Saturday, November 21, 2009

Can a Catholic Christian Pray Like a Jew? – Part I

Folks, after several false stars, we continue now with our exploration of Jewish and Christian themes with an examination of Christian and Jewish similarities, differences, convergences and divergences on the subject of prayer. I found the subject matter vast, fascinating, but somewhat complicated. I apologize because this brief study will hardly do any justice to the subject but I hope it will serve as a starting point for further, deeper study and reflection on this matter. Also, please, note that I had to further subdivide this subject into three posts. Otherwise it would’ve become long, boring, and unwieldy. I expect to consolidate all three parts into a single PDF file at the completion of Part III.

At first I thought that the significant differences between Judaism and Christianity –the ones pretty much known to us all–would make me gravitate toward a negative answer to the question, something that went against my initial expectations. Nevertheless, in view of the evidence, my answer to the question “Can a Catholic Christian pray like a Jew” is a qualified “yes.” A Christian in general, and a Catholic in particular, can pray like a Jew, albeit a first century Jew, inasmuch as we pray like and in Jesus. Yet Jesus’ presence in the praying Catholic Christian is not a mere memory of someone who existed once in the past but who is only available to us through holy writings, but a living, breathing presence indwelling in us, who both prays in us and moulds us to pray like Him. In this sense, a Catholic prays like a Jew “all the time”. The reality of “praying like a Jew” is present in each one of us through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

On the other hand, since modern Judaism represents an independent, parallel development from first century Judaism along with Christianity, and inasmuch as modern Jews maintain a liturgical prayer rule similar to that of Catholics, it can be said that today’s Christians and Jews do pray to the One God in very similar ways and that therefore, in this narrow sense, Christians can and many times do pray like Jews of the present day. But this relationship with modern Judaism is one of similarity and not of identity, and, the opposite is not true, however: Jews cannot and do not pray like Christians because they are unable or unwilling to pray in Jesus’ Name. Let us begin a brief thematic exploration of the question.

Themes in Jewish and Christian Prayer Convergence

Theme #1: Jesus is the Gate for Christian/Jewish Prayer

Public and private prayer was central in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Pious Jews of the time prayed in their homes, synagogues, and in the Temple. Jesus prayed like a Jew and did likewise. He was a Jew, his earthly parents and immediate family were Jews so he couldn’t help but to pray like a Jew. If he was to be intelligible to those around him, he had to pray like a Jew.

Yet, Jesus didn’t pray like any Jew. He dared to call God “Father” in terms of a special, unique, and exclusive intimacy that went beyond the purposes and meaning of “Father” in the normative Jewish prayer of his time.

Prayer was a core activity of Jesus and is always portrayed in exemplary terms in the Gospels. These instances speak to me with particular intensity:

· But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. – Luke 5:16

· One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. – Luke 6:12

· Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say I am?" – Luke 9:18

This last one intrigues me. How can he be “praying in private” where it is obvious that he wasn’t alone? Because his attitude and demeanor showed to the disciples that Jesus was always in a state of constant dialogue with God, whom he called “Father” in his special, incommunicable way.

The God that Jesus revealed to us and who He called “Father” was ­–and is– the God of Israel. Jesus declared himself as “someone greater than the Temple” (Matthew 12:6). Jesus is now the Temple, the personal point of encounter between the God of Israel and his people. In Him we now pray as in the Temple.

Theme #2: The Psalms the Steps to the Door of Jewish/Christian Prayers

The Psalms are quoted more in the New Testament than any other book. Those of us who pray the Liturgy of the Hours pray the traditional prayers of Israel every day in a 4-week cycle: the Psalms. Those of us who pray the Psalms pray like Jews – those of the past and those of our present day. As we pray with the Psalms we submerge ourselves in the entire spectrum of the faith of Israel. The Psalms were ­­­–and continue to be– an integral part of the Temple and Synagogue liturgies. Jesus prayed the Psalms all the way to the Cross. When we pray the Psalms, we’re using Jesus’ own prayer book.

If Jesus is the Door through which we encounter the God of Israel, then the Psalms are like the steps leading to the Door. Moreover, if we pray the Psalms with their primary, literal sense in mind and without allegorizing them initially, then we are appropriating the very feelings and aspirations of pious Israelites and their descendants to this day. A case in point out of a great many examples is the closing verses of the penitential Psalm per excellence, Psalm 51, the Miserere (Psalm 51:18-19):

Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure

Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,

Then will Thou delight in right sacrifices,

In burnt offering and whole burnt offerings;

Then bulls will be offered in Thy altar. (RSV-CE)

Scholars tells us these canonical and inspired verses were added by a redactor-editor who wrote them during the Babylonian Captivity and who could not bear see the original Psalm end with such a negative view of temple sacrifices. Yet we can see in the Psalm itself a movement away from material, animal sacrifices in favor of a more personal, more spiritual manner of worship.

The literal sense of these verses shows the redactor-editor’s fervent wish for the end of the Babylonian Exile and for the Judahite remnant’s return to Jerusalem from Babylon. It also stated the writer’s wishes to see its walls and the Temple rebuilt, and for the sacrificial worship of God to resume. This was the holy writer’s original, immediate concern.

Afterwards, these verses remained in the Psalm as a testimony to answered prayer. The verses regained their urgency after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and remain a current expectation for many Jews to this day.

These verses are then, “crisis verses” and we can readily see how easy it is to allegorize them into a Christian context to respond to a variety of situations: the Barbarian and Saracen invasions, the Western Church’s own “Babylonian Captivity” and Great Schism in the Middle Ages; the Protestant revolt and the religious wars all come to mind as new contexts for the prayer of these verses. In its Christian interpretation Jerusalem and Zion become “the Church” and the animal sacrifices are seen as “types” of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Spiritualized this way, the full Psalm reforms into a continuum of repentance, penance, forgiveness, and hope for restoration that is shared alike by Jews and Christians throughout all ages. We both meet in this Psalm albeit for different reasons, but with a common, shared prayerful expectation of redemption and restoration.

Similar “convergences” of Christian and Jewish aspirations occur in many other Psalms, all made possible by the original, literal sense set down by the Israelite holy writer.

Theme #3: The Gospel Canticles and the Our Father as Jewish Prayer for Christians

Also prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours we find the so-called “Gospel Canticles” known as the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79), the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and the Nunc Dimitis (Luke 2: 29-32), prayed at Morning, Evening, and Night prayers respectively. Their structure, themes, and rhythm track closely after that of the Psalms. Their main referent is the history of Israel, its election, the messianic expectation, and the hope for the integration of the Gentiles into Israel’s election, along with the hope, now seen fulfilled, of a new birth of justice and righteousness in the land. There’s no mention yet of the advent of the Church, the ekklesia, the new qahal or assembly of the New Israel; that remains in the future, to be told by St. Luke himself in his the Acts of the Apostles.

The Our Father is the Christian prayer par excellence and yet it’s replete with Jewish themes: the sanctification of God’s name – not mentioned in the prayer out of a very Jewish reluctance to pronounce the Name – the expectation of a Kingdom already dawning; the abandonment to God’s will; the petition for sustenance both for the body and for the soul; the forgiveness of our sins now as we now forgive others who sinned against us; the petition to avoid temptation and the deliverance from the evil one – from personified evil, not merely from moral evil – are themes that, experts tell us, could only be appreciated in the original languages that the prayer was said, in Aramaic and perhaps in Hebrew. The Our Father is written in the present tense, its imprecations are really an affirmation of a present realization.

Of course, we can’t forget our new relationship with the God of Israel clearly declared in this prayer reflected in the title Father. And although this appellation was known in various currents of Judaism at the time of Jesus, the twist Jesus gave it was unique, and meant to be as a mysterious sharing in Jesus’ own unique divine sonship. In Him, with Him, and through Him – as the priest declares at Mass when offering the consecrated gifts – we have been made participants of the “sonship” that, up to that moment, was the unique privilege of the people of Israel.

It is no coincidence, then, that the aforementioned “pillars of prayer” found in the New Testament and so minutely detailed by St. Luke all possess this sharp Jewish flavor. For these prayers are no mere “memorials” of mighty deeds but function almost in a sacramental fashion, making present the saving deeds by their mere recitation of the prophetic narrative. In this manner, these canticles and prayers echo the Paschal anamnesis or “reenactment” first recorded in the Paschal narrative found in Exodus, then in the institution of the Eucharist found in the Gospel, and then in our Liturgies in which the saving power of the Israel’s God is made present again in words and action. It should not surprise us, then, that the core prayers, narratives, and aspirations found in the New Testament are also the most “Jewish” and through them, we Catholics are at our most “Jewish.”

In the next Part we will discuss some of the divergences between Jewish and Christian modes of prayer.

Continue to Part II