Prayer and the image of God
Words of Spirituality
by ENZO BIANCHI
It is in Christ on the cross that we now find the presence and image of God: "He is the image of the invisible God"
In prayer we turn to the God we "have not seen" (cf. 1 John 4:20) - and yet in prayer a certain image of God on the part of the one who prays is necessarily involved. The risk of falsehood and idolatry is evident: we run the risk of creating for ourselves a God in our own image and likeness, and making prayer an act of self-justification and self-reassurance in which which we remain closed within ourselves. The Lucan parable about the prayer of the pharisee and the tax collector at the Temple (Luke 18:9-14) is significant. Their two different attitudes in prayer express two different images of God related to the different images the two men have of themselves. The pharisee's prayer reveals the attitude of someone who considers his conscience clear before God. His God, in his eyes, cannot fail to praise his behavior, yet the last sentence of the narrative rejects his image of God - he does not return home justified! While the tax collector exposes himself radically to the alterity of God, and in so doing enters into a right relationship with God, the pharisee superimposes his 'ego' on God's image: in his prayer there is (con)fusion between his 'I' and 'God.' For those who are religious, this risk is a frequent one! The centrality of listening in Christian prayer tells us that prayer is the space in which the images of God we create are broken, purified, and converted.
In prayer two freedoms seek each other, human freedom and God's freedom. During this search, the gulf between the image of God created by the one who prays and God's revealed alterity becomes the distance between request and response, longing and fulfillment. This is why invocation is at the heart of Christian prayer: "Your will be done" (Matthew 6:10). Within the space that separates our will from the will of God, prayer acts as a site of conversion and acceptance of God's will. This is the distance, and the prayer, Jesus himself experienced at Gethsemani: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will" (Mark 14:36). It is the distance, and the prayer, Paul experienced in a particularly dramatic way: "To keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Paul accepts the denial of his request, and his prayer leads him to reflect in his own existence the image of the God who does not give him what he asks, but who remains beside him in his weakness. Paul has to accept the modification of his image of God, as correct and respectful as that image already was. In doing so, he allows his life to be conformed more and more fully to the revealed image of God, Christ crucified.Christian prayer re-creates the one who prays in the image of the crucified Christ. And Christ, in his cry on the cross, accepted the total absence of images of God. The cry "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) proclaims the chasm between the familiar image of the face of God and the present reality. After Jesus' cry of abandonment, according to Mark, there is only another cry, this time inarticulate: "Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last" (Mark 15:37). There is no longer any word or image; there is no longer any theo-logy; there is no longer any word about God; there is no longer any representation of God. As a result, there is no longer any reduction of God to an idol! The three hours of silence and darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour are the seal of this wordlessness and invisibility of God who safeguards his mystery and his alterity. But it is precisely this radical annihilation of images of God (who has ever thought to depict God in a condemned criminal?) and words about God (what lógos is not broken in two by God crucified?) that is also a radical abolition of idolatry, of our reduction of God to our image. It is in Christ on the cross that we now find the presence and image of God: "He is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15).
The crucified Christ annihilates God as man's image and gives us a man who is the image (eikón) of God. Christ on the cross is the image of God that destroys our images of God. The crucified Christ is also the image before which we pray, but who must destroy the images we project, intentionally or despite our best intentions, onto God. The image of God revealed by Christ on the cross contradicts the image of God 'professed' by the pharisee at the Temple - an image connected to a certain consideration of himself supported by a derogatory image of others. In prayer, then, we 'compose' our images of ourself, of others, and of God around the crucified Christ. The image of God that is Christ on the cross preserves Paul from the temptation of pride and from his own 'super-ego': his "being too elated" (hyper-aíromai, 2 Corinthians 12:7) is converted into boasting of the sufferings he has endured for the sake of Christ (hypèr Christoû, 2 Corinthians 12:10). Through prayer, Paul participates in the suffering of Christ: "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus" (Galatians 6:17; cf. Colossians 1:24). As prayer transforms those who pray into the image of Christ crucified, it also becomes a promise of resurrection and the space in which we are transfigured in the image of the Lord in glory (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18).