Lord Jesus Christ
when scorn and shame besiege us
and hope is veiled in grief,
hold us in your wounded hands
and make your face shine on us again,
for you are our Lord and God.
This prayer, which came after the psalm at morning prayer today, made me pause. It’s not even the main collect of the day, but it seemed to bring together several themes in a particularly subtle way. The mention of the wounds of Christ echoes the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, who is celebrated today, and whose meditations upon the suffering of Christ in the Spiritual Exercises offered to lay people in the sixteenth century the kind of spiritual intensity usually associated with monastic life. For a saint whose religious conversion came to him whilst he was recovering from battle wounds, the wounded hands offer a double set of meanings.
The reference to Christ’s hands also picks up a particularly important echo in the Christian use of today’s psalm, number 31, which contains the line “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (v5). Ever since Luke recorded this as Jesus’ last words on the cross, it has been part of Christians’ reflections upon the meaning of his life and death. Here the prayer identifies Christ as God by echoing the psalm’s line whilst specifically asking the hands which were wounded on Calvary to hold us in times of difficulty. In reading it, we both follow Jesus and worship him, as the prayer quietly insists that the person we speak them to was the person who spoke them. This memory of the Gospel of Luke hints at the continuity of our speaking of the psalm with Jesus’ own address to God, and underlines that we are worshipping the same God as the psalmist.
The general “scorn and shame” of the second line come into sharper focus with this reference, as the Passion narrative is invoked and we recall the ways Jesus was mocked and rejected before his death. The psalm’s alternate expression of desolation and hope is refracted through the story of the trial and death; our feelings and those of the psalmist are general experiences of human suffering and faith, but they are brought together here in a particular historical moment, like streams of light focussing through a lens. Another Passion allusion comes in the “veil” of grief, which suggests both the shroud which was found empty on Easter Day, and the “veil” of the temple which Matthew describes as being torn in two at the moment when Jesus died, removing the distance between God and humanity. Absence and emptiness – characteristic metaphors of grief – are subtly connected to reconciliation and peace. Loss may be true, but it will not be the truth, this image seems to promise.
The final phrases express quite concisely one of the paradoxes of Christian faith: that in the wounded Christ we look for the glory of God, that the one who is addressed as “Lord” entered into human suffering. The weaving into each other of Biblical themes and echoes produces a compact but theologically rich prayer, which centres us in the Christian proclamation. In a sense, all six lines are variations on this proclamation: that Jesus is the Christ and is the Lord. They vary this by ascribing him this title, by images which recall the literary accounts of his death, by repeating his own quotation from the psalms, by turning that quotation round so that he is the subject of its worship, by invoking the life of a Saint who accepted his Lordship, and by asking him things which should only be asked of God. And it isn’t even the main collect for the day.