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?

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 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)

Communion: Partaking of God

That of which we partake is not something of His, but Himself. It is not some ray and light which we receive in our souls, but the very orb of the sun. So we dwell in Him and are indwelt and become one spirit with Him. The soul and the body and all their faculties forthwith become spiritual, for our souls, our bodies and blood, are united with His. 

What is the result? The more excellent things overcome the inferior, things divine prevail over the human, and that takes place which Paul says concerning the resurrection, “what is mortal is swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4), and further, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). 

…Out of love for man He received all other things from us, and out of even greater love He joins what is His to us. The first means that God has come down to earth, the second that He has taken us from earth to heaven. So, on the one hand God became incarnate, on the other man has been deified. In the former case mankind as a whole is freed from reproach in that Christ has overcome sin in one body and one soul; in the latter each man individually is released from sin and made acceptable to God, which is an even greater act of love for man. Since is was not possible for us to ascend to Him and participate in that which is His, He came down to us and partook of that which is ours. So perfectly has He coalesced with that which He has taken that He imparts Himself to us by giving us what He has assumed from us. As we partake of His human Body and Blood we receive God Himself into our souls. It is thus God’s Body and Blood which we receive, His soul, mind and will, no less than those of His humanity.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 115-116, 122)

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)

Fellowship Hour in the Ancient Church

Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) commented on what for him was an ancient practice of the Christians sharing a meal together after their Eucharistic celebration.  He saw it as a wonderful opportunity for the wealthy to share with and minister to the poor and needy members of the Christian community.  He presents this as normal and expected behavior for the local parish.

They were in the habit in the churches, in fact, after the eucharistic ritual, of eating in common, rich and poor alike, and from this practice great consolation derived for the needy; the affluent brought provisions from home, and those in the grip of poverty shared in the good cheer on account of their participation in the faith. (Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, p. 205)

Summer Sundays – Coming to Church

As the summer heats up, some Christians might be tempted to skip church for a few Sundays so they can enjoy the summer or just recreate as is often good for us to do (see my post Vacation and Recreation).  Some may think vacation is also a good excuse for skipping church.  It is good for us however to remember why we “go to church” in the first place.

This is why the Church assembles weekly in the Eucharist, not merely to offer petitions, but to remind us that communion with God requires sacrifice. Each Sunday we remember all that the Lord has done for us – “the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming” – and we are moved to eagerly offer everything we have in return, proclaiming, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto you.” (Demetrios S. Katos, “The Foundations of Noetic Prayer”, Thinking Through Faith, p. 64-65)

“Going to church” is offering our life to God and joining all who offer their talents, resources, time and hearts to God.  We enter into communion with our fellow Christians and with our Lord.  We join our sacrifice to His to give thanks to God and to receive the blessings of eternal life.

In Christ and Christ in Us

Commenting on the words of St Paul the Apostle, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”   (1 Corinthians 2:9), St Symeon the New Theologian writes:

Image 1These… eternal good things… which God has prepared for those who love Him, are not protected by heights, nor enclosed in some secret place… They are right in front of you, before your very eyes… [they] are the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which we see every day, and eat, and drink…” (ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, p 112)

What God has prepared for those who love Him, He does not hide but rather freely gives to His servants in a form that we can receive.  Not only does God not hide what He has prepared, but He enters into our lives, into our selves, into our bodies, into our hearts so that we can experience it and be both enlivened and enlightened by it!

The Eucharist is the presence of that same body born of Mary and now, through the Resurrection, entirely ‘spiritualized,’ i.e., moved and quickened by the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament accounts of Christ’s Resurrection tell, after all, of a change, not of a simple resuscitation (1 Cor 15:42-54, John 20:11-19, Luke 24:13-31).”  (Alexander Golitizin, ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, p 115)

Christ enters into us to reveal Himself to us.  It is a revelation which St Symeon says Christ made to him when He said these words to the saint:

“I am the kingdom of God that is hidden in your midst… though by nature I cannot be contained, yet even here below I am contained in you by grace; though I am invisible I become visible… I am the leaven the soul receives… [I am] He who takes the place of the visible Paradise and becomes a spiritual paradise for My servants… I am the sun Who rises in them every hour as in the morning and am seen by the intellect, just as I in times past manifested Myself in the prophets…” (ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, pp 110-111)

The same Son of God who revealed Himself to the prophets, now reveals Himself to us in the Eucharist as well as in the Eucharistic assembly, namely the Body of Christ.

Holy Thursday (2019)

On Holy Thursday we commemorate the the institution of the Mystical Supper of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-32,  Matthew 26:2-27:2).  Now in and through the Eucharist we are able to personally participate in the incarnation of God and to experience our salvation.  We the Christians become the Body of Christ continuing the incarnation throughout time. The Mystical Supper is instituted as part of Christ’s own diaconal service to us all for He first washes the feet of His disciples to give us the example of what salvation is and means.  Salvation is God’s love incarnate not in Christ alone but in and through the Body of Christ. Salvation is not merely that we cease sinning but that we become united to God. We all participate in this salvation and are to incarnate this love in our life and our world.

In sum, the Gospel of John understands the Eucharist not as a mere “cultic” and “sacramental” act, but primarily as a diaconal act and an alternative way of life with apparent social implications. For in those days, the washing of a disciple’s feet was more than an ultimate act of humble services and kenotic diakonia; it was an act of radical social behavior, in fact, a rite of inversion of roles within the society. To this should be added Jesus’ admonition to his disciples and through them to his Church: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). The diaconal implication of the Johannine understanding of the Eucharist becomes quite evident.

It is almost an assured result of modern biblical and liturgical scholarship that the Eucharist was “lived” in the early Christian community as a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. It was experienced as a proleptic manifestation, within the tragic realties of history, of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, entailing no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between men and women. (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Sacred Text and Interpretation, p. 156)

Following the footwashing and the Supper, Christ and the disciples sang a hymn together – believed to be Psalm 118.  

Psalm 118, which is one of the most beautiful psalms in the entire Psalter. It is also one of the most simple….  It goes without saying that all the psalms are important to us. Yet Psalm 118 is especially important, since according to tradition it was the psalm sung by the Lord with His disciples at the Mystical Supper (cf. Mt. 26:30), moments before He handed Himself over for the life of the world. It is, then, a preeminently Eucharistic psalm, a psalm of thanksgiving.”  (Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 300)

Christ prepares Himself and His disciples for the betrayal, arrest and crucifixion by singing a hymn of Thanksgiving with them.  So for us every Divine Liturgy is Eucharistic – a thanksgiving to God for all that God has done and is doing for us and with us. On the very night Jesus is arrested He gives thanks to God as we commemorate every time we serve the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom:

For when He had come and had fulfilled all the plan of salvation for us, in the night in which He was given up – or rather, in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world – He took bread in His holy, pure, and blameless hands; and when He had given thanks and blessed it, and hallowed it, and broken it, He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles, saying:Take! Eat! This is My Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.

Amen.

And likewise, after supper, He took the cup, saying:  “Drink of it all of you! This is My Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.

Amen.

Do this in remembrance of Me! Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the Second and glorious Coming.