Learning From Prayer
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
There is a saying in the Catholic Church: lex orendi, lex credendi. Translated loosely, it means, “how we pray is how we believe.” There is a deep truth to this. Our prayer affects our understanding of the faith; not just our “head-knowledge,” but how we incorporate it into our lives. A priest once told me that if you want to know what the Church really believes, just look at her liturgy. You want to know what we believe about baptism? Look at the prayers in the baptismal rite. It’s all there. You want to know what we believe about marriage? Look at the Rite of Matrimony. It’s there. Our faith is expressed in our prayer, and our prayer inspires our faith.
Today I want to spend time looking at a very beautiful prayer that is not only part of our liturgy, but it is part of sacred scripture. It is the prayer offered by St. Paul at the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians, which is the second reading for this Sunday’s Mass.
The twelve verses from Eph 1:3-14 constitute one single sentence in the original Greek, though it’s broken up into multiple sentences in English to make it easier to understand. But it is important to know that for St. Paul, this prayer makes up one unified thought. It is a prayer in the tradition of the Hebrew berakah, a prayer of blessing and of praising God using elevated language. But St. Paul’s berakah is structured around the Trinity: the Father chooses us, the Son redeems us, and the Holy Spirit seals us.
Let’s look at each section of this hymn of praise to see what Paul’s great prayer can teach us about our faith.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens
St. Paul begins by evoking blessings, both our blessing of God, but more importantly, God’s blessing of us. What is a blessing? You receive one at the end of every Mass. You may have your rosaries or saint medals blessed by a priest or deacon. Blessings are a rich part of Catholic life. But what are they?
A blessing is a prayer that praises God and asks him for his gifts to assist us in fulfilling his will. It is an expression of desire for the good of another, but it is more than a desire or a wish. It is an effective prayer. When we ask God to bless an object, that object is then set apart. It becomes sacred. So too, when we are blessed, we are set apart for God’s use. (More on that later).
What St. Paul is saying here is that it is right for us to bless God in our prayers, because God has blessed us so richly in Christ. In fact, in Christ, we have “every spiritual blessing in the heavens.” In other words, there is no blessing God has withheld from us. He gives us everything in Jesus Christ.
Set Apart for Sacrifice
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
The word “holy” means “set apart.” In Latin the word for “holy” is sanctus which is where we get our word “saint” from. All Christians are called to be saints, because we are all called to be holy. This doesn’t just mean we are called to be good people. It means we are to be set apart. But set apart for what?
St. Paul also says we are to be “without blemish.” But why? What is Paul getting at?
He is making reference to the lambs of the Jewish sacrifices. The lambs chosen for sacrifice were not just any lambs. They had to be the best lambs if they were to be a worthy sacrifice. So one was chosen that was “without blemish.” This one was “set apart” for the sacrifice (see Lev 1:3, 10). Paul is saying that as Christians, we need to make ourselves a worthy sacrifice before God by being spiritually without blemish. We must remember that we, too, have been set apart as an offering for God.
Like blessed objects, we are not for profane use. We are sacred.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.
Here St. Paul talks about us being destined for Christ. Does this mean Catholics believe in predestination? Yes. But not in a Calvinistic sort of way. The Catholic doctrine of predestination recognizes the sovereignty of God’s will — God is omnipotent and his will will always be achieved. But it also recognizes the role of human free will. We can choose to accept or reject God.
Both God’s will and human will can work in tandem because God, in his goodness, wills for us to have free will. This is part of our being made in God’s image. Freedom of will is part of the divine nature that we share. God chooses to respect our will, even if we choose to reject his will.
So for his part, God predestines us for adoption in Christ. He gives us the grace needed for our salvation. He gives us the ability to cooperate with his will, and he also gives us the freedom not to. He knows which we will choose, but his foreknowledge does not in any way limit our freedom. So it is important for each Christian to continue to follow God’s will and not become lax or spiritually indifferent.
In him we have redemption by his blood,
the forgiveness of transgressions,
in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.
“Redemption” means “setting free.” We have been set free by the blood of Christ. This hearkens back to the freedom from slavery God won for the Israelites in Egypt, which was accomplished through the blood of the sacrificial lamb at Passover. In Christ we have been set free, not from Egypt, but from our own sins, and not through the blood of a lamb, but through the Blood of the Lamb of God. Christ has become our Paschal (Passover) sacrifice.
In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us
the mystery of his will in accord with his favor
that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times,
to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.
The word “mystery” comes from the Greek word mysterion, which means “secret.” Christ reveals things about God that were formerly hidden, the most important being that in Christ God has become Man and reconciled the world to himself. All things in creation are reconciled, redeemed and renewed in Christ. Within the body of the Church, we are incorporated (literally made into the body) into Christ; we are incorporated into this mystery.
Sealed With the Spirit
In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ.
In him you also, who have heard the word of truth,
the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him,
were sealed with the promised holy Spirit,
which is the first installment of our inheritance
toward redemption as God’s possession, to the praise of his glory.
St. Paul talks here about “we” being chosen, and also “you” being chosen — he is referring to both Jewish believers (which would include himself) and the Gentile believers Paul preached to: “you, also, who have heard the word of truth.” He’s saying that the great mystery of our salvation is universal, for Jews and Gentiles alike. All are part of the same Body in Christ. All are recipients of the same grace, inheritors of the same promise. The word Catholic means “universal” — our faith is for all people, everywhere.
All Christian believers, whether Gentile or Jew, receive the same seal of the Holy Spirit. Today we might think of a seal as a secure closure. We want our zip-lock bags and Tupperware to have a good seal so the food won’t spoil. We want our phone cases to be sealed to make them water tight so our phones won’t get damaged. But in the ancient world, a seal was a mark of ownership.
A seal was a wax impression made on a letter or a document that bore the mark of the one who sent it. In this way, the recipient would know that the authority of the letter was genuine, because it bore the author’s seal.
When you are baptized and confirmed, you receive an indelible mark on your soul, marking you forever as belonging to Christ. You now bear the Author’s seal. You belong to God. This is why St. Paul elsewhere (Rom 4:11) equates baptism with circumcision. Just like circumcision did in the Old Law, baptism marks you with the sign of the covenant between God and his people.
More to the Mystery
All of this just scratches the surface of the deep richness of this hymn of praise. There is so much in these few lines to meditate and reflect on. I encourage you to make a practice of this: reading the scriptures not just to read them, but to mine them for treasure. Get a good Catholic Study Bible that can help you with footnotes and reference articles to understand the meaning of the text that might not be apparent at first to a 21st century reader — one that cross references the Catechism is helpful. And most importantly, pray with the text. Spend time with it and allow God to speak to you through it.
If you make this a regular part of your prayer life, you will find that there is always more to the mystery.