"On the Priestly Prayer of Jesus"
Love is True Glory, Divine Glory
H.H. Benedict XVI
January 25, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
In today’s Catechesis we will focus our attention on the prayer that Jesus addresses to the Father in the “Hour” of his exaltation and of his glorification (cf. John 1:26). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “Christian Tradition rightly calls this prayer the ‘priestly’ prayer of Jesus. It is the prayer of our High Priest, inseparable from his sacrifice, from his passing over (Passover) to the Father to whom he is wholly ‘consecrated’” (No. 2747).
Jesus’ prayer can be understood in its extraordinary depth of richness if we consider it against the backdrop of the Jewish feast of expiation, Yom Kippur. On that day, the High Priest makes expiation first for himself, then for the priestly class and lastly for the entire community of the people. The purpose is to restore to the people of Israel, after the transgressions of one year, the awareness of reconciliation with God, the awareness of being the chosen people, a “holy people” among the other nations. Jesus’ prayer, presented in Chapter 17 of the Gospel according to John, adopts the structure of this feast. Jesus on that night turns to the Father as he is offering himself. He, priest and victim, prays for himself, for the apostles and for all those who will believe in Him, for the Church throughout the ages (cf. John 17:20).
The prayer that Jesus offers for himself is the request for his own glorification, for his “exaltation” in this, his “Hour.” In reality, it is more than a request and declaration of his full availability to enter freely and generously into God the Father’s plan, which is to be accomplished in his being handed over in death and resurrection. This “Hour” begins with Judas’ betrayal (cf. John 13:31) and will culminate in the Risen Jesus’ ascension to the Father (John 20:17). Jesus comments on Judas’ departure from the cenacle with these words: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and in him God is glorified” (John 13:31). Not by chance does He begin the priestly prayer, saying: “Father, the hour has come: glorify the Son that the Son may glorify thee” (John 17:1). The glorification that Jesus asks for himself as High Priest is an entrance into the fullness of obedience to the Father, an obedience that leads him into the fullness of His Sonship: “And now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made” (John 17:5). This availability and this request form the first act of Jesus’ new priesthood, which is a total self-giving on the Cross, and it is precisely on the Cross -- in the supreme act of love -- that he is glorified, because love is true glory, divine glory.
The second moment of this prayer is the intercession Jesus makes for the disciples who were with Him. They are those of whom Jesus can say to the Father: “I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them to me, and they have kept thy word” (John 17:6). “To manifest God’s name to men” is the realization of a new presence of the Father among His people, among humanity. This “manifestation” is not only a word; in Jesus, it is reality; God is with us, and thus the name -- His presence with us, his being one with us -- is “realized.” Therefore, this manifestation finds its fulfillment in the Incarnation of the Word. In Jesus, God enters into human flesh: He makes himself close in a unique and new way. And this presence has its summit in the sacrifice that Jesus offers in His Passover of death and resurrection.
At the center of this prayer of intercession and expiation for the disciples, is the request for consecration; Jesus says to the Father: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:16-19). I ask: what does it mean to “consecrate” in this case? First and foremost, it needs to be said that, strictly speaking, only God is “Consecrated” or “Holy.” To consecrate therefore means to transfer a reality -- a person or a thing -- to God’s ownership. And in this, two complementary aspects are present: on the one hand, the removal from common things, a segregation, a “setting apart” from the realm of man’s personal life, in order to be given totally to God; and on the other hand, this segregation, this transfer to the sphere of God, signifies “sending,” mission: precisely on account of its being given to God, the reality, the consecrated person exists “for” others; he is given to others.
To give oneself to God means no longer existing for oneself, but for all. He is consecrated who, like Jesus, is separated from the world and set apart for God in view of a task, and this is precisely why he is fully available to all. For the disciples, [the task] will be to continue the mission of Jesus, to be given to God so as to be on mission for all. On Easter evening, the Risen One appearing to his disciples will say to them: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21).
The third act of this priestly prayer extends our gaze to the end of time. In it, Jesus turns to the Father in order to intercede on behalf of all those who will be brought to faith through the mission inaugurated by the apostles and continued throughout history: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in Me through their word.” Jesus prays for the Church throughout the ages, he prays also for us (John 17:20). The Catechism of the Catholic Church comments: “Jesus fulfilled the word of the Father completely; his prayer, like his sacrifice, extends until the end of time. The prayer of this hour fills the end-times and carries them toward their consummation” (No. 2749).
The central petition of Jesus’ priestly prayer dedicated to his disciples throughout the ages is for the future unity of all those who will believe in Him. This unity is not a product of the world. It comes exclusively from the divine unity and arrives to us from the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Jesus invokes a gift that comes from Heaven, and that has its real and perceptible effect on earth. He prays “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21).
On the one hand, Christian unity is a hidden reality present in the hearts of believers. But at the same time, it must become visible in history with complete clarity; it must become visible, so that the world may believe; it has a very practical and concrete end -- it must become visible so that all may truly be one. The unity of the future disciples, being a unity with Jesus -- whom the Father sent into the world -- is also the original source of the Christian mission’s efficacy in the world.
We can say that the founding of the Church is accomplished in Jesus’ priestly prayer … it is precisely here, in the act of the Last Supper, that Jesus creates the Church. “For what else is the Church, if not the community of disciples who receive their unity through faith in Jesus Christ as the one sent by the Father and are drawn into Jesus’ mission to lead the world toward the recognition of God -- and in this way to save it?” Here we find a true definition of the Church. “The Church is born from Jesus’ prayer. But this prayer is more than words; it is the act by which he ‘sanctifies’ himself, that is to say, he ‘sacrifices’ himself for the life of the world” (cf. Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. II p. 101ff).
Jesus prays that his disciples may be one. It is in virtue of such unity, received and cherished, that the Church can journey “in the world” without being “of the world” (cf. John 17:6) and live out the mission entrusted to her, so that the world may believe in the Son and in the Father who sent him. The Church becomes, then, the place where the very mission of Christ continues: to lead the “world” out of alienation from God and itself, out of sin, in order that it may return to being God’s world.
Dear brothers and sisters, we have taken in a portion of the great richness of Jesus’ priestly prayer, which I invite you to read and to ponder, so that it may guide us in conversation with the Lord, that it may teach us to pray. Then we, too, in our prayer may ask God to help us to enter more fully into the plan that He has for each one of us. Let us ask Him to grant that we may be “consecrated” to Him, that we may increasingly belong to Him, so that we may love others more and more -- those who are close to us and those who are far away; let us ask Him to grant that we may always be able to open our prayer to the dimensions of the world, not closing it in to the request for help for our own problems, but remembering our neighbor before the Lord and learning the beauty of interceding for others. Let us ask Him for the gift of visible unity among all believers in Christ -- we have earnestly invoked this during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity -- let us pray that we may always be ready to respond to whomever asks us the reason for the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). Thank you.
[Translation by Diane Montagna]
[In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our continuing catechesis on Christian prayer, we now turn to the priestly prayer which Jesus offered at the Last Supper (cf. Jn 17:1-26). Against the backdrop of the Jewish feast of expiation Yom Kippur, Jesus, priest and victim, prays that the Father will glorify him in this, the hour of his sacrifice of reconciliation. He asks the Father to consecrate his disciples, setting them apart and sending them forth to continue his mission in the world. Christ also implores the gift of unity for all those who will believe in him through the preaching of the apostles. His priestly prayer can thus be seen as instituting the Church, the community of the disciples who, through faith in him, are made one and share in his saving mission. In meditating upon the Lord’s priestly prayer, let us ask the Father for the grace to grow in our baptismal consecration and to open our own prayers to the needs of our neighbours and the whole world. Let us also pray, as we have just done in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, for the gift of the visible unity of all Christ’s followers, so that the world may believe in the Son and in the Father who sent him.
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I offer a warm welcome to the students of the Bossey Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies in Switzerland, and I offer prayerful good wishes for their work. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience I cordially invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!
© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[In Italian, he said:]
Lastly, an affectionate thought to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which today we conclude, offers us the possibility of reflection on our belonging to Christ and to the Church. Dear young people, trust in the teachings of the Church, which are aimed at your integral growth. Dear sick, offer your sufferings for the cause of the unity of Christ’s Church. And you, dear newlyweds, educate your children according to the logic of gratuitous love, after the model of God’s love for mankind.
[Translation by Diane Montagna]