The Prayer of Manasseh

This is the 5th post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51.  The previous post is David the Image of Repentance.

The 51st Psalm presents us with a particular vision of repentance which I believe is reflected in the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.  This understanding of repentance does not demand that we think of ourselves as vile, worthless worms wallowing in the mire.   Nor does it envision us as being angels in the flesh.  Rather it views us as being human – created in God’s image and likeness, created to have dominion over creation, created to be united to divinity and share in the divine love and life.  We are created to be the temple in which God dwells on earth.   Yet, we also have free will which means we are not automatons who are programmed to do what God wants.  Rather, we have to choose to do God’s will if we want.  We are conscious beings who can realize our willful disobedience to God as well as our mistakes.

Psalm 51 as a prayer of repentance shows us to acknowledge our sins and errors, to “man up” as it were and own our behavior, admitting to God when we are wrong.  We have the example in Adam and Eve of what not to do when we sin (Genesis 3).   For they failed to admit to their wrong doing and tried to place blame outside of themselves.   King David, on the other hand, shows himself to be every bit the sinner that Adam was, yet he places himself before God, the merciful judge, and trusts himself to whatever God decides.   David does not despair, deny God or his sinfulness, engage in self-pity, think everything is inconsequential, become nihilistic, or spiral out of control.   Instead, David despite his personal failings continues to recognize the Lordship of God.  David sees his own behavior as of limited value and consequence, still occurring within the confines of God’s universe.  So though he is God’s chosen king, he recognizes his choices are not always right and he still has to answer to the Lord.  Repentance consists of understanding this right relationship with God, with creation and the rest of humanity.  Repentance is a course correction, right-sizing, recalculation, re-evaluation, self-examination in which one recognizefs God’s rightful lordship and one’s own servant role even if one is emperor.  In praying Psalm 51, we are recognizing our need for God to be God and to do everything in our life that we need God to do for us to be rightfully human.

There is another prayer of repentance in Orthodoxy that is similar in content and structure to Psalm 51 which can be found in many Orthodox prayer books and in the compline service.   It is a prayer of repentance of the King of Judah Manasseh mentioned in 2 Chronicles 33 which describes an incident in the 7th Century BC.  “During his distress, Manasseh made peace with the Lord his God, truly submitting himself to the God of his ancestors.  He prayed, and God was moved by his request. God listened to Manasseh’s prayer and restored him to his rule in Jerusalem. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was the true God” (vs 12-13).  As with King David’s sin and Psalm 51, repentance for Manasseh yields a restored and right relationship with God.  The focus is not on Manasseh’s remorse and regret but on his submitting to the Lordship of God.  However, scholars think the prayer itself comes from the 2nd Century BC since it is not found in the ancient Jewish texts.   The prayer begins:

Lord Almighty, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their righteous children, you made heaven and earth with all their beauty.  You set limits for the sea by speaking your command.  You closed the bottomless pit, and sealed it by your powerful and glorious name.  All things fear you and tremble in your presence, because no one can endure the brightness of your glory.  No one can resist the fury of your threat against sinners. But your promised mercies are beyond measure and imagination, because you are the highest, Lord, kind, patient, and merciful, and you feel sorry over human troubles.  You, Lord, according to your gentle grace, promised forgiveness to those who are sorry for their sins.  In your great mercy, you allowed sinners to turn from their sins and find salvation.

As with many Orthodox liturgical prayers, the opening of Manasseh’s prayer speaks only of God and all that God has done or is doing.  The purpose of this opening is to establish the Lordship of God – it tells us to whom we are praying and why we recognize this God as our Lord.  Then the prayer continues:

Therefore, Lord, God of those who do what is right, you didn’t offer Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who didn’t sin against you, a chance to change their hearts and lives.  But you offer me, the sinner, the chance to change my heart and life, because my sins outnumbered the grains of sand by the sea.  My sins are many, Lord; they are many. I am not worthy to look up, to gaze into heaven because of my many sins.  Now, Lord, I suffer justly. I deserve the troubles I encounter. Already I’m caught in a trap.   I’m held down by iron chains so that I can’t lift up my head because of my sins.  There’s no relief for me, because I made you angry, doing wrong in front of your face, setting up false gods and committing offenses.

Manasseh’s prayer, more than Psalm 51, accepts the notion that “I” being a sinner am unworthy of my title of being human.  It acknowledges that sin is very powerful in this world, and that “I” have not resisted its power.   This prayer more openly accepts that since God is the Lord, “I” deserve judgment and all that is happening around me is related to or effected by my sin.  Whereas Psalm 51 only speaks of the mercy of God, Manasseh sees God’s anger and accepts it as a just reaction to his behavior.

 Now I bow down before you from deep within my heart, begging for your kindness.  I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned, and I know the laws I’ve broken.
I’m praying, begging you:
Forgive me, Lord, forgive me. Don’t destroy me along with my sins. Don’t keep my bad deeds in your memory forever. Don’t sentence me to the earth’s depths, for you, Lord, are the God of those who turn from their sins.  In me you’ll show how kind you are.  Although I’m not worthy, you’ll save me according to your great mercy.  I will praise you continuously all the days of my life, because all of heaven’s forces praise you, and the glory is yours forever and always. Amen.

The conclusion of Manasseh’s prayer is more in line with Psalm 51, though expressing things more in the negative.  Manasseh tells God what he needs God to do: forgive me, don’t destroy me (but do destroy my sins!), don’t remember my sins forever, don’t condemn me.  Manasseh has hope that God will show kindness and save him.  His response, like David’s, will be to praise God.  Repentance leads to praise not just to self-denigration.  If one repents one spends the remaining time of one’s life giving glory and praise to God.  Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanks to God and praise God for all the blessings God’s bestows upon us.  This is true repentance – not remorse and regret, but thanksgiving and praise of God.

St. Maximos the Confessor expresses this same truth:

 “Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.  Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

Next:  What does God Ask of Us?

For the Peace of the Whole World

The first three petitions of the Orthodox great litany have a common theme:

In peace, let us pray to the Lord.

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls…

For the peace of the whole world…

Biblical scholar Michael Gorman comments:

the peace of the church is not merely for insiders, for life within the body of Christ; its inner life spirals out into the world. Paul already makes this centrifugal dimension of the church peace clear early in his writing career when he urges the Thessalonian believers to practice peacemaking (1 Thess. 5:13b) by “not repay[ing] evil for evil” and by “do[ing] good to one another and to all” (1 Thess. 5:15), which reemphasizes the prayer of 3:12: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”  (Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, Kindle  4097-4101)

It was the heavenly hosts who announced to the world that the coming of the Messiah meant peace – between God and humanity:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”  (Luke 2:13-14)

As others have pointed out, Jesus  in the Beatitudes said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not the peace lovers.  Our task is not merely to love peace, but to make it.  We pray for peace for the world, and agree to be those who make it happen.

The Eucharist: Power to Make Divine

Writing in the 2nd Century, St Justin Martyr (d. 165AD) describes the Liturgy with which he was familiar.  We can see in his description of the Liturgy common elements with how the Liturgy is still being celebrated today in the Orthodox Church.  He also emphasizes at the beginning that in the Liturgy the Christians are praying for everyone in the world, not just for Christians.  Christianity saw itself as a light to the world, not a light for Christians only.  They were the salt of the earth, not to be kept isolated and pure in a salt shaker, but being part of the world – the entirety of which Christ came to save.

We pray in common, for ourselves and for everyone…to attain to the knowledge of truth and grace…to keep the commandments…When the prayers are over we give one another the kiss of peace. Next, bread and a cup of wine mixed with water are brought to the president of the assembly of the brethren. He takes them, praises and glorifies the Father of the universe in the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit, then he utters a long eucharistic prayer as a thanksgiving for having been judged worthy of these blessings.

When he has finished the intercessions and the eucharistic prayer all the people present exclaim Amen. Amen is the Hebrew word meaning “So be it”. When the president has finished the thanksgiving and all the people have responded, the ministers whom we call deacons distribute the consecrated bread and wine to all who are present and they take some to those who are absent.

(from Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 107)

Holy Communion and the Forgiveness of Sins

“It is important to realize how significant this was for Jesus and his contemporaries. For the oriental, table-fellowship was a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood; it meant in a very real sense a sharing of one’s life. Thus, table-fellowship with tax collectors and sinners was Jesus’ way of proclaiming God’s salvation and assurance of forgiveness, even for those debarred from the cult. This was why his religious contemporaries were scandalized by the freedom of Jesus’ associations (Mark 2.16; Luke 15.2) – the pious could have table-fellowship only with the righteous.

But Jesus’ table-fellowship was marked by openness, not by exclusiveness. That is to say, Jesus’ fellowship meals were invitations to grace, not cultic rituals for an inner group which marked them off from their fellows …”

(James G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p. 176-177)

The Blessedness of the Parish

“Let the chief pastor weave together his homilies like flowers,

let the priests make a garland of their ministry,

the deacons of their reading,

strong men of their jubilant shouts, children of their psalms,

chaste women of their songs, chief citizens of their benefactions,

ordinary folk of their manner of life. 

Blessed is He who gave us so many opportunities for good!

Let us summon and invite the saints, 

the martyrs, apostles and prophets, 

whose own blossoms and flowers shine out like themselves – 

such a wealth of roses they have, so fragrant are their lilies:

from the Garden of Delights do they pluck them,

and they bring back fair bunches

to crown our beautiful feast. 

O praise to You form the [saints who are] blessed!

(St. Ephrem the Syrian, Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Poems, p. 177)

Living the Creed

“And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.’

This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him.”

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 201)

There is no Christian: There are Christians

Cyprian appropriately commented:

‘Before all things the teacher of peace and the master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not “My Father, which art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my daily bread,” nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one.’ 

...Prayer is not efficacious unless the members of the community are reconciled to each other. One thinks in this connection of Matt. 5:21-26, where the religious act of sacrifice is to be put off until one is reconciled to a brother or sister. The “kiss of peace” in the traditional liturgies, a sign of reconciliation preceding communion, has been a traditional expression of this idea that religious acts without concord with others are done in vain (cf. Cyril of Jerusalem). One recalls Didache 14.2: ‘But let not anyone having a dispute with a fellow be allowed to join you (in the assembly) until they are reconciled, so that your sacrifice not be defiled.’”

(from Dale C. Allision, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 118)

The Liturgy: Another Love One Another

Bill interjected, “I don’t go to church to relate with others, I go to receive the sacrament. Receiving Christ feeds my prayer life, makes me feel closer to him. It helps me to keep up my devotions throughout the week.”

“I think part of the reason you say this, Bill, is that you’re missing a crucial dimension of what the eucharist is about,” Father answered. “The Liturgy is not a ‘me and Jesus’ phenomenon. The eucharist ushers in the kingdom of God and makes us its citizens. Here we willingly enter into a relationship with God and with each other through the command of Christ and his mediation. This transcends and supersedes every separation and division – a challenge for us all, for Christ says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Isn’t it remarkable that we come mostly truly who we are by giving ourselves entirely to others! That’s the only way we can become most fully ourselves. The sacraments feed our union and make it visible in the assembly where we partake of them.

Many of us still don’t understand that this worship is more than just ‘me and Jesus’; after all, no one can ‘muster up’ the eucharist alone; it’s interpersonal, ‘we together’ who are shown how expansive the mystery of Christ is. Again, it’s beyond anything we could achieve alone.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 233)

The Eucharist: Food for the Spiritual Battle

Holy Communion is the fulfillment of all our efforts, the goal toward which we strive, the ultimate joy of our Christian life, it is also and of necessity the source and beginning of our spiritual effort itself, the divine gift which makes it possible for us to know, to desire, and to strive for a “more perfect communion in the day without evening” of God’s Kingdom. For the Kingdom, although it has come, although it comes in the Church, is yet to be fulfilled and consummated at the end of time when God will fill all things with Himself. We know it, and we partake of it in anticipation; we partake now of the Kingdom which is still to come. We foresee and foretaste its glory and its blessedness but we are still on earth, and our entire earthly existence is thus a long and often painful journey toward the ultimate Lord’s Day.

On this journey we need help and support, strength and comfort, for the “Prince of this world” has not yet surrendered; on the contrary, knowing his defeat by Christ, he stages a last and violent battle against God to tear away from Him as many as possible. So difficult is this fight, so powerful the “gates of Hades,” that Christ Himself tells us about the “narrow way” and the few that are capable of following it. And in this fight, our main help is precisely the Body and Blood of Christ, that “essential food” which keeps us spiritually alive and, in spite of all temptations and dangers, makes us Christ’s followers.

(Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p. 47-48)

Visions of the Liturgy: Old (Testament) and New (Children)

But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Luke 18:16-17)

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)

While Jesus taught that we have to become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God, through history theological reflection tended not to see the Kingdom from a child’s point of view.  Theology made ideas of the Kingdom ever more complex.  Even the Liturgy which is to reflect the Kingdom was not understood from the point of view of the child but became increasingly complex with layers of meaning that no child could even see let alone understand.  The Liturgy seems not to have been developed with the child in mind, and today many people do not appreciate children in the Liturgy because they are noisy, distracting, disruptive while they want an experience free of childlike behavior.   And yet we cannot enter that Kingdom unless we become like a child for the Kingdom and the Liturgy which reflects it are not the constructs of theologians, scholars, mystics and the highly educated experts, but are the revelation of and from God for those who can be children.

The late great liturgical scholar Robert Taft summarized the Orthodox Liturgy this way:

“In the cosmic or hierarchical scheme, church and ritual are an image of the present age of the Church, in which divine grace is mediated to those in the world (nave) from the divine abode (sanctuary) and its heavenly worship (the liturgy enacted there), which in turn images forth its future consummation (eschatological), when we shall enter that abode in Glory.  Symeon of Thessalonika (d. 1429), last of the classic Byzantine mystagogues, has synthesized this vision in chapter 131 of his treatise ON THE HOLY TEMPLE:

The church, is the house of God, is an image of the whole world, for God is every where and above everything.   .  .  .  The sanctuary is a symbol of the higher and super-celestial spheres, where the throne of God and his dwelling place are said to be.  it is this throne which the altar represents. … The bishop represents Christ, the church [nave] represents the visible world.  .  .  .

I mention the apostles with the angels, bishops and priests, because there is only one Church, above and below, since God came down and lived among us, doing  what he was sent to do on our behalf.  And it is a work which is one, as is our Lord’s sacrifice, communion, and contemplation.  And it is carried out both above and here below, but with this difference: above it is done without any veils or symbols, butt here it is accomplished through symbols. . . .

In the economic on anamnetic scheme, the sanctuary with its altar is at once: the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle decreed by Moses; the Cenacle of the Last Supper; Golgotha of the crucifixion; and the Holy Sepulchre of the resurrection, from which the sacred gifts of the Risen Lord — His Word and His body and blood — issue forth to illumine the sin-darkened world.     . . .

In the iconography and liturgy of the church, this twofold vision assumes visible and dynamic form.  From the central dome the image of the Pantocrator dominates the whole scheme, giving unity to the hierarchical and economic themes.  The movement of the hierarchical theme is vertical: ascending from the present, worshiping community assembled in the nave, up through the ranks of the saints, prophets, patriarchs, and apostles, to the Lord in the heavens attended by the angelic choirs.  The economic or ‘salvation-history’ system, extending outwards and upwards from the sanctuary, is united both artistically and theologically with the hierarchical. ”  (THE BYZANTINE RITE: A SHORT HISTORY, pp 69-70)

The Liturgy and the Church are about ranks of bishops, apostles, angels, priests, saints, prophets and patriarchs.   What is missing?  Children.  We cannot enter the Kingdom without them or without being one of them.   We don’t have to have a seminary degree to understand the Liturgy.  We need the eyes of a child.  If the received Tradition forgets that, it has forgotten a key to the Kingdom.  We can do the Liturgy perfectly rubrically correct, according to the Typikon, with every ritual required.   We still need to have the heart of a child to enter the Kingdom.

It also is interesting that the received Tradition turned to and returned to the Old Testament for its liturgical meaning, rites and symbols rather than exploring themes suggested by the Gospel.   In the Old Testament, we understand, everything was in shadows and symbols:  “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities…”  (Hebrews 10:1)   Christ came and revealed the Light opening Paradise to us, opening our hearts and minds and eyes to see clearly no longer in shadows: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  (Matthew 4:16)   But now according to Taft’s description it is the nave of the church and the non-clergy who live in the world of symbols (the shadowy world of the Old Testament!).  It is all that the Church permits for the non-clergy.    Behind the icon wall, reserved for the clergy is the Kingdom opened.  The Gospel, however, proclaims that we no longer sit in darkness or in shadows for the Light has come.   There is another effect of this return to the shadows of the Old Testament – the hierarchy serves to further distance the Savior from the people He saved!  It is moving away from Christ who ended all of the dividing walls and opened Paradise to all.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.  (Ephesians 2:14-22)