I’m going to begin a prayer and you help me finish the first couple lines
Our Father, who art…
The Lord is my shepherd…
Now I lay me down to sleep…
Most of us do not remember learning these words. They stir up from out minds almost automatically. The words feel like a part of us and they slide out of our mouths as easily as breath.
“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 relationship, we can and should ask God to shape our will, our actions, and our prayers to God’s own will, actions, and plans. We do this in the imitation of Christ’s last words, in letting this be the prayer we know by heart, “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit.”