My little book ‘How to Pray’ had been commissioned by a Carmelite publishing house in Prague, as part of a pocket book series concentrating on different aspects of spirituality? I was delighted when it won the prize for the best spiritual book of 2004, and was then translated into twelve foreign languages. When I went to Prague to receive it I was asked to give a lecture on prayer. I was more than half way through it when I was interrupted by a rather angry looking parish priest. He was angry because there had been no mention of the Mass, It was difficult for me to answer, because he did not understand English, so I asked the interpreter to read out the words of the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, who I had quoted at the beginning of the book. The words were these: – ‘The Mass should so form us that the whole of our lives become the Mass, the place where we continually offer ourselves to the Father’. This quotation not only summed what my little book had been written to achieve, but the much bigger book that I am working on at the moment –‘How to Pray the Christian way’.
When I decided to embark on a study of the spirituality known and practised by our first Christian forbears, I turned to the Fathers of the Church in the second and third centuries. However I soon realised that I had to go back to apostolic times in the first century Then I realized that I had to go back further still to study the spirituality of the Jewish community into which Jesus was born, the spirituality that had been practised by Mary and Joseph and taught to ‘their son’ in Nazareth.
The Jewish religion is at source a domestic religion that, like charity, begins at home. It was here that in addition to prayers before going to bed and on rising in the morning, Jesus first heard the famous Berakah, a prayer that was said at every meal time. It is very difficult to translate the meaning of this prayer, because it is so pithy and pregnant with so much meaning that no single word can do it justice. It means thanks, praise, blessing, and giving glory to God and much more, all embodied in a single prayer. It was not only addressed to God for the food and drink that was on the table, but for the land from which the food and drink had been harvested. It was this land that had been given to them through Moses after their miraculous escape from Egypt. The shorter form of this prayer would be said daily by the father of the family or the one who took his place when a child grew up and attached himself to a Rabbi, who would preside in his stead. On major feasts like the feast of the Passover, celebrating how God had intervened to free them from their Egyptian slave masters, this prayer would be far more solemn and include so much that could not be included in the daily Berakah said at ordinary meals.
There could be only one response to the daily reminder of God’s love for his people and that was to return his love in kind. They did this in another prayer called the Shema. This prayer embodied within it their total commitment to love God in return, with their whole hearts and minds, with their whole soul and with their whole beings, as they had been commanded to do, as the first and greatest of all the commandments by the Torah (Deut 6:5). This prayer was said three times each day in the synagogue at the third, the sixth, and the ninth hour. If for whatever reason a good Jew was prevented from doing this then at those same times he would stop his work, his journey, or rise from his sick bed to say the prayer that was meant to dedicate every moment of every day to God. All this was in addition to Tuesdays and Thursdays when a more formal service was celebrated with prayers and readings from the Old Testament when the Shema would be recited together. This service was later to form the basis for the first part of the Mass, as we know it today.
The times set aside for the recitation of the daily Shema were not arbitrary, for it was at these times that the sacrifices were being made in the Temple at Jerusalem. The offering of themselves to God at these times each day, was a reminder that they were making their offering with the whole of the Jewish community, with whom they shared their common faith in the same God, to whom they were travelling, as to their ultimate destiny. When they were blessed with the opportunity of going to the Temple in Jerusalem their prayers were made tangible in the material offerings that they made on the altar, offered for them by one of the priests.
Although we know for certain that Jesus prayed the Berakah and the Shema personally with his parents while he was growing up, there is no evidence that he personally offered sacrifices in the temple, and for one important reason. The sacrifice that he had come to make was not of lambs, or of sheep, or of oxen or of anything else for that matter. He had come to offer himself. He embodied within himself the new temple, the new form of priesthood, and the new form of sacrifice that he would bequeath to his disciples. While he was with them they prayed with him, but after the sending of the Holy Spirit they prayed not only with him but in him too, and through him in such a way that they could pray as none of their greatest forefathers had been able to pray before. Now they were able to understand for the first time the meaning of the new worship in spirit and truth that Jesus had promised to the Samaritan woman. Like Jesus they no longer needed to go to the temple to offer material sacrifices, because the sacrifice that God wanted now was nothing other than themselves, and, as nobody else could do this for them, they were, each one of them, priests. Now they were able to make the only offering that God wanted, and make it in such a way that He could receive it, because it was made in with and through His Son Jesus, the one and only high priest.
When the first Jewish Christians were excluded from the synagogues, they still said the Shema. Furthermore, if they were excluded from family meals that they once enjoyed before, they said the Berakah in their new Christian families when they met in each other’s houses. However in future they always ended these prayers with the words, ‘In with and through Jesus Christ,’ who was, as He had promised, with them always. -‘Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, then I am in your midst’ (Mathew 18:20). Notice that the measure in which the first Christian’s gave to God each Sunday determined the measure of the grace that He was able gave to them in return. Then this grace suffused their prayers and their good works making every moment of every day, the Mass, the place where they continually offered themselves to God, through Jesus, in whom they lived and moved and had their very being.