Luke 23:44-46: It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
I’m going to begin a prayer and you help me finish the first couple lines
Our Father, who art…
Hail Mary, full of grace…
Glory be to the Father…
The Lord is my shepherd…
Now I lay me down to sleep…
Some of you may not even remember learning the words of those prayers. They stir up from your minds almost automatically. The words feel like a part of you and they slide out of your mouth as easily as breath. When we understand ourselves to pray with the help of the Holy Spirit, these prayers are the way God, through Jesus and the Spirit, gives structure, pattern, and depth to our prayers.
Even children can (and should) learn these words. Does it matter if they fully understand what they mean? It does not. Does it matter if we fully comprehend these prayers? It does not. Our prayers- in word and deed- express our trust in God, our lived out hope that we may live to see and comprehend how God is acting in the world for renewal, healing, and resurrection.
Jesus told the disciples, who were concerned about their status in heaven, that they needed to change their thinking and become more like children. The only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is to become like a child. This does not mean to act childishly, in the way that we might imagine (or hope). It means to have the faith of one who has not yet learned of harshness, to have the clear intentions of one who speaks the truth because she does not know how to lie, to have the ability to imagine and reach for entirely brand-new possibilities- all of which is rooted in having experienced safety and care from the very first minutes of life.
“Into thy hands, I commit my spirit” was a child’s bedtime prayer in the time of Jesus. It is likely that Mary would sit down next to a young Yeshua, settling down for sleep on his bed of rushes in the family room. They might have sung a soft song or recited the Sh’ma (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one). She might have spoken a soft prayer or blessing over him. Then she would have reminded him of the last prayer of the night. The last words for each child (and adult to speak) before falling asleep were a quotation of Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”
These words, believed to be of David- shepherd boy and powerful King- were the last prayer of the night, the prayer of trust and expressed hope before surrendering to the oblivion of sleep, which must have seemed like a kind of death. Praying as the psalmist gave parents a way to teach their children about trusting in God- a Creator and Redeemer who was with them in a way that even their own parents could not be.
Thus, young Jesus would have uttered this prayer every day of his life. He would likely never remember having learned it. He might remember his mother helping him pray it. Or remember hearing Joseph whisper it at the end of a day’s labors. Jesus might have prayed it in the night with other children in his family- as they piled in together for sleep, exhausted after play, worship, and work.
When Jesus prays this from the cross, he is no longer a child. He no longer retained the innocence of one who has not seen evil. He had been betrayed, denied, rejected, beaten, and crucified. His humanity had been stretched to its breaking point and that same humanness was about to experience the end of earthly human experience- death. Yet, in this moment, he is still the Son, still God’s anointed, still Emmanuel- God with us. Even as he experiences, he teaches. Even as he teaches, he saves. Even as he saves, he transforms.
Jesus utters this prayer, “Into thy hands, I commit my spirit” and transforms it for his own self on the cross and for all who would pray it after him. By adding the word “Father”, Jesus reveals his nature as the pioneer of our faith- leading us into a new kind of intimacy and familial relationship with God, with himself, and with one another. Jesus prays the words just as he has thousands of times, but this time, we are able to hear that he is not David. He is not just another claimant to the title of Messiah. He is not a failed political revolutionary. He is not a rejected king.
Only one who knows the heart of God would dare to address the Ground of All Being as “Father”. The only one would could truly know the heart of the Holy Parent is one who was of that heart, was of the same being, understood the same things, and had the same desires since before the beginning of creation. Only the Living Word would dare to pray with such familiarity and deep trust, trust that came not of hope, but out of knowledge.
Only Jesus would pray a children’s bedtime prayer in the moment of his death to teach all who hear and all who follow how to live and how to die with true faith- born out of concrete expectation in God’s faithfulness.
Every prayer of Jesus is a model for us, a way to pray- as children of faith, as children of light, as children of adoption by the Holy Spirit. In his last words, Jesus teaches us how to pray in the hour of death. Since most of us do not know that hour, we are therefore empowered to pray in this way every day of our lives, every moment of our lives. When driving, before sleeping, in choosing a daily intention, in our hobbies, in our relationships… by praying as Jesus did, “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit”- we are asking the Father to shape our will, our actions, and our prayers to God’s own will, actions, and plans.
In that way, it is a challenging word, a challenging prayer. It requires us to understand that external forces may alter our experience, but they cannot ultimately change us if we are ever giving our spirit over to God’s own control. Jesus knew who he was and whose he was, and still he prayed, “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit.”
We who seek daily to live with the same knowledge- whose we are and who we are- can do nothing less to pray in the same way, with the heart of child, with trust, with hope, and with abandon. Let it be the new prayer we know by heart- “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit.”