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Prayer for the week

19 October 2012

Jo Spreadbury values words from a fourth-century communicant well known as a hymn


Strengthen for service, Lord,
the hands that have taken
holy things;
may the ears which have heard
your word
be deaf to clamour and dispute;
may the tongues which have
sung your praise be free
from deceit;
may the eyes which have seen
the tokens of your love
shine with the light of hope;
and may the bodies which have
been fed with your body
be refreshed with the fullness
of your life;
glory to you for ever.

Common Worship
Post-communion for the
8th Sunday after Trinity

THIS prayer has a long tradition in Christian worship, right back to the fourth century. It originated as a poem by Ephrem the Syrian (c.306-73), was used in the fifth-century Malabar rite in South India, and came into many of our hymn books in translations by J. M. Neale and Percy Dearmer.

It is fascinating to experience how those early worshippers responded to God in communion. The concerns addressed by the prayer seem oh-so-contemporary to our lives, even if the language has a timeless feel. Deceit, disputes, clamour, and gossip; unholy actions and activities - these are the easy habits that we need God to save us from. Instead, we are given a vision of love, hope, and life, to feed and sustain us.

The intense physicality of the prayer is inescapable. No pious generalisations here, but a direct equation between being nourished by the Body of Christ and the impact this has on our bodies. Hands, ears, tongues, eyes - and feet, too, in the hymn version of the original - all absorb God's transfiguring, radiant power.

Eyes shine, and bodies are refreshed with a spiritual beauty that the commercial efforts of the advertising, health-care, diet, fashion, and cosmetic industries can never imitate. Here is a regime and a ritual (a word now beloved of spas and salons) that works.

If the prayer is wonderfully pragmatic, it is also programmatic. This is the effect that the sacrament of Christ's body will have on our bodies and our lives, listed sense by sense, clause by clause. Or, at least, this should be the effect. . . It is good to be reminded of what we are and will be in Christ.

The prayer could well be adapted as a form of self-examination - a preparation for confession perhaps. Have my hands offered service worthy of the most holy sacrament that is cradled and enthroned by them when I receive communion? Have I listened as eagerly to God's word as to gossip, grievances, and backbiting? Have I been honest in my relationships with others, and in my praise and worship of God? Would anyone recognise, for all my failings, the hope that is in me, or the life of Christ at work in me?

Fullness of life is what Christ comes to give us, to refresh us with, as we come to receive him. And the habits of worship are habits that we will be clothed with eternally. I love the physicality of the picture we get in Revelation of the worship of heaven: falling down before the throne of God, hands holding bowls of incense, eyes beholding what angels veil their faces to, and a myriad of tongues singing "Holy, Holy, Holy".

This is what we are being strengthened and shaped for, phys-ically and spiritually, by our worship here. This is what Christ gives us a token and pledge of in communion, a promise that we will share in the communion of the saints, and indeed give glory to God for ever.

The Revd Dr Jo Spreadbury is the Vicar of Abbots Langley, in the diocese of St Albans.

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