Thursday, October 22

Repetitious Prayer and Traditions

One of the most common things I hear concerning the High Churches - Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, some Methodist and what have you - is the charge, “you follow man-made traditions.” Yet the irony is that we all do. If someone sneezes, we say “Bless you!” Why? Because the Pope in the AD 500s declared that, because of the plague, when people started sneezing you must bless them (it was the first signs that someone had the plague). By AD 750 it became commonplace to say “Bless you” or “God Bless You” when someone sneezes, and by the Middle Ages, people said it because they believed their souls jumped out of their body and if they were not blessed, a demon could enter in. But yet, if I sneeze in public, most people - without knowing where the phrase historically arises from - will say ‘Bless you!” This is a simplistic example, but one example of how a religious tradition has become so ingrained in our culture that we do not even realize it.

Others still celebrate many “man-made traditions.” For example, it was Catholics who began the celebration of Christmas (Christ-MASS), Easter, St. Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day (note - Saint), and others. The word “Bible” is a tradition. The titles of the books of the Bible are a tradition - as are the authors (the Gospels do not say that they were written by Matthew, John Mark, Dr. Luke or John, but part of tradition). The chapter and verse divisions are man made traditions from the Middle Ages. Indeed, even the word “Trinity” was man-made and was formulated by a Catholic - Tertullian, in AD 200. Even the word “Rapture” often used in Protestantism is a tradition - it is not found in Scripture.

Another is a common form of prayer. The way that the earliest Christians are depicted in artwork as praying is with their arms outstretched to heaven. This form of prayer is called the orans, from a Medieval Latin phrase meaning "one who is praying."1 This also comes directly from ancient Jewish practice, found throughout the Scriptural corpus.2 However, during the Medieval period, we had lords, pages, barons, slaves, serfs, and so forth - the height of the Feudalistic system. Picture, then, this scenario: when a servant wanted to come and beg for land, he would go to the lord, get on his knees and clasp his hands together. Christians started praying like this in Church, as they felt this was a sign of submission, so today, we find Christians of all denominations clasping their hands together or folding their hands as the common form of prayer - yet this was a later tradition, not the ancient form of prayer.

Now, bearing in mind that we gave certain practices that are later traditions ingrained in our culture, we turn to one of the charges often leveled against the Church. It concerns vain or repetitious prayer, the claim being that the Scriptures condemn such religious practices. Yet in Matthew 26:44, for example, Jesus "prayed a third time" in the garden of Gethsemane, saying the exact same words again. It is not the repetition that is the issue, it is the vanity of the prayer. God looks into our heart, not solely at our words. We see this again in Revelation 4:8, where the angels pray day and night without ceasing, the same words "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty." This is repetitious prayer that is pleasing to God. Then in Psalm 136, the phrase "For His steadfast love endures forever" is more repetitious than any Catholic prayer, and it is in the Scriptures. In Daniel 3:35-66 - the phrase "Bless the Lord" is similarly offered repeatedly, and it parallels Catholic litanies.

With this in mind, here is what I mean about repetition: if I say "I love you" to my mother, does that mean that because it is a repeated phrase, I mean it any less? Of course not! No more than if we say "Alleluia!", "Praise the Lord!" or "Amen!" at normal Sunday service in all the denominations. If I was a religious sociologist looking at a non-denominational church, for example, as opposed to a high liturgical church, this is what I would find - religious practices of prayer, praise and worship, a homily (interpretation of the Scriptures), the Eucharist/Communion - the Institution Narrative ("On the night that Christ was betrayed..."), and so forth. These are looked at as religious practices. So although it is relationship, it contains a religious element.

As a final point to this, consider the repetition of doxologies in Scripture itself. A doxology is a short hymn of praise to God (doxa - meaning "to give glory"). It is quite common in the New Testament, and is found in some forms in the Hebrew Bible as well as other early Jewish and Christian literature. Consider the following selection, and note the repeated phrases:
  • Romans 11:36 - “To him be the glory forever! Amen.” 
  • Romans 16:27 - “to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen.”
  • Ephesians 3:21 - “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
  • Galatians 1:5 - “to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
  • 1st Timothy 1:17 - “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
  • Hebrews 13:21 - “through Jesus Christ to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
  • 1st Peter 4:11 - “through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
  • Jude 25 - “to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.”
When the Catholic Church, for example, used repetitious prayers, phrases and carried on traditions, it was simply continuing what Jews and Christians had been doing for a very long time. For example, one of our earliest church manuals, the Didache (AD 75-150) commands believers to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. This was when the New Testament was still being written, which is an important factor to consider. Further, although they did indeed have personal prayer, there was also communal prayer, ritual prayer and others. The ancient concept of prayer is much broader than it is in many American churches today. Therefore, when we engage others in an inter-denominational or an inter-faith dialogue, be mindful that each of us has traditions whether or not we are conscious of it, and each of us following the Christian faith are within a living and vibrant tradition which continues to grow, shift, and move in incredibly interesting ways. The history of Christian prayer - deserving of several volumes - is one such example, and one to be mindful of moving forward.

[1] "Orans". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. Print.
[2] See Exodus 17:11; Deuteronomy 32:40; 1st Kings 8:22, 54; 2nd Chronicles 6:12-13; Nehemiah 8:6; Psalm 28:2, 119:48; Ezra 9:5; Lamentations 2:19; Luke 24:50; 1st Timothy 2:8-10. This is the common form of prayer in which priests lift up their hands during the Eucharistic liturgy or while praying the Our Father. 

No comments:

Post a Comment