Here is the key to the spiritual journey to which we are all called. It is to be found in the way in which the helpless child, who was born of the young Jewish virgin, Mary, grew into the masterpiece of God’s creation. As the years passed by, the growth of Jesus’ human body was paralleled by the growth of his inner spiritual being. Just as the exercise of the muscles of his body facilitated the growth of his body, so the exercise of the spiritual muscles of his mind and heart facilitated the growth of his soul. St Luke draws our attention to this spiritual journey when after the finding of Jesus in the temple he wrote that on returning to Nazareth with his parents, ‘He grew in understanding and in wisdom with the years’(Luke 2:52). This growth was made possible by the action of the Holy Spirit who he received, both indirectly from his immaculate mother, and directly from his infinite Father, through his divine nature into his human nature.
The writers of the Gospels show, not just how Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but how the Holy Spirit continually flowed into him throughout his life on earth making him the most secure, the most mature and the most lovable human being who has ever walked on the face of this earth. When we read the Gospels slowly and prayerfully, we cannot but be inspired by all he said and did. By the loving care and compassion that he has for others, by the love that, not only reaches out to everyone who turns to him for help, but which is powerful enough to cure them of myriad maladies and diseases and even to raise them from the dead. No wonder anyone with any humanity cannot but be inspired by this man and want to follow him.
Who wouldn’t want to put into practice in their own lives the unsurpassed moral teaching that he continually preached, from the sublime Sermon on the Mount to the profound mystical teaching at the Last Supper. But herein lies a danger that countless generations of well-meaning Christians have fallen into. They are so bedazzled by the person of Jesus and by all he said and did, that they fail to see how he received the inner spiritual help and strength to do what is quite impossible without it. The sad consequence is, that they fail so abysmally and so repeatedly, that their continual failure leads them to lose heart and give up their endeavour to imitate Jesus as they were originally inspired to do.
This problem did not exist in quite the same way for the followers of Jesus, in those early years after the resurrection. The reason is that although the gospels detailed the life of Jesus and his extraordinary message for the world, reinforced by the multitudinous miracles that he performed, they are comparatively silent about where, and how, he received the power to do all that he did. This question is not addressed in any detail in the Gospels because, it was simply assumed, everyone knew the answer, not just intellectually, but because in true imitation of Jesus, they imitated what he did throughout his whole life. They knew that it was the Holy Spirit, who animated him and inspired all that he said and did, and they wanted to follow his example to enable the Holy Spirit to do the same for them. They knew as sure as night follows day, that this would enable them to become ‘other Christs’.
In addition to the authentic Gospels, many others were written in the early church, and later, to fill in the gaps left by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many of them filled in what are called the ‘hidden years’ with bizarre and wonderful stories of Jesus at work, at play and above all working all sorts of weird and wonderful miracles to astound their readers with stories of the supernatural. But none of them mentioned the inner spiritual life of Jesus that made him the man he became. The authentic evangelists didn’t mention it, because they themselves, and those for whom they were writing were following his example every day of their lives. Why labour the obvious? It didn’t need to be said then, but it does need to be said now, because we have forgotten it, to the detriment of our own personal spiritual wellbeing and that of the Church.
Although the love of God was daily being poured out on Jesus, love isn’t magic, and so it doesn’t automatically enter into any one, including Jesus. It has to be received, and prayer is the word we use to describe how this love is received. St Paul insisted that in entering into our world Jesus chose to be like us in every way but sin. Like us he needed to pray, to open himself to receive the love that was at all times being poured out upon him. We know therefore, as a matter of fact, that Jesus not only prayed morning and evening and before and during meals, especially during sacred meals, but even more. Like every good Jew he prayed three times a day, as he did later with his disciples. He prayed three times a day in the synagogue, at the third, the sixth, and at the ninth hour to coincide with the times that sacrifices were being made in the temple. If he was working, or travelling, or doing anything that would prevent this daily prayer in the synagogue, then he, like others Jews, would stop whatever they were doing and pray, as they would have done there. Hypocrites liked to prayer in public to impress the plebs, that’s why Jesus told his followers to go into the ‘inner room’ and prayer privately and secretly.
Now we, not only know that Jesus would have done this, but we actually know the essential nature of his prayer. Because the prayer that every good Jew would say three times each day was called ‘The Shema’. As a boy Jesus would have learnt this prayer from Mary and Joseph, although technically speaking it would have been the father’s responsibility to teach this prayer to his son. The prayer involved daily pledging oneself to love God with your whole heart and mind and with your whole body and with your whole strength. While making this prayer and whilst trying to put it into practice throughout the rest of the day Jesus was at all times open to receive and assimilate the ever-present love of his Father that gradually made him into the man he became – the man we meet in the Gospels. Although it was this prayer that continually sustained him through the Gospel story, he needed more prolonged periods of prayer to help him at crucial moments of his life, when he was in desperate need of the help and strength that only his Father could give him. The incarnation was not an illusion, or a flight of fancy conjured up later by deluded disciples, it was literally true, and so, ‘in being like us in all thing, save sin’, Jesus had to grow both physically and spiritually and in so doing he teaches us, not just in words, but by the example of his own life how we are to grow too.
The act of love made by Jesus, whenever he said the Shema, was made at the precise times that sacrifices were made in the temple. The idea was that this prayer would unite every good Jew with the supreme act of worship which was a physical sacrifice made before God on his altar in the temple. However Jesus had come to change this, because he had come to inaugurate a new form of spiritual worship that he had promised to the Samaritan woman that would supersede the old. It did not involve the offering of livestock, or for that matter anything else for it was a new form of worship –‘in spirit and in truth’. What God really wanted was the offering of ourselves, ‘with a pure and humble heart’.
Everyone in the Gospels went to the temple to offer sacrifice, from Mary and Joseph to the twelve apostles, but ‘although Jesus went into the temple to teach to preach and to pray, there is no evidence that he ever made any physical sacrifice like the rest of the Jews. Why? Because the offering that he made of himself to his Father, when he prayed ‘the Shema’, was more than enough, especially as he spent the rest of his time trying to put that offering into practice through all he said and did each day. When he did this, what happened to him was what he promised would happen to his disciples at the Last Supper. If they kept the new commandments to love God, as he did, and to love their neighbour as he did too, then something never dreamt of before would happen. He, with his Father, would come to make his home within them bursting with the uncreated life and love which is the Holy Spirit. It was in this way that Jesus became incarnate again, made flesh and blood in those first Christians, enabling them to transform a pagan Empire into a Christian Empire in such a short space of time.
During the Second World War enemy bombs had completely obliterated a Catholic church that was nevertheless re-built in a matter of months. The statue of the Risen Christ was found in the ruin minus arms and legs. When the parishioners offered to pay for a new one the Parish priest declined their generosity. Instead he placed the remains of the mutilated statue in the apse of the new church. It was to remind his parishioners that now they were to be Christ’s arms and legs, taking the Gospel that he had both preached and practised into the world through them. It was a lesson that our early forbears didn’t need to learn. The daily prayer that they had learnt from Jesus and from the practice of the first Judeo-Christians, had enabled Christ to be made flesh again in them and through them, to continue to do the work that he had already begun.
The majority of us cannot go to church to pray three times a day, but we can do something that we were once taught to do as children and have sadly forgotten. Namely to return to the Morning Offering which can do for you what the Shema did for Jesus and his first followers. It can be made first thing in the morning on getting out of bed or even before getting out of bed. The essence of this prayer is to make our commitment to the first of the new commandments, by pledging to love God with our whole heart and mind, with our whole body and with our whole strength, by the way in which we offer the forthcoming day. And to do this in with and through Jesus, who has promised to make his home within us. However this prayer, which I will discuss in more detail later, is not a magic formula. If it is to persist throughout the day it must be sustained, by further prayer.
When the faithful decided to erect steeples on some of the gothic Cathedrals to symbolise the prayer of Christ rising heavenward, with our prayer interwoven with his, expert masons had to be employed. The original building had not been built to support these new steeples, so new foundations had to be laid to underpin the old ones, pillars had to be reinforced and further flying buttresses had to be installed else the steeple would fail and fall away. It is exactly the same with our Morning Offering. It must be sustained throughout the forthcoming day to support our love of God, enabling us to make the new offering ‘in spirit and in truth’ that Jesus had promised to the Samaritan woman. If we do not do this, as Jesus did, then it too will fail and fall away as we all too readily know from our own past experience. But if we do, then it will not only change our day, but it will change us too into the living image and likeness of the man we have been inspired to follow.