Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Such beautiful words. They sound like my bed feels at the end of a very long day; or like my mother’s arms when I was a child, frustrated at my inability to get something right; or like the peace of an empty church when I’m burdened with sadness or guilt or worry.

Those of you familiar with the old Book of Common Prayer will recognize these words of Jesus as being included in the “comfortable words” read to the congregation after the confession and absolution, assuring them that the forgiveness that has been pronounced by the priest is indeed God’s forgiveness, promised and pronounced in the Bible. The load we carry is our sin and Jesus invites us to lay it down and rest, safe and secure in his saving grace.

These words, in this place, teach us something about the work of Jesus, the primacy of Scripture as the source for our knowledge and confidence, and the secondary nature of the priest.

What we pray – the words we use, the order in which we put them, the gestures we make – shapes what we believe – what we know of our faith and our God. This is the principle of lex orendi, lex credendi – the law of praying is the law of believing.

This principle first appears in the written record early in the 5th century but is surely older than that. Our worship, as Christian community, is what links us to the fellowship of the apostles – the teaching, the prayers, and the breaking of the bread. It is what forms us into the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. Our liturgy is not just about aesthetics or tradition or creating a mood or reflecting our communal character or even our shared beliefs- liturgy is not simply a response or reflection. Liturgy is active, formational, powerful.

One of the great gifts of our liturgical tradition, one many are unaware of, is that our mouths and hearts are filled with scripture every time we gather in prayer- whichever prayer book we use.

Whole prayers are lifted from the books of the Bible – prayers of blessing and of greeting and of sending. Our collects and confessions and absolutions and thanksgivings overrun with quotations and references and echoes of images and phrases from the psalms and prophets and wisdom literature of the Old Testament and from the words of Jesus and the epistles of his first followers.

We are, whether we know it or not, a people steeped in and shaped by Holy Scripture, thanks to our common prayer. Lex orendi, lex credendi – we pray the Bible; we believe the Bible.

I think this is a very good thing -but it has a shadow side, too.

When we are not aware of what is happening; when we don’t know where our prayers come from and why we do what we do; when we don’t discover for ourselves the richness of our tradition in the midst of actually reading the Bible for ourselves, the knowledge becomes entirely implicit, the formation unconscious. This can limit our ability to draw on it when we need it in contexts other than corporate worship – and it can limit our understandings to those presented to us liturgically.

As Anglicans, we often pride ourselves on thinking for ourselves, for having the freedom and the responsibility to reach our own conclusions about biblical interpretation and theological questions. But how many of us actually take the time to do our homework?

The comfortable words of Jesus can rightly be understood to refer to our freedom from sin and guilt, our freedom from the need to be perfect in order to earn our salvation. But is that the only way to read them.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus issues his invitation at the end of what can only be described as a rant against all the people, supposedly intelligent and wise, who have been incapable of hearing the prophecy of John the Baptist or seeing the revelation of Jesus himself. Instead, it has been the infants – the simple and unsophisticated and needy – who have understood what they were seeing, who were able to perceive the truth and participate in the work of God. For this, apparently, was God’s gracious will.

This makes me uncomfortable.

For, I must confess, I aspire to be both intelligent and wise. I also aspire to see the truth and to participate in the work of God.   Are these aspirations simply incompatible? Do I need to accept the fact that I am either not as smart and capable as I think I am or not actually chosen by God to do the work I am attempting to do? All that business, a few paragraphs up, about the importance of doing our own homework – is that all just a wearisome burden, better abandoned in favour of carefree simplicity? I think the larger share of the Anglican tradition winces at the very notion.

Fortunately, in spite of what it might look like, Jesus is not indulging in bit of anti-intellectualism. He is critiquing a certain kind of knowing; and certain kind of learnedness – but he is also referencing Holy Wisdom, using language and images taken from the Hebrew Scriptures, to claim this role for himself.

Wisdom is portrayed in Hebrew wisdom literature as an inviting, welcoming woman, who was with God in the beginning and is deeply implicated in the very nature of creation, and who holds the true knowledge of God. She promises deep refreshment for all who seek her out and a deep joy and righteousness of life. And she promises intelligence and insight and wisdom to all who answer her invitation: “Come to me”.

Jesus’ invitation echoes Wisdom’s. Rather than his usual “Follow me”, he says “Come to me” and claims this wisdom for himself, revealing himself to be Wisdom – the wisdom, the word, of God.

Jesus is both the revealer – the source of knowledge and understanding – and the revelation; the teacher and the lesson. When we are too focused on our own capacities for learning; on our own cleverness; our own traditions and their received wisdom; our own disciplines – we fail to understand because we fail to attend to the teacher.

Come to me and rest, Jesus says. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I believe that it is a good thing to do our homework; to study and question and think for ourselves; to interrogate our prayers and our beliefs and reach ever deeper levels of understanding. But when our ideas and opinions and knowledge become the content of our faith and the means of our salvation, we have missed the point and all of that learning is a burden rather than a blessing.

We are invited to lay that burden down in order to instead join Jesus in carrying his joyful burden; knowing God and making God known in acts of love and healing and creativity…and in the holy work of learning.

Lex orendi lex credendi. As we pray, so we believe. This ancient principle, predating the creeds or the Biblical canon, reminds us that it is our relationship to Jesus that defines our knowing, not the other way around. It is about more than the significance of liturgical traditions; more than the formational power of liturgy.

It is about the primacy of prayer, personal as well as corporate, in theological knowledge. It offers us a way to lay our burdens down – be they burdens of guilt or burdens of inadequacy or burdens of doctrine or burdens of tradition- in order to be refreshed by the Wisdom of God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

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