The grammar of prayer

During Lent, I have been reading Morning Prayer in the older language of Rite I. The difference that has struck me most strongly falls in the middle of the Apostles Creed, in which Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried.” It is a minor change, perhaps, from the Rite II “died, and was buried.” Less of an adjustment, one might think, from the descent to hell versus the dead. But there is a finality to the descriptive, definitive words, “dead, and buried”, while the continuing activity implied in the verb “died…” invites the anticipation of resurrection even before the body is entombed and the Real Presence descends to hell.

Resurrection is coming. It is important and sometimes difficult to hold on to that hope; yet resurrection that glosses over the reality of death, the finitude of death, that last piece of the solidarity of the Incarnation reins in the hope that might otherwise extend even to the rubble of a hospital, or the shores of a storm-churned beach, or the shut-off third rail of a subway system.

The grammar of prayer is surely less essential than its spirit; yet words shape our thoughts and thoughts tend to shape and direct our hearts. At the inspiration and instigation of a Tweet by the Revd Dr Meg Gilley earlier this week, I began to stretch the pronouns of the Psalms at Evening Prayer, the ones that berate and bewail and implore God in the face of trouble and urgent strife:

“The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken;” (Psalm 46:7)
“God is your refuge and strength,” I found myself saying, to the people of Ukraine, to the refugees and the asylum seekers, to the trapped and the wartorn, “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1), and praying that it might be so.

In so many ways, stretching our use of pronouns can be an exercise in spiritual and heartfelt empathy.

Resurrection is coming. Hope is not too far from us; yet to reach it, we first have to find and stretch the limits and extent of our incarnational empathy, our solidarity with one another, and with the One who died, was dead, for us; our identification with those for whom hope seems, for a season, out of reach.

But even if the grave is your bed, God is there also (Psalm 139:7). “He descended into hell.” There begins a whole new sentence.


Rosalind C Hughes is an Episcopal priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie next to Cleveland, Ohio. Her books, A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence are available from Upper Room. Find more writings at http://rosalindhughes.com


Image: The Entombment of Christ, Nicolas Poussin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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