On Prayer of Praise and Thanks
"In prayer we must accustom ourselves to being with God"
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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 20, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square.
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Dear brothers and sisters,
Very often, our prayer is a request for help in time of need. And this is normal for man, for we need help, we need others, we need God. Thus, it is normal for us to ask something of God, to look to Him for help; and we must bear in mind that the prayer that the Lord taught us -- the “Our Father” -- is a prayer of petition, and with this prayer the Lord teaches us the priorities of our prayer; He cleanses and purifies our desires and in this way cleanses and purifies our hearts. Therefore, though in itself it is normal for us to ask for something in prayer, it should not exclusively be so. There is also reason to give thanks, and if we are attentive we see that we receive so many good things from God: He is so good to us that it is fitting, indeed necessary, to say thank you. And it should also be a prayer of praise: if our heart is open, despite all problems, we see the beauty of His creation, the goodness shown forth in His creation. Therefore, we must not only ask; we must also praise and give thanks: only in this way is our prayer complete.
In his letters, St. Paul not only speaks about prayer; he also refers to prayers -- certainly of petition, but also prayers of praise and blessing for all that God has done and continues to accomplish in human history. Today I would like to consider the first chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, which begins precisely with a prayer that is a hymn of blessing, an expression of thanksgiving and of joy. St. Paul blesses God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for in him He has made known to us “the mystery of his will” (Ephesians 1:9). Truly, there is reason to give thanks if God makes known to us what is hidden: his will with us, for us; “the mystery of his will”.
“Mysterion”: a term that recurs frequently in sacred Scripture and the liturgy. For now, I do not wish to enter into a discussion on philology, but in common language the term indicates what cannot be known, a reality we cannot grasp with our own intelligence. The hymn that opens the Letter to the Ephesians takes us by the hand and leads us towards a deeper meaning of this term and the reality it points to. For believers, “mystery” is not so much the unknown; rather, it is the merciful will of God, His loving plan, which is fully revealed in Jesus Christ and which offers us the possibility to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18-19). God’s “hidden mystery” has been revealed, and it is that God loves us, and that he loves us from the beginning, from all eternity.
Let us, then, pause briefly to consider this solemn and profound prayer. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). St. Paul uses the verb “euloghein”, which generally translates the Hebrew word “barak”: it means to praise, to glorify and to thank God the Father as the source of every good and of salvation, as he who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing”.
The Apostle thanks and praises, but he also reflects on the motives that move man to this praise by presenting the fundamental elements of the divine plan and its stages. First and foremost, we bless God the Father because – as St. Paul writes – He “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and immaculate before him in love” (Verse 4). What makes us holy and immaculate is charity. God called us into existence, to sanctity. And this choice precedes even the creation of the world. We have always been in His plan, in His thoughts. With the prophet Jeremiah we too may affirm that before forming us in our mother’s womb he knew us (cf. Jeremiah 1:5); and knowing us, He loved us. The vocation to holiness, that is to communion with God, belongs to the eternal plan of this God, a plan that extends through history and encompasses all men and women of the world, for it is a universal call. God excludes no one; His plan is one of love. St. John Chysostom affirms: “God has himself made us holy, but we are called to remain holy. He who lives by faith is holy” (Homily on the Letter to the Ephesians 1:1:4).
St. Paul continues: God has predestined us, he has chosen us to be “adopted sons through Jesus Christ”, to be incorporated into His Only begotten Son. The Apostle emphasizes the gratuity of God’s marvelous plan for humanity. God chooses us not because we are good, but because he is good. Antiquity had a saying about goodness: bonum est diffusivum sui: the good communicates itself; it belongs to the very essence of the good to communicate itself, to extend itself. And thus, because God is goodness and is the communication of goodness, he creates because he wills to communicate his goodness to us and to make us good and holy.
At the heart of the prayer of blessing, the Apostle illustrates the way in which the Father’s plan of salvation is realized in Christ, in his beloved Son. He writes: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7). The sacrifice of the Cross of Christ is the one and unrepeatable event by which the Father has luminously shown his love for us, not only in words, but in a concrete way. God is so concrete and his love is so concrete that it enters into history, and becomes man in order to feel what it is, and how to live in the created world, and he accepts the path of the suffering of the Passion, undergoing even death. So concrete is God’s love that he participates not only in our being but even in our suffering and death.
Through the sacrifice of the Cross, we become “God’s property”, since the blood of Christ redeems us from our sins, cleanses us of evil and draws us out of the bondage of sin and death. St. Paul invites us to consider the depth of God’s love, which transforms history, which transformed his own life from that of a persecutor of Christians into that of a tireless Apostle of the Gospel. Echoing once again the reassuring words of the Letter to the Romans: “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? … For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-32;38-39). This certainty … that God is for us: no creature can separate us because His love is stronger. This needs to become a part of our being and part of our consciousness as Christians.
Finally, the divine blessing concludes with an allusion to the Holy Spirit who has been poured out into our hearts -- the Paraclete we have received as a seal of promise: “He,” says St. Paul, “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14). The Redemption has not yet been concluded, we hear – rather, it will finally attain its full completion once those whom God has acquired have been entirely saved. We are still on the journey of redemption, whose essential reality was given through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are on the way towards definitive redemption, towards the full liberation of God’s children. And the Holy Spirit is the certainty that God will bring to completion his plan of salvation, when he restores “to Christ, the one head, all things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). On this point, St. John Chrysostom comments: “God has chosen us for faith and has impressed in us the seal of the inheritance of future glory” (Homilies on the Letter to the Ephesians 1:11-14). We must accept that the journey of redemption is also our own, for God wants free creatures, who freely say “yes”; but it is first and foremost his journey. We are in his hands and our freedom is to take to the road opened by him. In taking to this road of redemption together with Christ, we feel that the Redemption is being fully realized.
The vision St. Paul presents to us in this great prayer of blessing leads us to contemplate the action of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity: the Father, who chose us before the creation of the world; He thought of us and created us; the Son, who has redeemed us by his blood; and the Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our redemption and future glory. Through constant prayer, and through a daily relationship with God, we too, like St. Paul, learn to discern ever more clearly the signs of this plan and of this action: in the beauty of the Creator which shines forth from his creatures (cf. Ephesians 3:9), as St. Francis of Assisi sings: “Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures” (FF 263). Precisely now, during the summer holidays, it is important to be attentive to the beauty of creation and to see the face of God shine forth in this beauty. In their lives, the saints luminously show forth what the power of God can do in man’s weakness. And it can do so also in us. In the whole history of salvation, in which God makes himself close to us and patiently awaits us, he understands our infidelities, he encourages our efforts and he guides us.
In prayer we learn to see the signs of this merciful plan in the Church’s journey. Thus it is that we grow in the love of God and open the door [of our hearts] so that the Most Holy Trinity may come and abide in us, enlighten and warm us and guide our lives. “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23), Jesus says as he promises the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will teach them all things. St. Ireneaus once said that, in the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit accustomed himself to being in man. In prayer we must accustom ourselves to being with God. This is very important, that we learn to be with God; in this way, we see that it is beautiful to be with him, which is redemption.
Dear friends, when prayer nourishes our spiritual lives we become capable of holding what St. Paul calls “the mystery of faith” with a clear conscience (cf. 1 Timothy 3:9). Prayer, as a way of “accustoming oneself” to being together with God, produces men and women animated not by egoism, by the desire to possess, by the thirst for power, but by gratuity, by the desire to love, by the thirst to serve -- animated, that is, by God; and it is only in this way that we can bring light to the darkness of the world.
I wish to conclude this catechesis with the epilogue of the Letter to the Romans. With St. Paul, let us also give glory to God for he has told us everything about himself in Jesus Christ and has given us the Comforter, the Spirit of truth. At the end of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Romans 16:25-27). Thank you.
[Translated by Diane Montagna]
[In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
As part of our continuing reflection on prayer in the letters of Saint Paul, we now turn to the great prayer of praise and blessing found at the beginning of the Letter to the Ephesians. Paul blesses the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for making known to us "the mystery of his will" (Eph 1:9), his eternal plan for our salvation. Before the creation of the world, God "chose us in Christ" (1:4) to be his adopted children and to receive a glorious inheritance. Through the blood of Christ’s cross, he showed the depth of his merciful love, forgave our sins and reconciled us to himself. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, he gave us the seal and pledge of our definitive redemption in the fullness of time. Paul’s prayer invites us to contemplate the unfolding of God’s saving plan in history and to discern the signs of its presence in our own lives and in the life of the Church. In our own prayer, may we praise the mystery of our election in Christ, and open our hearts and lives ever more fully to the transforming presence of the Blessed Trinity.
I offer a warm welcome to the Forum of Interreligious Harmony from Indonesia. My greeting also goes to the participants in the Vatican Observatory Summer School. I likewise greet the "Wounded Warriors" group from the United States. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience, including those from Scotland, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United States, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!
In Italian, he said:
Lastly, my thoughts go to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. The month of June recalls our devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: dear young people, may you learn to love in the school of that divine heart; dear sick, in your suffering, may you unite your hearts to the heart of the Son of God; and may you, dear newlyweds, draw forth from the fount of love as you begin to build your common life. Thank you.
Appeal of the Holy Father
It is with deep concern that I am following the news coming from Nigeria, where acts of terrorism directed especially against Christian faithful continue. As I offer prayer for the victims and for all those who are suffering, I appeal to those responsible for the violence to cease immediately the bloodshed of so may innocent people. It is my hope, moreover, that all the social components of Nigerian society collaborate fully in order not to pursue the path of revenge, and that all citizens work together for the building up of a peaceful and reconciled society, in which the right to freely profess one’s faith is fully protected.
[Translated by Diane Montagna]