Wednesday 19 May 2021

Praying with the same passion

One of the themes of the Old Testament is that Israel was meant to be a people set apart: a holy nation, to point people towards God. God is completely holy, set apart, different, other from creation. Israel was meant to be holy, set apart, different from all other nations, as a reflection of God’s holiness, to point others towards him. In similar way, the Church is called to be holy, in order to point to God’s holiness. As St Peter writes, ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1 Peter 2:9)

On his last night with his apostles, before his Passion, Christ prays that the the Church may be holy (John 17:17), like Israel, but he also asks: ‘that they may all be one.’ (John 17:21). We are not just to reflect God’s otherness. We are to be one in doing so — united, to reflect the unity of God.

The unity of the Church is important not just from a practical point of view, not just from an abstract theological point of view, not just because there is one truth and one Church founded by Christ, but because one of the purposes of the very existence of the Church is to direct others towards God by making his unity visible. It is a condition of people coming to faith in Christ, as he says himself, ‘may they be one… so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (John 17:21)

Our unity with each other is supposed to be proof that Jesus is who he says he is, and it comes about as a consequence of being one with him. When you think about it, we can’t all be united with Christ without being united with each other. So if we’re not united with each other, then our relationship with Christ is in trouble.

But what does it mean to be united? We’re using the word in several different ways here. There’s a unity of belief: believing the same things. There’s an ecclesial unity: the visible unity of the Church, or of different Christians all over the world. There’s a sacramental unity that is proclaimed and strengthened in Holy Communion, and there is the overall idea of our link, our unity with Christ himself by being part of his body. Each of these kinds of unity is tied up with the others of course. But there’s another kind of unity that matters: a person to person unity, a unity of will. Luckily for us, that unity isn’t simply a consequence of our willingness to agree with others, otherwise we’d all be doomed. It is a unity that comes as a gift from Christ, who says: ‘I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one.’ (John 17:22)

That glory he gives us is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit unites us with Christ, and so unites us with each other. He is the one that makes us able to join in this prayer with Christ, and to call God our Father.

In the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke tells us that in this period between the Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples were ‘steadfastly continuing in prayer with one accord.’ (Acts 1:14) That’s a more literal translation than you’ll find in most bibles. But even that’s not literal enough. That ‘one accord’ (homothumadon in Greek) means ‘with the same mind’, or even better, ‘with the same passion’. We don’t want to translate it as ‘passion’ because that makes it sound like something bad and out of control. But it gives us something of the idea that Luke is trying to convey. It’s not a stretch to say that the disciples prayed together with ‘the same intensity’ or ‘heat’ or even with ‘the same fire’. When we understand that, it’s no surprise that that prayer burst into visible flames on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit revealed himself fully. If we are united in that kind of prayer, with the same Spirit burning within us, then there’s a chance that together we will be able to show Christ’s glory to the world, and then the world will also believe that Jesus is who we says he is.