Pope Francis inaugurated a Year of Mercy in December 2015. As an Anglican I have been pondering his inspiring call to reflect on mercy. In this piece I want to do that through re-reading the distinctively Anglican prayer known as the Prayer of Humble Access and its characterisation of God as full of ‘manifold and great mercies’. At the end I have included a contemporary rendering of the prayer.
We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
The Prayer of Humble Access is widely disparaged – the ‘humble crumble’ – as a totem of a residual, nostalgic, Book of Common Prayer (BCP) sensibility and culture. It appears to be unremittingly negative about the body, soul and spirit.
I did not grow up with the Prayer of Humble Access in its BCP form, but a bowdlerised version in the Alternative Service Book 1980. The prayer is not a nostalgic one for me but has connected with me quite recently as a personal prayer of preparation before receiving Communion. Why do I think that?
The question of unworthiness is a tricky one. How can I be unworthy if the forgiveness of my sins has been declared in my baptism, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the general confession at the beginning of the Eucharist? A sense of unworthiness before God and other people can be crippling. It can also be enabling. For example, Moses, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jonah and the Blessed Virgin Mary, are all aware of their unworthiness in the face of what God calls them to do. They respond to God in the face of the inadequacy: Moses’ inarticulacy (Exodus 6.12); Isaiah’s unclean lips (Isaiah 6.5); Jeremiah’s youth (Jeremiah 1.6); Jonah’s sense of unworthiness was marked by flight from God’s call (Jonah 1.3); Mary’s wonder at what was being asked of her (Luke 1.34). There is such a thing as a healthy sense of unworthiness. It acknowledges the capacity to receive the worth that God gives each of us created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1.26).
More than unworthiness the prayer calls us away from an overblown sense of our own righteousness like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18.9-14). Un/worthiness and un/righteousness is overhauled by God’s ‘manifold and great mercies’, the God whose nature, ‘is always to have mercy’. I become more and more aware that trusting in my own righteousness is entirely wrong way to approach God and my neighbour. The Pharisee approaches the holy place trusting in his own righteousness, the publican ‘[does] not presume’ to trust in anything other than God’s mercy.
Daniel prays, ‘we do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies’ (Daniel 9.18b). A deeper understanding of the rich Biblical seam of mercy is very timely. What do we mean when we say, ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’, ‘Merciful Father, accept these prayers…’ or ‘Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison (Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy)? How do we articulate the Christian understanding of the ‘merciful Father’ to Muslims who know God as Compassionate and Merciful? (See also James. 5.11b).
The momentum of the prayer is one of approaching: there is a forward trajectory. It evokes Moses approaching the bush that was on fire but miraculously not consumed, and the LORD told him, ‘remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you stand is holy ground’ (Exodus 3.5).
The sandals of our vanity and egoism are what we take off as we approach God in the Sacrament. In vivid language the prayer expresses our unworthiness – much as the publican – but the abject language grates for many. Why do we have to say that we are not worthy, ‘to eat the crumbs from under thy table’? The Syro-Phoenician woman got it (Matthew 15.21-28; Mark. 7.24-30) – ‘woman, great is your faith’ – after first approaching Jesus saying, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David’ (Matthew 15.22).
Left there the prayer outright denies the rich language of the declaration from God that in Christ, we are profoundly worthy. By baptism we are his Body before we share in his broken Body of the Sacrament.
After we acknowledge the disabling and dissembling character of ‘our own righteousness’ which frustrates God’s loving purpose, the prayer changes gear. There is new trajectory. The Lord’s property is to have mercy, that is to act kindly and justly and consistent with the purpose that we, believing in him, ‘should not perish’ and that Christ does not come to condemn (John 3.16-17).
The approach we make is to share God’s life. We are not spectators like Moses, but partakers in the Divine Glory. Like the Bush, we are set on fire in the Spirit but are not consumed. Boldly, Peter declares that when we set the corruptions of self and the world, we become ‘participants of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4).
So we approach, prompted by God, ‘the Father of Mercies’ (2 Corinthians 1.3) to share at his table where we are not just worthy to be, but invited.
This is where another layer of biblical allusion is added. We need to go to the sixth chapter of St John’s gospel where we find this vivid language of Christ’s Body and Blood. Jesus speaks of the bread, the manna, which the Israelites ate in the wilderness. It sustained them only a day at a time (John 6.49). The Living Bread that comes down from heaven will feed, sustain and give eternal life: eat it and you will never die. But Jesus moves us on from thinking that this is simply bread or perishable manna; it is his flesh. As it was for many of his first hearers, this is a stumbling block to so many (John 6.60).
In the prayer this fleshly language continues, ‘that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood’. In a time when we are so alert to the corrosive effect of low self-esteem and poor body image to speak of ‘our sinful bodies’ seems beyond the pale. Where is any sense of valuing the human body, which is, ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit within you’ (1 Corinthians 6.19)?
It comes back to a profound honesty about who we are, and, actually, the great dignity of not being abandoned. It is the lost sheep who is sought out and brought back by the Good Shepherd; the lost coin sought out by the woman; the wayward son welcomed back by the father (Luke 15).
To say ‘our sinful bodies’ acknowledges that they are in need of repair, healing and redemption and can be made clean and whole by God’s grace. After all, the woman in the parable swept and made clean her house as she searched for the lost coin (Luke 15.8). This is the redeemed washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7.14).
The prayer is about much more than any sense that it’s only about me sorting myself out. As Pope Francis reminds us, drawing from the Fathers, ‘The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’ (Evangelii Gaudium §47, p. 29). It seems to me that the prayer makes that clear.
It is God who makes me a worthy recipient of his grace in the Sacrament: he first loved me (1 John 4.19) and all my life is about catching up with that reality.
That reality, and human-divine interplay, is total in Jesus Christ and is the source and summit of my life. The prayer ends with a great restatement of human worthiness in Incarnation of the Word, that, ‘he may dwell in us and we in him’.
A contemporary version of The Prayer of Humble Access
Most merciful Lord,
your love compels us to come in.
Our hands were unclean,
our hearts were unprepared;
we were not fit
even to eat the crumbs from under your table.
But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation,
and share your bread with sinners.
So cleanse and feed us
with the precious body and blood of your Son,
that he may live in us and we in him;
and that we,
with the whole company of Christ,
may sit and eat in your kingdom.
Text of the prayers from Common Worship © Archbishops' Council 2000
© Andrew Bishop 2016