Why Does Jesus Pray?

In the story of the Passion, Jesus prays two prayers that harrow the Christian’s heart. At Gethsemane, he prays to his Father that he be spared the agony of the Cross, even as he submits himself to his Father’s will. From the Cross itself, he asks his Father to forgive us, on account of our ignorance of the full meaning of our acts. Why? If the Son is the same being as the Father, wouldn’t he be praying to himself? And, being himself God, wouldn’t Jesus have the power to grant his own prayer?

This gets confusing for us because we parse it in terms of our relations with other persons, who inform each other in a series of temporally distinct acts. E.g., there is a period of time when I want Proph to pour me a cup of coffee, but Proph doesn’t know about my desperate need for coffee. Then, I ask him for the coffee – I pray to him – and he learns of my desire. Then, he either grants my request, or not. We map such sequences of operations onto the ad intra operations of the Trinity, and then we get muddled when we learn that they know everything about each other from all eternity, so that there would seem to be no need for them to pray to each other.

But the Persons of the Trinity do not relate to each other as we do to other people. They relate to each other rather as we do to ourselves; and because they are eternal, there is no state of affairs “before” the state of affairs in which they learn everything about each other.

The integrity of our present moment with those of our past is one way we may understand the integrity of the Trinity, and see how their mutual indwelling is effected. As I am at one with the somewhat different me of last evening, so the Logos is at one with the Father, as inheriting from the Father everything of the Father. Likewise, the prayer of the Son to the Father, by which the Son reflects the Glory of his Father back to its source, is wholly taken up by the Father. Likewise, again, the Spirit inherits all that there is of the Father and the Son, and vice versa.

We should not push this analogy too far, of course, for my integrity with my past is but a shadow of the perfect integrity of the three Persons. Among other things, whereas my life’s integrity is effected one moment at a time, and seriatim, so therefore temporally, the integrity of the Persons is effected all at once, and eternally. Furthermore, whereas the moments of a creaturely career can inform only one personal order, in God the moments of the three Persons inform three personal orders. 

Yes, Jesus knows what will happen to him as he prays at Gethsemane. But his human reluctance to die is known to the Father and the Spirit, not before the actualization of that reluctance – for in eternity there is no before or after – but with it and by means of it (and, in the last analysis, as it). The humanity of Jesus is the way that omniscience knows eternally what it is like to be human.

So the humanity of Jesus is an aspect of what the Word has to say to the Father and the Spirit, the tale he tells them, by means of which they know humanity as Jesus knows it. The Father and the Spirit know the taste of bread and wine, of fish, and of death, in virtue of the knowledge the Son as Incarnate in Jesus has of these things – not before Jesus eats, or drinks, or dies, and nor yet after, but as, and eternally.

It is in virtue of the prayer of Jesus for our forgiveness that God learns from before all time that we need forgiveness, and that he wants it for us.

Jesus is not praying to himself – or, not only to himself. He prays to his Father, as we do, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, all three Persons are involved in each aspect of the prayer, and participate in it. The prayer does add something new to the life and being of God; but the addition occurs in eternity, together with all other such additions, in a single act. While it is manifest to creatures in different ways, and appears therefore as different acts, nevertheless it is one integral motion, in which and by which all created acts are engendered and accounted for, begun and ended.

15 thoughts on “Why Does Jesus Pray?

  1. Obviously a Christian has to be believe that Jesus was wholly man and wholly God, which belief makes absolutely no sense at all, or, as a Christian would say it, transcends human reason. Attempts to explain this contradiction will fail

    • Right. Whereas such things as embodiment – what it is to be physical – are *lots* easier to explain. Ditto for things like the ontological status of James A. Donald. Or force, right? Or time? Matter? Easy.

    • Well, if it was a contradiction, it couldn’t possibly be true, no? Since we obviously don’t think it’s not true, we must not think it’s a contradiction.

      • I would say that while Jesus is truly God, he was self-limiting himself to what a human would be able to do, so it was a kind of role-playing to pray for himself. The way I see it is that the pray was not to inform himself, which is obviously a non-sense, but rather to show humans that he understands us and our difficulties and showing us how to behave. He was empathizing with us and guiding us.

      • That is the natural take on it, and was for a long time the way I understood it, too. But eventually I realized that it wouldn’t do. God can’t limit himself *in fact,* for that would entail his becoming someone other than God. If on the other hand Jesus was merely pretending to pray, so as to teach us, then that would mean he was enacting a falsehood; and God can’t do that, either. Therefore he was really praying at Gethsemane.

        As with so many of our other theological perplexities, the difficulty vanishes when we remember that Jesus is an eternal Person.

    • Yes. Consider: it obviously *isn’t* contradictory for James himself to be incarnate. I mean, James is not *nothing but* a chunk of meat, and nor is the meat *nothing but* James, but nevertheless the meat is indeed James. In James, the meat nature and the James nature are joined in a perfect union, in which there is no confusion of the two natures.

      So likewise with the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus; except that the Logos could be incarnate in any other thing, as well as in Jesus. I mean, he’s *God,* right? God is not limited to Incarnation in Jesus. He can be incarnate in other things, too; heck, he could be incarnate in a chunk of bread or a sip of wine if he wanted .…

      • This might be better fodder for a full-on blog post than a than a comment, but here goes.

        I have a hard time understanding Catholic literalism regarding certain of Jesus’ statements at the Last Supper. Specifically, “Take, eat, this is my body” and “this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-28) appear to be metaphors, like many of the other things He said. Yes, He called Himself the “bread of life” in John 6:35, but surely He was not a loaf of bread at the time. The passage continues with, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Surely here, too, it is figurative hunger and metaphorical thirst, not physical pangs, that He referred to. When He called Himself “the good shepherd,” He was not being strictly factual: Jesus was trained as a carpenter, not a shepherd. When He told Simon Peter and Andrew that He would make them fishers of men, He did not then have them use nets or hooks and literally capture men like fish are caught. When John called Him the Lamb of God, we can be sure that He was not ovine in shape or appearance. Additional examples can be adduced but seem unnecessary.

        Why, then, in this one instance, do Catholics (and, in a different way, Lutherans) insist that he was being literal?

        As for God’s ability to be incarnate in a form other than Jesus, yes, it certainly seems possible that He might chose to be incarnate in different way. However, is there biblical evidence that He has chosen to be incarnate in another form?

      • Don’t know if it completely answers the question, but I did write a post on the Real Presence, Bread of Heaven.

        One of the interesting things about the metaphors Jesus uses, to which you refer, is that they are examples of the typological rhetorical figure used throughout the Bible. It is a metaphorical way of speaking, but the metaphorical force of the figure – the similarity between two disparate sorts of things, which we particularly mean to indicate when we use metaphor – derives from what the Hebrews saw as a real instantiation of an archetypal form in both the things that are the matter of the metaphor. You might say that the Hebrews – and the people of the Ancient Near East in general, for this typological literary figure is found all over the place – were Platonists on steroids. For them, the King was not just similar to the patronal god of the people, he *was* that god. Likewise, the King was not just metaphorically the embodiment of the people, he *was* the people. Finally, the sacrificial lamb was not just metaphorically standing in for the King in that role, he *was* the King. And when consecrated to the god, the sacrificial victim, whether man or beast, became not just the property of the god, or the food of the god, but an embodiment of the god himself.

        Likewise, the Temple *was* the created order, in synecdoche; as such, like the created order, it *was* the House of the LORD. And the synecdochal relations implicit in the Temple don’t stop there. As the Temple is the synecdoche of the created order, so the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle, is the synecdoche of the Temple, the Ark in the Holy of Holies is the synecdoche of the Tabernacle, the Torah and Manna in the Ark are synecdoches of the Ark, and so forth. So likewise Jesus *just is* the Logos, the Torah, likewise also he *just is* the manna, the supersubstantial bread.

        Each of these synecdoches is the hologram, as it were, of the other end of the synecdochal relation. And each is the House of the LORD, as also the body of a man is his dwelling place, the Face/Prosopon/Person of his Presence. The shewbread on the altar of the Temple was called the Bread of the Presence (of the LORD); it was the face of the LORD, his manifestation in the world.

        But note then also that the House of a man is, not just his dwelling place, but also the people who live there – not just his own family, but the servants and satellite families (of, e.g., the children of his brother, who have come to live with him), and also all their descendents. The House of Jacob is all the people of Israel, at any time. The House of a man, for Israel, *just is* that man. Ditto for his seed. Thus the name of the Nation of Israel is the name of Jacob. Where the nation or the seed is, there the man really and truly is.

        All of ecclesiology and christology are implicit in the last four paragraphs.

        In typological thinking, similarity of any sort between two things is derived from their true instantiation of a form; from the fact that both are types of an archetype.

        So when Jesus calls himself a shepherd, he is not saying only that he is like a shepherd, although he is indeed saying that. He is saying also that he actually is the very Shepherd of Israel, the Angel of the Nation, YHWH. And YHWH is the Shepherd of Israel by virtue of the fact that both YHWH and a shepherd bear the same real relation to the souls under their charge. When he says he is the Lamb, he is saying that he, and the lamb, really truly are both sacrificial victims; they both instantiate the archetypal form of victimhood.

        But Jesus, being God, is as the Logos the actual archetype of all types; it is by virtue of participation in the archetypal triangle present as an aspect of the Logos that creaturely triangles partake of triangularity. So Jesus is the supersubstantial Lamb, and it is in virtue of participation in him that the sacrificial lambs of the Passover had their ontological significance and effect. Jesus is the *very* Paschal Lamb, the *True* Bread of Heaven. He is Source and End, Alpha and Omega of all breads, angels, men, and lambs. And fish. Amen, amen.

      • Thank you for the explanation, Kristor, and the links to your other articles on the topic.

        Though I still believe in the Real Presence and not transubstantiation, I understand the latter position better.

  2. Pingback: An Ill Man’s Inner Thoughts | terry1954

  3. Though useful preaching material, it doesn’t seem necessary for God to be incarnate — as the messiah — to know what it is like to be a man. God knows me better than I do, though I have no reserved throne of glory. Wouldn’t the Lord God and almighty Father, creator of all things, know what it is like to be a bat?

    • It’s a tricky question. Obviously, he’s omniscient, right? So how can he be ignorant of what it is like to be anything?

      The way I have parsed this is to distinguish between knowing what it is *like* to be a bat, and knowing what it *is* to be a bat. One knows what it is like to be a bat by knowing of experiences that are similar to those of a bat. But one can’t know what it is to be a bat unless one *just is* a bat. And until one knows what it is to just be a bat, one’s inferences about what it is like to be a bat are just that: inferences.

      In virtue of the Incarnation, God knows, not just what it is like to be a man, but what it is to be a man. He does this by being a man. And – this bit is quite familiar to you, I know – in virtue of the Incarnation once in history, God is a man from before all time, and eternally; so that in the time of the creation of the first man, God already knows what it is to be a man.

      And, obviously, once you know what it is to be a man, you also know what it is like to be a man.

      Finally, because God knows eternally what it is to be a man, his omniscience in this regard is preserved. For all we know, God also knows what it is to be a bat; it seems quite certain that he knows what it is to be an angel. God could have committed himself to something like Incarnation in any number of different things, without in the least compromising the special and salvific nature of his Incarnation in Jesus. He is Jesus; but he is nowise limited to the Dominical instantiation.

      • XB!

        I follow my favorite Western father — Bonaventure — in attempting to understand divine knowledge. God knows creation by knowing himself, as he is the source of all. In knowing the divine essence, he knows all that is (and, it seems, all that could be). The Lord is no demiurge who works with pre-existing stuff. There is no input besides God of which God could be ignorant. Still, your words have me thinking . . .

        I once had a Platonist Christian professor who taught that creation as a whole was an incarnation of God and that the incarnation of the Logos as Jesus was the most visible and perfect manifestation of that act. This may smell of heresy to some, but it always made sense to me.

        God has given man demarcated sacred space (temple) and time (ritual) so that man, in his spiritual blindness, may begin to recognize God’s presence, and then hopefully he will come to see the transcendent divinity that lies beyond and behind all phenomena. It is not that God is absent from mud, or spit, or rocks, but our fallen eyes and minds need to be trained, and lessons begin with blessings. Of setting things aside. Of offering our first fruits to the Lord. Of separating a chosen people from the rest of mankind. Our carnality needs to start with the concrete and particular before it can comprehend wider vision. And Christ is the first and last pedagogue of mankind. As a person and in his acts, he opens our eyes to the truth. When Christ “transfigured” on Mount Tabor, it was not he who changed but rather than perceptive abilities of Peter, James, and John, who finally caught a glimpse of a higher reality that was always there. I think that something of this is also relevant to the Eucharist. In our most sacred act, we acknowledge the real presence of Christ in bread and wine. When we no longer see through a glass darkly, we may come to see God in all things. Such seems distasteful to those who fear idolatry and immanentism (in other words, religion), but I think that the old pagans, philosophical pantheists, and new agers have a true insight but lack the interpretive apparatus necessary to make sense of it.

        The incarnation makes the rise above idolatry possible for us because of the mysteriously unified joining of God and image in the person of the God Man. The rest of creation is an echo, a shadow, an image of this providential unity of creator and creation, and this allows all things to be opportunities for prayer and for communion. For the saint, to be is to be holy. The process of salvation is relearning to see the Lord walking in the garden.

        The world is God’s image, and part of that world — man — is an exceptionally clear icon of the divine. How sad it is to contemplate, when we look at actual men! Nonetheless, man is God’s appointed chief and priest. He has neglected his duty spectacularly. Yet, Christ is the New Man, the New Adam, who recapitulates all of creation in his incarnation, and he thus also redeems all of creation through the incarnation, death, and resurrection according to Irenaeus of Lyons. Why should this be? Maximus the Confessor taught that man is God’s cosmic mediator — one of our original and final vocations. In becoming the perfect man, Jesus fulfills man’s true purpose as the creaturely conductor of the Lord’s cosmic symphony.

        So, if you are correct that God’s knowledge of being a creature depends on the incarnation (rather than simply knowing his own essence and its effects), then perhaps in becoming man, God knows all of creation “from the inside.” For that is our job, and we succeed at times to a remarkable degree in understanding the rest of creation, even in our wretched state. Observe the relationships that sometimes occur between man and beast, or even man and plant (or thing). Lewis remarked that we bring animals into the intellectual, spiritual sphere by assimilating them into human life, but perhaps that limited activity is but a taste of what human life in the world should really be. The God Man’s cosmic role is not simply as God but as man, and by that, the whole universe is made anew.

      • A gorgeous meditation, Joseph. Thanks.

        I would add one thought. When I say (as you have paraphrased me) that God’s knowledge of being a creature depends on the Incarnation, so that, in becoming man, God knows all of creation “from the inside,” that is just another way of saying, as you and St. Bonaventure say, that God knows creation by knowing himself, for in knowing the divine essence, he knows all that is (and, it seems, all that could be). God’s act of being, his act of creation, his act of knowing his own essence, his act of Incarnation, and his act of knowing his creation are a single motion.

  4. According to Chrysostom:

    “By saying then, “If it be possible, let it pass from me,” He showed His humanity; but by saying, “Nevertheless not as I will, but as You will,” He showed His virtue and self-command, teaching us even when nature pulls us back, to follow God. For since it was not enough for the foolish to show His face only, He uses words also. Again, words sufficed not alone, but deeds likewise were needed; these also He joins with the words, that even they who are in a high degree contentious may believe, that He both became man and died. For if, even when these things are so, this be still disbelieved by some, much more, if these had not been. See by how many things He shows the reality of the incarnation: by what He speaks, by what He suffers. ”
    He seems to say that the reason for Jesus praying are twofold: to show the incarnation, and to demonstrate how we are supposed to pray as loyal sons of God.


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