What would you say if I told you that I could sum up the entire four gospels of Christ in 12 simple words? Would you believe me? In the Orthdox spiritual classic from Russia, The Way of of Pilgrim, we read:
The Holy Fathers say that the prayer of Jesus is a summary of the gospels.
What is this prayer though, and what does the book mean by this? The Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart is one of the most ancient prayers that we as Christians have and was formalized by the Orthodox Churches some time around the 5th century. It is a meditation on the Holy Name, and goal is to repeat it so often, always concious of the what we are saying, so that it becomes internalized and self-acting, so as to fulfill the command of Paul to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). So what is this prayer?
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
This short prayer is filled with so much. Let’s break it down:
Lord Jesus Christ:
These three words affirm three things; first that Jesus Christ is Lord. The word lord is generally used as title of authority, indicating a certain rank which one has over others. By calling Jesus ‘Lord’ we are in effecting voicing our submission to him.
Second, it tells us who is Lord, Jesus. This is the name which even the demons know! Mark 5 tells a story of a demon possessed man, and in verse 7 the man cries out “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me!” In his letter, James tells us that not only do the demons know the name of Jesus, but they tremble at it.
Third, it affirms that Jesus is the Christ. This comes from the Greek Χριστός, Khristos, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for messiah. With this word in this context we affirm that Jesus is the messiah which God promised would rescue the world.
Son of God:
This phrase asserts that not only is Jesus the messiah, but he is also the son of God, sharing in the Father’s divinity. When we call Jesus the Son of God, we are affirming his place within the Godhead which has been revealed to us and was first made manifest to the world at the Theophany, the Baptism of Christ (which we celebrate on the 6th of this month).
Have mercy on me:
This phrase is much more than just asking for forgiveness from sins, though it does encompass that. It is also an admission that we are inferior to God, and it a plea for God to look favorably on us, to recognize our faults and our weeknesses and to not hold them against us. It is asking for God to love us.
With these last words we admit that we are sinners, that we have done things which displeases the Lord and goes against His will. This admission isn’t one of complete shame though, it is also a beginning point for our salvation. Once we admit that we are sinners, once we recognize the fact that we more often than not go against the will of God, and once we are able to freely admit this, then can the journey towards restoration begin. Orthodoxy often likens the Chruch to a hospital where we can go to have the sickness of sin cured with us and where we can be restored to health in God and so it is proper to make an analogy between the saying for addicts that it is only once you admit you have a problem that you are able to begin to get over it.
So here we have it. The entire Gospel summed up in 12 short words. Jesus Christ is God, he is the messiah who has been sent to save the world, to save you and me, who are all sinners. Let us admit to God that we are weak and ask him to have mercy on us, to forgive us for these sins so that we might be reconciled to Him and attain for ourselves the Kingdom of Heaven!
St. Isichios writes about the prayer: “Through the constant remembrance and invocation to Jesus Christ, a holy condition is created in our mind. This happens, if we appeal to Jesus Christ with fervor, crying aloud towards Him in entreaty day and night, so that repetition leads to habit and habit becomes second nature!”