Nick Moore writes: With ever stronger advice against social interaction and the prospect of restrictions on personal movement along the lines of those seen in China and other European countries, the concepts of ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ have become everyday talk. Then in the last couple of days, as the Church of England has suspended public worship, we suddenly find ourselves asking what praying at a distance looks like.
It is worth stating at the outset that we should not in fact be practising social distancing but spatial distancing (I owe this phrase to my diocesan bishop, Paul Butler, who has emphasized it numerous times, though doubtless others are saying it as well). Social interaction is fundamental to human wellbeing, and indeed fundamental to the sharing and living of the gospel, and wonderfully we have so many means at our disposal to stay socially connected – whether at 2 metres’ physical distance, singing from city balconies, or by phone, emails, messages, video calls, and the like. Indeed, one prayer and hope is that the current crisis will bring communities closer together socially even as it distances them spatially for a season. From my own family’s experience, we have already had more social contact with some relatives and neighbours in the past week than we would otherwise have had.
When it comes to prayer and worship, spatial distancing is not a new problem. When the people of Israel were carried off into exile by the Babylonians early in the sixth century BC, they were spatially distant from the land and the city of Jerusalem. This was not only the place God had given them as home, but was also where he had promised to make his home with them, which he did through his presence in Solomon’s Temple. The distance between Babylon and Jerusalem was compounded by the fact that the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, seemingly breaking off the spatial presence of God with his people.
In the Book of Daniel, which is set during the exile, we read of Daniel’s prayers at several points. Daniel 6:10 records his practice of praying three times a day, with the windows of his house opened towards Jerusalem – far off, but not forgotten. In chapter 9, following Daniel’s impassioned prayer for his nation, we read this:
while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen before in a vision, came to me in swift flightat the time of the evening sacrifice. (Dan 9:21)
What is striking here is that even though the Temple has been destroyed and Daniel is miles from Jerusalem, he has synchronized one of his daily prayer times with the evening sacrifice. This was one of two daily Temple sacrifices, known as the tamid (see Exod 29:38-46). It is precisely at this time that he prays, and that God answers him by sending the angel Gabriel. It seems likely that Daniel’s two other daily prayer times would have taken place at the time of the morning sacrifice and at noon (cf. Ps 55:17). Because in Israelite belief the daily sacrifices reflected the cosmic, never-failing worship of God by his angels in heaven, praying at those times still made sense even when there was no earthly Temple and no actual sacrifices were being offered.
A similar practice is found in the apocryphal/deuterocanonical Book of Judith, which is set after the return from exile. Here, at a similar time of great need for the people of God, who are threatened by an Assyrian general, we find the main character Judith praying to God:
At the very time when the evening incense was being offered in the house of God in Jerusalem, Judith cried out to the Lord with a loud voice, and said … (Judith 9:1)
You might be wondering what relevance this has for Christians today. Well, Jews continued this practice after their return from exile, both in the resettled land and across the Jewish diaspora as well. It was also continued by the earliest believers in Jesus, who were all Jews. The ending of Luke’s Gospel describes the believers meeting in Jerusalem, and says ‘they were continually in the temple blessing God’ (Luke 24:53). The word ‘continually’ here is the Greek phrase dia pantos, and it should be understood as ‘regularly’ (as the notion that they were continuously or ceaselessly in the temple is hardly plausible, a point Dennis Hamm makes well).
There is more we can say: in the Greek Old Testament, dia pantos translates the Hebrew phrase tamid, which also means ‘regularly’, but which became a kind of technical term for the twice-daily Temple sacrifices, as mentioned above. So we should understand Luke 24:53 as saying that the very first Jesus followers, after his ascension, prayed twice daily in the Jerusalem Temple at the times of the sacrifices. This inference is confirmed by Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, where we find Peter and John ‘going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon [literally the ninth hour, i.e. the time of the evening sacrifice]’(Acts 3:1).
This is not just a practice for those in Jerusalem. Later in Acts we meet Cornelius. He is described as ‘a devout man who feared God … gave alms … and prayed constantly to God’ (Acts 10:2). The word translated ‘constantly’ in the NRSV is, you guessed it, that same dia pantos/ twice-daily term. That is not all. In the very next verse, we read that ‘one afternoon at about three o’clock [again, the ninth hour/evening sacrifice] he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God’ (Acts 10:3). Just like Daniel, Cornelius receives an angelic visitor during his evening prayers.
We find the dia pantos phrase in a context of prayer and worship in the Letter to the Hebrews as well. The author speaks at length about the old covenant sacrificial system, and shows knowledge of the tamid/ twice daily sacrifice (Heb 9:6). Both the daily, ongoing sacrifices of the ordinary priests and the once-a-year Day of Atonement sacrifice of the high priest (Heb 9:7) are fulfilled in Jesus’ saving work, given that he entered heaven once-for-all and obtained eternal redemption (Heb 9:11-12), and is always making intercession for his people (Heb 7:25).
The author of Hebrews doesn’t think the daily sacrifices are fulfilled only in Jesus. He also connects them with believers:
Through Jesus, then, let us continually [dia pantos] offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Heb 13:15-16)
Here we are encouraged to make a twice-daily offering of praise. Christian sacrifices are not limited to praise, however, but include doing good and sharing what we have.
This practice of daily prayer didn’t disappear, of course, but continued into the church. We find both thrice-daily and twice-daily patterns in the early church, and over time this developed into the fully orbed Liturgy of the Hours within the monastic tradition, with one nighttime and seven daytime offices. In the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer revised the medieval Roman Catholic daily offices into twice-daily prayer, partly on the basis of ancient Jewish and early Christian practice, and partly to make prayer accessible and achievable for ordinary working people and not just the clergy and those in religious communities.
All of this shows that down the ages God’s people have had to deal with spatial distance in their prayer and worship. One of the primary ways in which they sought to overcome spatial distance was through temporal proximity. By synchronizing their times of prayer and worship with the Temple’s twice-daily pattern, they put themselves literally ‘in sync’ with rhythms of divine and cosmic worship that preceded and transcended any crisis in the present moment. This kept them close to God, and also meant they were close to their fellow believers, no matter where they found themselves in the world.
So what might this mean for people working at home, self-isolating, spatially distant from the sports clubs, social groups, churches, and other communities that form such an essential part of our daily lives? Here are five suggestions for what it might look like in terms of prayer (though this could be extended to other activities as well!).
First, you may not be meeting in your church building, but why not keep the same service time and have a Bible reading, sing, and pray, either on your own or in your household. If your church has a scheduled sermon series or follows the lectionary, or is producing some kind of resource or live stream, you could even be reading, singing, and praying the same things at the same time. Via online videoconferencing such as Skype or Zoom, you could even pray together in small to medium-sized groups. Don’t underestimate the power of synchronization!
Secondly, Archbishops Justin and Sentamu have called for this Sunday 22 March to be set aside as a day of prayer and action. They recommend lighting a candle and placing it visibly in a window at 7pm as a sign of solidarity and hope in Christ. Don’t underestimate the power of synchronization!
Thirdly, if you find that the current circumstances mean more time has been freed up in your calendar, or at least that your usual schedule or framework has become much more fluid, this could be a great opportunity for you to take up or recommit to daily times of prayer. The Church of England’s Daily Prayer services are available online and via an app, and there are many other freely available resources out there to help you pray regularly. Again, your church may have had regular morning and/or evening services on weekdays, so why not commit to praying at the time those would have taken place? Don’t underestimate the power of synchronization!
Fourthly, it is also very easy to share reflections or comments on readings and prayers, as well as prayer requests, through a whole range of media from PrayerMate to Facebook groups to WhatsApp, and perhaps you could commit to sharing with a group of fellow church members after your act of worship on Sunday. The exhortation from Hebrews 13 also encourages us not to stop at prayer, but to do good and to share what we have – a timely and sobering reminder at time of panic buying and stockpiling. The point is that our regular prayer lives should drive us on to these other responses. Don’t underestimate the power of synchronization!
Finally, recall that in Daniel and Judith their impassioned daily prayers at times of national crisis led to God’s gracious and saving intervention, in his good timing. And in the case of Cornelius, God chose this Gentile soldier’s regular afternoon quiet time to show up and change the course of salvation history. In all of these cases, the disciplined commitment to regular prayer has its part to play in God’s wider purposes. Above all, don’t underestimate the power of prayer!
Dr Nick Moore is Director of the MA Programmes at Cranmer Hall, and teaches Biblical Studies, Anglicanism, and (whenever he gets the chance!) Patristics. He is passionate about conveying the wealth of the biblical and Christian tradition to each and every person, and carrying the gospel across languages and cultures. Nick is married to Bekah, who shares his love of languages and ministry, and they have two primary-aged children.