't do at all. I'm leaving immediately to tell the Bishop to close this monastery down!" And off he went, his entourage blustering after him, back to the boat where his stout young companion was waiting to row them back ashore. At last, they could get back to the city, a proper meal and a decent G&T - sorry, vodka.
When they were halfway across the lake, they heard shouting. The Archdeacon felt a tap on his shoulder from one of his minions, who pointed back towards the monastery. He saw where the shouting was coming from: a monk, holding something up over his head, running towards them - right over the water.
The monk eventually caught them up. Somewhat out of breath, he panted,
"Sorry, Archdeacon, you left your iPad behind, I thought I'd better bring it to you."
Astonished at this display of holiness, the Archdeacon thought back to what the monks had told him - that they only knew one prayer. He asked the monk what it was.
"Oh, that!" said the monk. "We just say it over and over again, all the time:
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."

"Pray constantly," St Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and that is pretty much the duty and the joy of the Church summed up: to live our whole life in prayer and as prayer. That, after all, is what Jesus did: his life, death and resurrection are all given in offering to the Father. He gives us the chance to join in with his prayer in the two great sacraments he entrusted to the Church: Baptism and the Eucharist.
But it is not enough to pray only when we are together, when the Church is gathered. Our Baptism, our Communion are meant to feed us even when we are out in the world and help us, like Jesus, to give our whole life as prayer. The "Jesus Prayer" of the Eastern Church is just one way of staying aware of God's presence, reciting those words, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me," over and over again in everything we do until his name is etched deeply in our hearts.
Believe me, we need his name on our hearts, maybe more than ever. We need it in our isolation, in our anger, in our frustration that the noise and relentless busyness that modern life brings. We need the peace and the love and the self-giving it brings.
And believe me also that it is the Name of Jesus that brings these things, not just the fashionable breathing techniques or meditative methods of the day. For the name Jesus means 'God saves,' and it is therefore the name of the God of the Resurrection, of Easter, of the Eucharist. We need Jesus' other name, too, Emmanuel, 'God-with-us,' the God of the Incarnation, of Christmas and Epiphany, of Baptism. Emmanuel is the name of the God among the sinners on the banks of the Jordan waiting to be baptised; Jesus, of the God baptised in death on the Cross for our salvation. His is the Name given for our salvation, and no other: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God; Lord Jesus Christ, Emmanuel."
Jesus gives Nathanael a powerful image of what he will see if he truly follows: a vision of heaven opened. This is the vision Jesus himself received at his baptism, when he saw the heavens 'torn open;' a vision made manifest when the veil in the Temple was torn at his crucifixion; a vision of the Kingdom where we will see the veil that separates heaven and earth ultimately ripped away. This is the vision Jesus shared with Nathanael and offers now to all who follow him. You can see how closely it is linked, again, to Baptism and the Eucharist, and so to the names of God with us and God who saves, Emmanuel-Jesus.
To see that vision, we must have open eyes - the eyes of our hearts, that is. Keep the Holy Name on your heart always, when you walk, when you drive, when you cook, and God will open those eyes for you.
As Emmanuel, he will open our eyes to the reality of our sins, for which we were baptised, and for which we need to repent. For he is with us at the banks of the Jordan, even in the depths of our sin.
As Jesus, he will open the eyes of our hearts to the reality of our salvation, the reality of the Kingdom already in our midsts. For he is with us in bread and wine, in body and blood, ready to dwell in us that we might dwell in him. His Name is the password by which the doors of the Kingdom will swing open to reveal the blinding glory of union with God.
Follow me. Pray without ceasing. Lord Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, have mercy upon us.

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