All prayer is a participation in the divine communion of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. This is the truth that Herbert McCabe would have us understand, but he takes a couple of steps to bring us to this recognition. Somewhat surprisingly, McCabe does not dwell on the role of prayer in the ministry of Jesus. He points us directly to the Paschal Triduum.
Why did Jesus die? Because he would not compromise his mission. What was his mission? McCabe boils it down to three words—to be human. Forget all the theological theories and pietistic mumbo-jumbo. The mission of the incarnate Son was to live an authentic human existence, utterly devoted to the will of his Father; and in this way to simultaneously reveal the trinitarian life of divine love and the meaning of human being. But our world is broken, fallen, held in bondage to sin and death and therefore can only respond to this manifestation of perfect love in one way—with violence:
The gospels … insist upon two antithetical truths which express the tragedy of the human condition: the first is that if you do not love you will not be alive; the second is that if you do love you will be killed. If you cannot love you remain self-enclosed and sterile, unable to create a future for yourself or others, unable to live. If, however, you do effectively love you will be a threat to the structures of domination upon which our human society rests and you will be killed. … The life and death of Jesus dramatise this state of affairs. (God Matters, p. 218)
Is McCabe’s analysis here too simplistic? Perhaps … but let’s grant him a hearing. Is it far-fetched to suggest that Jesus was killed because his teaching and ministry threatened both Roman colonialism and Sadduceean clericalism? Historians will no doubt unpack the nature of this threat in various ways, yet only such a threat can explain the judicial condemnation and execution of the Nazarene. But McCabe wanders into more controversial ground when he suggests that it was the manifested love of Jesus that ultimately explains his authority and the hostility that it generated:
We cannot live without love and yet we are afraid of the destructive creative power of love. We need and deeply want to be loved and to love, and yet when that happens it seems a threat, because we are asked to give ourselves up, to abandon our selves; and so when we meet love we kill it.
Not all the time, of course; there could not be any community at all without some friendship; but, still, we are uneasy with it, and love has to disguise itself if it is to survive. It is when love appears nakedly for what it is that it is most vulnerable; and that is why we crucified Christ. Jesus was the first human being who had no fear of love at all; the first to have no fear of being human.
Jesus had no fear of being human because he saw his humanity simply as gift from him whom he called ‘the Father’. You might say that as he lived and gradually explored into himself, asking not just the question ‘Who do men say that I am?’ but ‘Who do I say that I am?’, he found nothing but the Father’s love. This is what gave all the meaning to his life—the love which is the ultimate basis and meaning of the universe. However he would have put it to himself (and of this we know nothing), he saw himself as simply an expression of the love which is the Father and in which the Father delights. His whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human, an act of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of being human. (p. 95)
McCabe thus rejects the popular theories that claim that God sent Jesus into the world for the express purpose of dying, presumably for some atoning or juridical purpose. “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human” (p. 93). The crucifixion, rather, was our idea. The tradition calls this the state of original sin: the cross reveals that we have created a world in which perfect love is inevitably met with hostility, condemnation, and murder.
When Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, he fully expected to be rejected and killed. But he committed himself to the task given to him. He did not seek escape. He did not evade his duty. He did not compromise the integrity of his message and being, even though he knew that his death would mean the apparent “failure” of his mission. Jesus freely accepted all of the consequences of his faithfulness to the will of his Father. “He was prepared,” continues McCabe, “to see all that he had apparently achieved come down in ruins, to see his followers deserting him, scattered and demoralized. He accepted all this because he did not wish to be the founder of anything, the man of power who would compel the coming of the kingdom. He wished only to do what he called ‘the will of his Father’, which was simply to accept the condition of humanity, to see the fullness of humanity which is in love and to accept the failure that characterises loving humanity” (pp. 218-219). In the end Jesus casts all of his hopes upon his Father. This is his prayer. The kingdom must come as the gratuitous gift of God … or not at all. If the cross is the petition of Jesus, then Easter is the Father’s answer. Prayer is the life of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.
Gift is an expression of an exchange of love. To believe in the resurrection, to believe in God, is to believe that the resolution of the tragedy of the human condition comes as gift, as an act of love encompassing mankind. The crucifixion/resurrection is the archetypal exchange of prayer and answer to prayer. … But [Jesus] wanted that all men should be as possessed by love as he was, he wanted that they should be divine, and this could only come as gift. Crucifixion and resurrection, the prayer of Christ and the response of the Father are the archetype and source of all our prayer. It is this we share in sacramentally in the Eucharist, it is this we share in in all our prayer. …
[Jesus] is not first of all an individual person who then prays to the Father, his prayer to the Father is what constitutes him as who he is. He is not just one who prays, not even one who prays best, he is sheer prayer. In other words the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus is simply the showing forth, the visibility in human terms, in human history, of the relationship to the Father which constitutes the person who is Jesus. The prayer of Jesus which is his crucifixion, his absolute renunciation of himself in love to the Father, is the eternal relationship of Father and Son made available as part of our history, part of the web of mankind of which we are fragments, a part of the web that gives it a new centre, a new pattern.
All our prayer, whether the Mass itself or those reflections from the Mass that we call our prayers, is a sharing into the sacrifice of Christ and therefore a sharing into the life of the Trinity, a sharing that is in the Spirit. All our prayer is, in a very precise sense, in Spirit and in truth. For us to pray is for us to be taken over, possessed by the Holy Spirit which is the life of love between Father and Son. … So our stance in prayer is not simply, or even primarily, that of the creature before the creator but that of the Son before the Father. At the most fundamental level, the level which defines prayer as prayer, we receive from the Father not as creatures receiving what they need to make up their deficiencies, but as the Son eternally receives his being from the Father. Our praying is an expression in history of our eternal trinitarian life. (pp. 219-220)
As long as we think of God as a god, as a being to whom we present our petitions and from whom we then await an answer, we remain trapped within a pagan or, at best, a unitarian worldview: God remains purely other. But the God of the gospel cannot be other in this way, as one standing over against us, as Zeus or Allah does; for he is the one who, in Christ, has lifted us into the rhythm of eternal prayer. To him we address our prayers; but we do, can do so, so only because he prays within us in the depths of our being. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). “Our praying itself,” explains McCabe, “is as much God’s gift as is the answer to it. And prayer is not just God’s gift in the way that our power of speech or our health is God’s gift; prayer is God’s grace, and that means it is due to God’s own life within us, God’s own spirit within us. For God gives us not just our marvellous human power and skills; he gives us himself, makes us able to live by his own divine life through his Son, Jesus Christ” (God, Christ and Us, p. 7).
Prayer is the trinitarian Being of God. Prayer is sharing in the Love that is God. Prayer is communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.