Prayer in the Spirit

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Coptic Icon of the Ascension

I am examining Balthasar’s insights from his book Prayer. In this post I want to walk through the paradox of flesh and spirit. Balthasar introduces the two opposing realities of flesh and spirit, saying,

the tension between flesh and spirit which characterizes man in particular brings out the starkest contrasts in the way contemplation is viewed. If God is pure spirit, and if contemplation is a matter of encountering God, it seems to follow that the contemplative’s task is to purify himself and lift himself into the purely spiritual sphere by slowly detaching himself from the external world of sense (p 259)

The logic is there: God is spirit, and man is called to contemplate God; but of course, this quote wreaks of Gnosticism. Christianity is a wholly this worldly. It is a physical religion; incarnational. How then can this be the call for the contemplative? Balthasar, aware of the possible objections, qualifies his call to purely spiritual prayer:

[We cannot not presume that] man’s soul belongs with God and thus seeks to return to him (whereas the body comes from below and must return thither to death), and that man’s bodily existence is alienated from God through sin and bondage to death, the conclusions of natural religion seem to be almost inevitable: man, at the core of his being, is a soul which comes from God; the body is involved in some kind of “displacement” or “fall”; and soul’s return and redemption must take place through a movement away from the body and toward the spirit (p 260)

On the contrary, says Balthasar, “God, who is pure spirit, condescends to become man in order thus to lead us up to him. For Christ is both God and man: in the flesh he not only manifests the reality and power of the soul, the spirit: he even manifests the divine in the medium of the flesh” (p 262).

In other words, it is not that God wants to break the chains of the flesh and free us from bodily existence. On the contrary, the reality of the God-man means that God has come into and through the medium of the flesh. This means that divine and fleshly existence are not in competition with one another. In Christ, God and man have entered into a cooperative relationship.

So then, how is the Christian to contemplate God in pure spirit if he is not called to escape the flesh? How can he be purely spiritual and yet in the flesh? Balthasar explains:

God did not descend to the level of flesh simply so that we should “ascend” from flesh to spirit; the revelation of agape, of his self-sacrificing and self-emptying love is not solely or primarily intended to assist our natural religious eros to reach its goal… In other words, God’s entering into flesh must not be seen as a mere means to our redemption, nor as a preliminary stage on the way to our “divinization”; it is not something that passes away, as it were, is extinguished, is canceled by the Risen Lord’s return to the Father. The Risen One returns to the Father with his whole humanity, including his body. This is what makes him the firstborn of many brethren. But what kind of body is his? Is it not a glorified body, adopted into the Spirit’s mode of existence? (p 263)

OK then, we come to the answer: Christ returned to the Father with his entire humanity. What this means is that mankind is not destined to break free of the flesh, but rather to entire into a new mode of spiritual-physical existence. Paul calls this existence glorification; a world, a body, enriched and animated by the power of the Spirit. This is what it means to be spiritual: to participate fully in God’s eternal life through the Son and the Spirit.

Let us dig a bit deeper. Balthasar expounds:

There is truth in the Platonic view (that body is bondage), and it is this: through sin we forfeited our native home and have taken lodging in a lower region; we have fallen from a world governed by the Spirit to a world governed by subspiritual laws (p 268)

Flesh is fallen not in the sense that it is bad and we must escape it, but in the sense that it has lost a life enlivened by the Spirit. Our bodies are given over to temporality; to non-eternity; to life outside of God’s own life, to be overtaken by corruption and death. Redemption therefore includes a participation in Christ’s full resurrected life in the Spirit. The Son became one of us to breathe the Spirit back into our flesh; to give us a participation in his own triune life. If this was not needed, then why the incarnation? Death had come as a result of the fall, and God entered into that situation to destroy death in the flesh, and to make our very flesh participants in his life.

Christ came, in other words, to give us a physical-pneumatic life, a fully embodied life governed, empowered, enhanced, transfigured by the life of the Spirit. Balthasar explains,

As believers privileged to share in the Lord’s resurrection, our senses acquire something of the pneumatic quality of the Lord’s glorified sense even prior to our own resurrection, so that, in him and together with him, we can grasp the Father and the Spirit and the entire world beyond (p 270)

What all of this means is that to pray in the Spirit, to be spiritual, is not to leave the flesh. It is not to be otherworldly. Rather, it is to be illumined and to participate in the life of Christ through the Spirit. This world was destined to participate in God, to be elevated, to be raised to a new and higher pitch through God’s own power. This is the logic of the incarnation: the Son took the fallen finite flesh of humanity and breathed life into it. And he gives us this very life in the Spirit!

 

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Praying to God as Father

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Christ the True Vine Icon. This icon pictures the disciples of Christ being caught up and participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, akin to branches connected to the vine (John 15)

In Matthew 6, the disciples, lost as to how to pray, ask Christ for a teaching on prayer. What Jesus gives them (and us) is the prayer of the Christian. It is almost credal in its emphasis. It does indeed mirror lines from the Apostles’ Creed. Early church father Tertullian, called the Lord’s prayer the “epitome of the whole gospel”. I assume, at least, that Jesus expected his disciples to memorize it, to know it intimately. To chew on the meaning of the lines, and to pray it often. This applies to the disciples of our age too!

One of the lines with which I’m almost always astonished as I pray, is the first line: “Our Father in heaven”.In this simple, short line, Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father. This command would almost certainly have been alarming to the disciples. Reason being is because the disciples could not conceive of calling God Father. 

In the OT, the Jewish people did understand Israel corporate to be God’s firstborn son. This is evident in passages such as Hosea 11:1 (a passage, interestingly, that Matthew depicts Jesus as fulfilling and subsuming in himself!). Israel was redeemed and adopted by God from their bondage to Egypt. However, no individual Jew would ever call God their Father. They related to God corporately, covenantally. Individually, however, Jewish people would not conceive to relate to God in such an intimate manner.

Connected to this is the reality that although all human beings can in some way attribute Fatherhood to God (Paul does in his discourse at Mars Hill in Acts 17), there is no human being that is properly, or by nature, God’s child. God is totally and utterly unique in his essence and substance. His holiness and “otherness” cannot even be comprehended by man. Certainly his nature isn’t shared by man. How then can a person even conceivably, realistically, call God a Father? This would have certainly been in the disciples’ minds.

So what did Jesus mean by commanding his disciples to call God their Father?

Frederick Bruner has a helpful discussion on this:

The church confesses in its Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord”. Jesus’ relation to the Father is absolutely unique. He and he alone, is God’s Son by nature… Therefore, when Jesus gives us the right to call his Father by the address “our Father”, he is passing on something of his own priceless relation to God. This is Jesus’ greatest gift in the Lord’s Prayer… Jesus’ exquisetly simple reference to God as his “father”…, and now most intimately his gift to his disciples of “Our Father”, indicates a remarkable relation between Jesus, God, and Jesus’ disciples (Christbook, 296)

Bruner makes some theologically important points here (concentrate!): he points out from the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus, being God, has an actual, substantial connection to God the Father: he is God’s “only Son”; he shares in the same substance — the “homoosios”, as the Nicene creed says — as God the Father, and is thus his “eternally begotten Son”. When Jesus became a man, he did not give up his divine nature; rather, He added to himself a human nature — as the Chalcedonian creed says, he is one divine person with two natures. In this way then, Jesus the man, could call God Father and really mean it, because he had a true substantial relation to God the Father. He is truly the only man who can call God Father.

Going back to the Lord’s Prayer now: in giving us the command to call God “our Father”, what is Jesus teaching us?

Jesus is in fact expounding on one of the great mysteries of the gospel. As the early church fathers put it: God the Son became a son of man, that sons of men might become sons of God. That is to say, Christ came down and assumed what properly belongs to us, to give us a share in what properly belongs to him: Sonship (cf Gal 4:4). He united himself to human nature, that by by faith in him, we beggarly humans might be united to him and share in his relation to the Father.

I put the icon up top to illustrate this point. By faith, we are as it were, connected to Christ as branches to a vine; and he takes us up into himself — all the way up — to God the Father. And we gain filial relation to God the Father by the life of his trunk, or to say another way, by his Spirit. We are “born again” and receive supernatural life, and are adopted as true sons in the Son. We become, as a Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and can relate to God really and truly as sons. What a dizzying, amazing truth that is!