Jesus, Son of God….Have Mercy on Me
The Jesus Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
God, I thank you that I am not like other people…”
The tax collector, whose job was even less popular in Roman Palestine than in our day, took a different tack. He knew he was like other people, and in that piercing recognition, his prayer was: “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
A blind man begging by the road could hear a great crowd passing by. Hoping for some alms, he asked what was up and was told, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” That name banished any thought of skimming a few coins off the unexpected traffic. Here was a one-time shot at what he longed for most – to see. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Sinful and unseeing, desperate for forgiveness and healing: I am that tax collector, I am that beggar on the road into Jericho. A consolation is that I am not alone, for there is no prayer more frequent in the churches of the East and West than Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” The blind man knew that in Jesus the merciful God has come close, and Christians soon discovered the power of the name of Jesus, which after all, means, “God saves.”
Early monks loved to repeat Kyrie eleison and the Holy Name as a way to keep the Lord close and devilish thoughts far away. Better to fill the heart with Jesus, they believed, than to leave it open to distraction and temptation.
In the fifth century, Diadochus of Photike said that we should give the mind “nothing but the prayer ‘Lord Jesus.’” The monks of Sinai brought Diadochus’s suggestion back to those Gospel stories of calling upon Jesus. the result was the Jesus Prayer.
The Jesus Prayer became their equivalent of the Latin church’s hail Mary. It has its own kind of rosary, usually a cord with 33, 50 or 100 knots. Monks and devout laity wear a small version around their wrist, reminding them to call out to Jesus in their struggles. The prayer became linked to the body’s own rhythm of heartbeat and breath, breathing in Jesus and breathing out sinfulness.
Those who practice the Jesus Prayer learn not to be surprised by tears. Like any meditation, this one can bring stillness and heightened awareness, touching depths of feeling beyond the day-to-day range of our emotions. The Jesus Prayer names those depths in classic Christian terms with the language of compunction: sinfulness and mercy. Even as it does so, the prayer brings with it the only answer to our completeness – Jesus Christ, the Lord and Son of God.
I breathe him in, I breathe me out. Mercy indeed.
-Fr. Columba Stewart