Met. Kallistos (Ware): “On the Jesus Prayer”

Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia –  (b. 1934) is a titular metropolitan of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain. From 1966-2001, he was Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford University, and has authored numerous books and articles pertaining to the Orthodox faith.

 

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“There is a Trinitarian dimension to the most dearly-loved of single-phrase Orthodox prayers, the Jesus Prayer, an ‘arrow prayer’ used both at work and during times of quiet. In its most common form this runs: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. This is, in outward form, a prayer to the second person of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus Christ. But the other two persons are also present, although they are not named. For, by speaking of Jesus as ‘Son of God’, we point towards his Father; and the Spirit is also embraced in our prayer, since ‘no one can say “Lord Jesus”, except in the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12:3). The Jesus Prayer is not only Christ-centered but Trinitarian.

Let us now consider what it has to tell us about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and about our healing by and in him.

There are in the Jesus Prayer two ‘poles’ or extreme points. ‘Lord … Son of God’: the Prayer speaks first about God’s glory, acclaiming Jesus as the Lord of all creation and the eternal Son. Then at its conclusion the Prayer turns to our condition as sinners- sinful by virtue of the fall, sinful through our personal acts of wrongdoing: ‘. . . on me a sinner’. (In its literal meaning the Greek text is yet more emphatic, saying ‘on me the sinner’, as if I were the only one.)

So the Prayer begins with adoration and ends with penitence. Who or what is to reconcile these two extremes of divine glory and human sinfulness? There are three words in the Prayer which give the answer. The first is ‘Jesus’, the personal name conferred on Christ after his human birth from the Virgin Mary. This has the sense of Saviour: as the angel said to Christ’s foster-father St Joseph: ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21).

The second word is the title ‘Christ’, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, meaning the Anointed One – anointed, that is, by the Holy Spirit of God. For the Jewish people of the Old Covenant, the Messiah was the coming deliverer, the future king, who in the power of the Spirit would set them free from their enemies.

The third word is ‘mercy’, a term that signifies love in action, love working to bring about forgiveness, liberation and wholeness. To have mercy is to acquit the other of the guilt which by his own efforts he cannot wipe away 1 to release him from the debts he himself cannot pay, to make him whole from the sickness for which he cannot unaided find any cure. The term ‘mercy’ means furthermore that all this is conferred as a free gift: the one who asks for mercy has no claims upon the other, no rights to which he can appeal.

The Jesus Prayer, then, indicates both man’s problem and God’s solution. Jesus is the Saviour, the anointed king, the one who has mercy. But the Prayer also tells us something more about the person of Jesus himself. He is addressed as ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of God’: here the Prayer speaks of his Godhead, of his transcendence and eternity. But he is addressed equally as ‘Jesus’, that is, by the personal name which his mother and his foster-father gave him after his human birth in Bethlehem. So the Prayer speaks also of his manhood, of the genuine reality of his birth as a human being.

The Jesus Prayer is thus an affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ as alike truly divine and fully human. He is the Theanthropos or ‘God-man’, who saves us from our sins precisely because he is God and man at once. Man could not come to God, so God has to come to man – by making himself human. In his outgoing or ‘ecstatic’ love, God unites himself to his creation in the closest of all possible unions, by himself becoming that which he has created. God, as man, fulfils the mediatorial task which man rejected at the fall. Jesus our Saviour bridges the abyss between God and man because he is both at once. As we say in one of the Orthodox hymns for Christmas Eve, ‘Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born. Today has God come down to earth, and man gone up to heaven’.”   ~Met. Kallistos (Ware), from The Orthodox Way, p.48, 90-92.

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