"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (St. Luke xxiii. 34).
OUR Lord's whole life had been devoted to the doing of the Father's will and the salvation of the souls of men, or doing the Father's will in the salvation of human souls. Prayer to God for men had been the atmosphere in which He moved. So that which had been the practice of a lifetime is practiced naturally and instinctively in this awful crisis as the nails go through His hands and feet. And if we would pray at any great crisis, we must make a habit of prayer in our ordinary life. If we would be able to pray when our own death draws near, or as we kneel by the deathbed of a friend, let us make prayer the atmosphere now in which we dwell. Christ had always thought of others, loved them, commended their needs to the Father; and now that He is dying for them the words of prayer come naturally to His lips.
God made us in His own image, and prayer is the aspiration of our nature after Him, the upward flicker of the divine spark in us, upwards to God Who placed it there. God made us and put something of His own nature in us, and that something divine in us is groping and feeling and soaring and aspiring after God from Whom it came. That is why prayer can never be entirely abolished, why people who habitually neglect their prayers and deliberately and wilfully give up praying yet lapse back into the words and attitude of prayer when some great danger or trouble comes upon them. But such prayer is selfish, crude, and imperfect because it issues from a blind impulse and not from a disciplined habit. And for us, who say our prayers regularly, how hard we find it to pray!
Prayer is an instinct which can never be entirely lost, but it can very easily be distorted and misused. It ought to be the most real and living thing about us, because it puts us into connection with our Maker, and yet we know how dull and spiritless and mechanical it becomes. Even in the "freshness of childhood the prayers which we have learned by heart are gabbled through hurriedly, whilst our thoughts are far away. And later on, hypocrisy is added to distraction, and we pray automatically, for grace to do things that we haven't any intention of trying to do. Distraction and hypocrisy, the pressure of the world and slavery to sin, corrupt and ruin the heaven-born instinct of prayer, until it is either habitually abandoned or survives as a meaningless convention. And then we look at the example of our blessed Lord, and see how prayer was the very breath of His human life. There was a perpetual communing of His soul with the Father, which was the source of all His words, "I have not spoken of Myself; but the Father which sent Me, He gave Me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. And I know that His commandment is life everlasting: whatsoever I speak, therefore, even as the Father said unto Me, so I speak" (St. John xii. 49, 50). And we know how, after a long day's work, He would seek for rest and recreation in silent communing with God through a night of prayer. His meat was to do the will of Him that sent Him and to finish His work. Or we think of the great Saints who really imitated Christ, and whose lives became in their turn lives of prayer, prayer for themselves and others, unceasing prayer, which brought heaven and earth together, and formed a Jacob's ladder by which angels of grace could descend to the children of men. And some fools and blind have so utterly lost the sense of the meaning of prayer as to jeer at God's Saints and say, "What a waste of time! why don't they get up and do something useful?"
As if they could do anything more useful than so concentrate their souls on God that they become living wires along which messages of mercy and grace and truth come down to God's people on earth! Why, a Saint whose life is a life of prayer is a far greater philanthropist than the fussy person who serves on a hundred charitable committees, because the good which the Saint brings to men by his prayers is purer, higher, and more durable than that which is aimed at and accomplished by all the societies in the world.
Prayer lifts us above ourselves into union with God, above the worries and changes and chances of existence into a region of eternal peace; prayer was the very life, the work and recreation alike of Christ and of His Saints. Prayer is in fact the very essence of religion, and yet what a mess we make of it, and what failures we are at it! God is our Father, as well as our Creator; and yet we cannot bear to be ten minutes alone with Him, we cannot fix our minds on Him; our thoughts wander; we must be up and away to some other job. Even on this solemn day, perhaps, we shall find that the two or three minutes after each address for silent prayer are more than we can use for that purpose; we want to be singing the next hymn, or to be reading something--anything rather than to be just talking quietly to God and opening our hearts to Him.
At any rate we shall have made a start when we recognize--(i) that prayer is the most important thing in life, in its effect on ourselves and others; and (2) that, like all great things, it is exceedingly difficult; it requires to be learnt and practised with certainly not less care and perseverance than people give to playing the piano or learning to be a doctor. These are truths, then, that we learn from the example of Christ and His Saints. The upshot may be despair; we are so utterly unlike them, we are so busy, we have so many other things to do--and we are so cold and indifferent to spiritual things.
Well, if that is the result of Christ's example, let us think what help Christ's work of Redemption, His sufferings and death, can be to us in the matter of prayer. The ultimate reason why we cannot pray better lies in our sins. Our minds are so occupied with thoughts which are in one way or another contrary to God's will--impure thoughts, angry thoughts, thoughts of discontent, of envy, hatred, malice, and uncharitableness, that we cannot talk freely to the God Who is Love, can only just mumble through our formal petitions in a shamefaced sort of way, without ever daring really to lift up our hearts to Him. It is sin which causes us to make such a failure of our prayer. But suppose that record of sin to be wiped out, suppose God to say to us, "You have wearied and insulted Me to My face, you have broken one resolution of amendment after another, you have refused to listen to My voice and have rejected every entreaty of My Love, and yet for the sake of My Son Who died for you on the Cross I will wipe out your transgressions and receive you back as My dear children, and your sins and iniquities I will remember no more"--doesn't that make a difference? doesn't that help us in our prayer?
We can think of some little child who is tongue-tied in the presence of his mother because he has insulted and rejected her affection for him; he dare not speak to her or look at her, but is moody and sullen and silent. Then in a moment, when he knows that he is forgiven, and knows, too, what anguish he has caused to his mother's heart, words and tears come together, and the old happy, loving intimacy is restored. So it may be with us. We have done wrong, and are angry and sullen and silent in the presence of our heavenly Father. We have insulted His love, and then try to persuade ourselves that He is only a tyrant Who wants to punish us and make us suffer. Worse still, we cannot pray for forgiveness of these sins; for it is just the worst of sin that it makes our hearts hard and callous and suspicious. If only we could just come to Him and say we are sorry and ask for pardon--but we cannot; sin has frozen up the source of our tears, and we stay as we are, awkward, shamefaced, silent, and unhappy. Then, just because we cannot say the words that plead for pardon, our blessed Saviour says them for us as the nails, hammered by our sins, go through His hands and feet, says for us the words that go echoing down the centuries--"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Is there not something there, in the sinless Son pleading for our forgiveness whilst in His own broken heart and mangled body He bears the penalty of our sins--in the fact that that sacrifice wins our restoration to our Father's love, and that the handwriting of our condemnation is cancelled and nailed to the Cross--to unseal our tears and loosen our tongues, and make prayer possible even for us?
If we say, "These sufferings, that death of Christ, happened centuries ago, and in spite of them I have become the slave of sin," then we must learn that the death of Christ is a great eternal fact embodying the eternal love and compassion of God Himself; that therefore it is an ever-present fact for us, working with un-diminished power whenever we open our hearts to accept it. Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and to the end of time He is the Lamb slain, Who for ever taketh away the sin of the world.
Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation. "To-day," after so long a time, "today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts." Whenever by penitence and faith (the conditions of Baptism and of all acceptance with God) we accept Christ as our Redeemer, God, for the sake of the merits of His dear Son, blots out our iniquities, opens the arms of His mercy to us, brings us back to His house, that with loving hearts we may hold communion with Him in prayer. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ puts prayer once more within our reach through the prayer of His prevailing Passion: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
He does more than that: not only does He set us in God's presence redeemed and forgiven and able to speak to God as God's children, but also He speaks in us and with us by His Sacramental presence in our hearts. In Holy Communion we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to God through union with Jesus Christ whom we receive in that Sacrament; or Christ coming into our hearts offers us to the Father in union with Himself. So we offer our prayers then in union with Him, or He offers our prayers through His presence in us; He prays our prayers within us. Because in Holy Communion we just yield ourselves to Christ, that He may use us and work His work in us (and prayer is now as ever His most perfect work), He will teach us how to pray, what to pray for, as we just give ourselves to Him and accept Him with penitent and loving hearts.
Thus the forgiveness won for us by Christ's Passion is to be the beginning of a new life for us, a life of communion with God in prayer. If we do not go on to this life of closer communion with God we shall not deserve the forgiveness secured by His Passion, and it will be of no avail for us. We cannot claim the merits of Christ's prayer for us unless we are ready to go forward and pray ourselves, practising that prayer which is communion with God, a prayer and communion effected by Christ's Sacramental presence in us.
That, then, which Christ did for us on the Cross He does in its through Holy Communion. He prayed for us on the Cross; He prays in us through Holy Communion. If we value and are grateful for the merits of His Passion, let us appropriate them and use them in the Blessed Sacrament, where our prayers will be guided, purified, and offered by Christ within us.
There is one special sort of prayer that Holy Communion will help us to pray--the prayer of intercession. Christ is present in us in that Sacrament, but He is present in us not merely as our own individual Saviour, but as the Saviour of all mankind. Therefore the prayers which He prays in us there, must be prayers for others as well as for ourselves. The prayer He prays there is, "Our Father, give us our daily bread," etc. So Holy Communion, the time at which He is most effectively present with us, is the special opportunity for intercession. It is the great prayer-meeting of the Church. Through our union with the great Universal Saviour of the world we can pray for our fellow-sinners--the heathen, the outcast, the impenitent. Yes, wonder of wonders! we poor sinners through our union there with Christ can pray for others His prayer on the Cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," so great is the privilege of our prayer when offered at Holy Communion through Him Who is present in us there! Will you treat Holy Communion like that? Will you make it the way in which you thankfully accept the merits of Christ's Passion, by entering effectually on that life of prayer which was the essence of His human life, and which His sufferings made possible for you? Will you make the Holy Sacrament a real Communion with God, in which, through union with Christ, you can lift up your hearts to Him and pray not only for yourselves, but for all who need your prayers?
Let us kneel down, then, and (i) thank God for Christ's redemptive work which wins forgiveness, and therefore makes it possible for us to speak to our heavenly Father with love and penitence; (2) let us ask Him to save us from distraction and hypocrisy, so that our prayer may be more earnest, more true to His example; (3) let us ask Him that, when we receive Holy Communion, Christ's spirit of prayer and intercession may live and work in us; (4) let us make a start at once by praying for some who need our prayers.
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