Wednesday 18 October 2023

The law of praying (12): The law of living

Over the summer, we are looking at a section from the Canon of the Mass each week, to learn what the ‘law of praying’ has to teach us about what we believe. You can find the previous posts in this series in our reflections archive.

…through Christ our Lord.
Through whom
you continue to make all these good things, O Lord;
you sanctify them, fill them with life,
bless them, and bestow them upon us.
Through him, and with him, and in him,
O God, almighty Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honour is yours,
for ever and ever.

It is astonishing the complex ideas that are conveyed through a few small words. ‘Through him, and with him, and in him,’ that is, ‘Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ’. These are the ways in which we give glory to the Father.

We give glory to the Father through the Son as our intermediary. He stands forever to intercede for sinners, just as we saw at the beginning of this prayer. All prayer to the Father is made through his Son Jesus Christ.

We give glory to the Father with the Son, standing next to him as co-heirs and adopted children of the Father, even more so now that he is present with us on the altar.

We give glory to the Father in the Son, from within his Body, as members of his Church.

We do all this when we join ourselves to this great prayer of the Mass, as we have seen. But this Eucharistic model of prayer does not cease when we reach the end of the prayer.

One of the saints we didn’t look at last week, St Ignatius of Antioch, really loved the Mass. When he was arrested for being a Christian, he pulled the same trick as St Paul and demanded, as a Roman citizen, to exercise his right to be tried by the emperor himself in Rome. Unlike Paul, he wasn’t taken by boat, but began a very long and slow journey on foot towards Rome in the company of some soldiers.

On the way, he wrote to each church he passed, and members of the churches would come to meet him and exchange letters with him. His letters survive, and he captures for us a wonderful snapshot of the life of the Church around 110AD. He often talks about what Christians do when they gather for Mass. He is one of the most powerful witnesses to the continuity of what we do whenever we celebrate the Mass, following the same patterns that Christians have done ever since the time of Christ.

But not only does St Ignatius talk about the Mass when he describes what should happen in church. He also talks about the Mass when he describes his own desire for martyrdom. He says that he wants to be like Christ. He wants to pay back Christ by dying for him who died for us.

When we think of trying to be like Christ, we can focus solely on imitating what we read in Gospels of Christ’s life on earth. Ignatius tried even to conform himself to Christ as we encounter him now — he wanted to become like Christ in Holy Communion:

Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.

I no longer take pleasure in perishable food or in the delights of this world. I want only God’s bread, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, formed of the seed of David, and for drink I crave his blood, which is love that cannot perish.

He is not alone in tying together martyrdom and the Mass. When the Romans attempted to execute his friend St Polycarp by burning him alive, Polycarp’s prayer sounds very much like a Eucharistic prayer. Meanwhile, he was miraculously unhurt by the flames: ‘he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked’.

When Ignatius was condemned to death, we’re told that he prayed: ‘I thank you, O Lord, that you have vouchsafed to honour me with a perfect love towards you.’ Again, it is a prayer of thanksgiving, a Eucharistic prayer, the same kind of prayer as the Canon of the Mass.

The Eucharist — the Mass — is not just something we attend. It is not just a law of praying, or even a law of praying that forms a law of believing for us. It is also a model of what we become. St Ignatius made his life and his death into a prayer of thanksgiving, modelled after the prayer of the Mass, conforming himself to Christ as we encounter him there. If we appreciate what Christ has done for us, we will want to find our own way of doing the same in return.