The Jesus Prayer – What it is: Sacramental

December 29, 2007


7. What it is: Sacramental

The Catechism says: “To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies” (CCC 2666). In other words, it is sacramental.

God comes to us on his name like a king on his stallion. When we pray to the Father in Jesus’ name, we provide God with a vehicle to come to us— or, rather, we use the vehicle God has provided for us. We do not initiate, we respond; we respond to his grace by using the gift of his name that he gave us and told us to use; and he responds to our obedience by doing what he promised: actually coming.

This is the definition of a sacrament: a sign instituted by Christ to give grace and a sign that actually effects what it signifies. Jesus himself is the primary sacrament. So the believing Christian’s use of Jesus’ name is sacramental. The very act of praying “Jesus” effects what it signifies, brings about what the name “Jesus” signifies, which is “Savior”, or “God saves”. That is the literal meaning, in Hebrew, of the name God commanded Joseph to give to Mary’s son: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt I:2I).

A name is not a machine, for a person is not a machine. The name of a person must be personally “involved” (that is, called upon) in faith and hope and love, as a human father is “invoked” by his son in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7. But though it is not a machine, it really “works”: when a son calls to his father, “Dad!” the father actually comes. Why? Suppose we were to ask the father. His answer would be obvious: “Because that’s my son!” The same is true of our relationship to God now that Christ has made us God’s children and his brothers. No stranger can call a human being “Dad”, and no stranger can be sure that a man will come if he calls him only by his “proper name”, for example, “Mr. Smith”. But Mr. Smith’s son can be sure his dad will come because his son can invoke him under the name “Dad”, as no one else can. Jesus has made it possible for us to do the same with God. In fact, the name he taught us to call God is “Abba”, which is the Hebrew word, not just for “Father”, but for “Dad”, or “Daddy”, or even “Dada”. It is the word of ultimate intimacy.

You may think the claim that invoking his name actually brings about his presence is an arrogant one. But in fact it is a humble one, because it is obeying his design, not initiating our own.

Or you may think, “What right do we have to think he will come whenever we call? Is he a dog?” No, he is a lover.