Death of prayer
Do you pray? Maybe you feel like Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey who “isn’t much of a praying man?” Prayer is really just a conversation with God. It is often our best way of responding to Him.
Our prayers are never perfect. We do not need to be a superstar Christian to pray. We do not need to quote Scripture or use fancy words. We do not need to fuss over prayer. We simply need to pray. Prayer is good for us. Prayer shapes us.
When we imagine that prayer can only be like the kinds of prayer we hear during corporate worship or read in books, we tend to pray less. We might feel inadequate for prayer. We might feel intimidated by group prayer. That leads to the death of prayer. Let's find a way forward.
The two opening chapters of the gospel of Luke are filled with five examples of prayer that have shaped Christian prayer for centuries. Luke emphasizes prayer and the Holy Spirit in his gospel. Luke was like us. He never met Jesus in person. He was a second-hand witness to Him. The responses to the LORD given by these four early characters in his gospel are Spirit-guided prayers.
These five prayers are traditionally known by their first words in Latin:
- Fiat mihi (Luke 1:38): Mary says “let it be with me according to your word.”
- Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55): Mary says “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
- Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79): Zechariah says “Blessed is the Lord, the Lord God of Israel.”
- Gloria in excelsis (Luke 2:14): The angel says “Glory to God in the highest.”
- Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32): Simeon says “Lord, you have set your servant free to depart in peace.”
Traditionally, Christians have used these prayers as models for their own daily prayers. Indeed, they have most often been used to mark time throughout the day. So, each of these prayers is associated with a specific time of day. Praying either exactly these words of Scripture or modeling a prayer in your own words based on these words of Scripture at key parts of the day is a way of intentionally shaping your day with prayer. It is a way of forming yourself each day by your relationship with God.
One common way of doing this is for the Fiat mihi and Nunc dimittis prayers to mark your rising from and falling to sleep respectively. The Magnificat, Benedictus, and Gloria in excelsis prayers are then each associated with one of the day’s three meals.
The Latin word fiat that is used here in Luke 1:38 is the same Latin word used in Genesis 1:3. It is the word make. Mary is responding to the angel’s news that she will carry the Christ child. Her response is an emphatic yes that says shape me and make me according to your word. Just as You did at creation, make me according to your plan and purpose no matter the cost.
Traditionally, Christians have used Mary’s prayer Fiat mihi prayer as their own prayer when they first awake. At the dawn of a new day, Christians yield their lives to the Lord for him to make of them what He will. Take this day in my life, O Lord, and mold me according to your purpose.
Mary’s next prayer in Luke 1:46-55 is offered in fellowship with her cousin Elizabeth. They were just talking about what the Lord was doing in their lives. Her prayer here is to praise and exalt the Lord. Indeed, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord!
This prayer of Mary’s is itself modeled after Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Hannah was the mother of the prophet Samuel, and her song is her prayer in response to the news about her own son and the Lord’s plans for his life. Mary does not copy Hannah’s prayer. Instead, she has been soaked in Scripture her entire life. Remembering Hannah’s prayer as the prayer of a hopeful mother, Mary makes it her own. Mary has been shaped by Scripture, and her praying back to the Lord shows this.
Traditionally, Christians have used Mary’s Magnificat prayer as their morning prayer. I like to use it at breakfast. I praise the LORD for bringing justice and mercy, ruling over His creation throughout history.
Just as Mary’s Magnificat prayer shows us a prayer born out of a life soaked in Scripture, so also do we see the same thing in Zechariah’s Benedictus prayer in Luke 1:68-79. In Zechariah’s prayer, there are 19 allusions to Old Testament Scripture. 10 of these allusions come from the Psalms, the prayer book of God’s children.
Zechariah’s Benedictus prayer is his response to the Lord’s plans for his son’s life. When he first learned of these plans from an angel while Elizabeth was pregnant, he doubted. As a consequence, he was made mute until the eighth day after his son was born. This prayer was stewing inside of Zechariah for months. This prayer is the fruition of a life spent in prayer.
The centerpiece of the Benedictus prayer is verse 76. “and you, child, will be called the prophet of the most high. For you will go on before the LORD to prepare his ways.” This is a prayer celebrating a life spent serving the Lord. The people of God, the servants of Jesus, find their identity and calling in service to Him. Prayer is our intimate conversation with our Lord and Father. When we soak ourselves in the LORD speaking our lives into being through the prayers we find in Scripture, we cannot help but echo these words back to Him in gratitude.
Christians have traditionally used this prayer at noontime. I like to use it at lunch. In the midst of the workday’s hustle and bustle, it helps me to get still and remember who is God. It centers and orients my compass towards Him.
Gloria in excelsis
The angels offer this prayer in Luke 2:14. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.” The response of all of God’s people to seeing His work is praise and gratitude, including the angels. This Gloria in excelsis prayer always reminds me of Moses and Miriam’s song in Exodus 15:1-18.
This is the traditional evening prayer for Christians. It might help to associate it with the evening meal.
Simeon was an old man when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to him. He, like all of God’s children, had been waiting his whole life for the Messiah. Upon seeing and holding Jesus, he offers this Nunc dimittis prayer in Luke 2:29-32. Lord, now I, Your servant, can depart in peace. I have seen and held the Messiah, and now my life is complete.
After his prayer, he prophecies to Mary in verses 34 and 35. Mary, remember the cross. This Christ child will suffer and die as the atoning sacrifice for His people. The LORD breaks into history and into our own lives and our own suffering.
In prayer, we also draw near to each other by sharing in each other’s suffering. We pray with and for each other, allowing Christian fellowship to break into the lives and burdens of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Prayer is also where we share in the Lord’s comfort and His redemption of our suffering.
The Nunc dimittis prayer is the traditional bedtime prayer of Christians. It is a very aware prayer, full of the knowledge of the day’s joys, cares, and suffering. It is very aware that our Lord and Father is in complete control. We rest in the quietness of His protection.
Our prayers do not need to be and should not always be the same as anyone else’s prayers. They are our conversation with our Father. Prayer is our response to His work in our lives. Along with immersion in Scripture, the Holy Spirit uses regular prayer to shape us into the people we were always meant to be. Praying throughout our days helps to mold how we see and experience life.