This is the third part of my introduction to praying the daily offices. I suppose there will be a fourth part eventually – such is our vocation that God always has more to reveal which can occasion further insight, which can occasion further blog posts. Of the multiplication of words there will be no end. Except maybe for the hesychast. But I am not one of these.
The third part of preparing to pray a prayer office is itself tone-setting. Not surprising, as both of the previous parts were, also. But where the first that I wrote about was concerned with divorcing the pray-er’s heart and mind from the fleeting changes and chances and circumstances that hinder prayer (a divorcing which is only carried out by God’s grace to the sinner, not by our efforts – though perhaps He uses our efforts to effect the working of His grace in this way, if He bestows such mercy upon us); and where the second that I wrote about was concerned with context, and joining our voice to the voices of the great cloud of witnesses – made up of His saints from every age (that is, that our fresh engagement in a concerted and intentional time of worship is not, in itself, something fresh and new but rather is a participation in the offering to God of His most worthy praise which continues throughout all ages); now we come to this third part of being prepared for prayer.
If the image that I suggested previously (here) can still be employed (or, can be employed again), where the first post in this series was about the removal of the old self, the second about the renewal of the attitude of the disciple’s mind, then we have now arrived at the point of putting on the new self, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:24, ESV). The opening sentence. The BCP tradition gives many suggestions, according to season or occasion for worship. Each option is a verse or two from Holy Scripture, and is about God’s Kingdom breaking out in our world; about God’s New Creation becoming; about the likeness (not just the image, which is an important distinction!) of God.
And so during Advent the tone of worship is set: Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matt. 3:2); during Christmastide: Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10,11); and so on. We are now in Lent, and so consider the options offered by the BCP:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Psalm 51:17
Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Joel 2:13
We’ve all felt the temptation to make Lent about what we’ve given up, or about what we’ve taken on. Perhaps for Lent you’ve taken on the discipline of praying the daily offices. Or a prayer office daily. That’s awesome! But Lent isn’t about what we’ve given up, in pious devotion; Lent isn’t about what we’ve taken on, in pious devotion. Lent is about God’s re-creation of His creation: we set aside this time for further devotional observance because to do so puts us in a place where we are more likely to pick up what God is laying down, to feel the Holy Spirit blowing through the wilderness, to be receptive when God moves in us. And the Opening Sentences won’t let us escape that. I will be built up, a part of God’s new creation, because He is breaking the old me down (I must decrease, He must increase – John 3:30).
This isn’t about me, but about the Lord God. The Opening Sentence reminds me of where I fit into God’s great story of salvation for a fallen and broken creation: my place is that of a fallen and broken creature. And when His words are spoken over my life, they make me something new. God cultivates growth in holiness in me, in you, when His word is spoken into us. A new reality is becoming. He is doing a new thing – can you see it?
There is, of course, a danger in an Opening Sentence. It stands alone. There is no room for the professional Christian to comment upon it – no opportunity for the theologian to interpret God’s word in the words of men. These days, God’s mercy cuts deep – and the thought that people might hear and receive God’s word without their added commentary is terrifying to some preachers. Because He isn’t a tame lion. But we need the mercy of God’s word penetrating below the scales that we wear. Because we need to put on something new – and the words of the learned, the wise, the sage of this age will not effect this transformation in us. Only God will, by His Spirit; by His word.
May you know His blessing as you seek Him, who has already found you.
Fr. Jonathan Hoskin+