St. Thomas Aquinas on the Prayer of Christ as Manifest in the Prayers of the Mass

The Angelic Doctor’s overarching concern in treating of Christ’s prayer is to show that Jesus’ primary purpose in praying was to draw us to imitate him.

St. Thomas Aquinas begins his exposition on prayer in the Summa theologiae by explaining that prayer is not an act of the appetitive power, but is rather an act of reason. 1 Yet, later in the Summa, in his question concerning the prayer of Christ, he asks whether Jesus’ prayer was the expression of His sensuous impulse.   2 Why does he raise an issue that he has seemingly already settled?

One possible answer is that revisiting the relationship between prayer and the sensitive appetite, enables Aquinas to discuss how the liturgy brings the ecclesia orans into greater conformity with the crucified Savior. This becomes clear when one examines how certain prayers of the Roman Missal manifest one of the things Thomas says Christ’s prayer is intended to teach us: “that it is permissible for a man to entertain an instinctive affection for something which God does not will. 3

Putting on Christ through putting on his desires
The Angelic Doctor’s overarching concern in treating of Christ’s prayer is to show that Jesus’ primary purpose in praying was to draw us to imitate him: “As God, Christ could accomplish all that he desired, but not as man. … Yet, even though in his one person, he was God as well as man, he wished to offer prayer to the Father. It was not that he, as a person, lacked any power; he did this for our instruction.” 4 Thomas then enumerates two things Jesus sought to teach us by this means: “He wished firstly to reveal to us that he was from the Father. So, we find him saying: ‘Because of the people who stand about, have I said it’—namely the vocal prayer—’that they may believe that Thou hast sent me.’” … Secondly, he wished to offer us an example. 5

It is in keeping with this notion of Christ’s offering us an example that Aquinas enters into the question of whether Jesus’ prayer was the expression of his sensuous impulse. St. Thomas initially answers that—following what has already been said about prayer emanating from the reason—Christ’s prayer could not be the expression of his sensuality, “since his sensuality was of the same nature and species in Christ as in us.” 6

Having repeated his earlier teaching, Thomas then considers the question from a different angle, observing that we may be said to pray according to the sensuality when our prayer lays before God what is in our appetite of sensuality; and in this sense Christ prayed with his sensuality inasmuch as his prayer expressed the desire of his sensuality, as if it were the advocate of the sensuality.” 7

With that consideration, he has the opening he needs to elucidate the particular things that Christ sought to teach us with his prayer: “First, he wished to reveal to us that he had assumed a true human nature, with all its natural urges. Second, he wished to show that it is permissible for a man to entertain an instinctive affection for something which God does not will. Third, he wished to show that man must submit his own impulses to the Divine will.” 8

Attention to Thomas’s original language is particularly important in understanding his meaning in the passage quoted above. The words “urges,” “affection,” and “impulses,” in the Blackfriars translation used here, appear, in the English Dominican Fathers’ translation, as “affections,” “desire,” and “will,” respectively. Yet, in the original Latin, the same root word—affectus—is used in all three sentences:

Primo quidem ut ostenderet se veram naturam humanam suscepisse cum omnibus naturalibus affectibus. Secundo, ut ostenderet quod homini licet, secundum naturalem affectum, aliquid velle quod Deus non vult. Tertio, ut ostendat quod proprium affectum debet homo divinae voluntati subjicere. 9

Given the multivalence of the word affectus, the translators, no doubt, had ample reason to translate it in various ways, but it is, nonetheless, unfortunate that Thomas’  parallelism is, thereby, lost. In the compact sentences quoted above, Aquinas moves seamlessly between three different considerations: the natural affections of Christ; the natural affections of man; and the natural affections of man as they are subjected to the divine will.

Behind this parallelism is a point that Thomas has already established with regard to the defects of soul assumed by Christ: The Savior had “the affections {affections} of the sensitive appetite. … even as {he had} all else pertaining to man’s nature {naturam}.” 10 On this count, he cites the authority of Augustine: “The one who had the true body of a man, and the true spirit of a man, did not have counterfeit human feelings {affectus}.” 11

With this in mind, returning to the three things Aquinas says Christ sought to teach us with his prayer, we see a kind of exitus-reditus formula: Primo, Christ comes down to us, assuming our defects of soul (being like us in all things but sin {Heb 4:15}). Secundo, Christ, in sharing man’s defects of soul, demonstrates that they are not in themselves sinful, even when they cause us to “entertain an instinctive affection for something which God does not will.” 12 Tertio, man now has, through Christ, a model for offering those very defects, along with his whole self, as a sacrifice to God.

Defects become a gateway to grace
The sacrificial element of Aquinas’ third point with regard to Christ’s prayer—“He wished to show that man must submit his own impulses to the Divine will” 13—is implicit in the verb translated as “submit,” subjicere—to place under, make subject, or expose. Such subjection, as expressed by subjicere and its derivatives—is at the heart of Aquinas’ theology of sacrifice. Man’s “defects” reveal to him that he is subject to God:

Natural reason tells man that he is subject {subdatur} to a higher being, on account of the defects which he perceives in himself, and in which he needs help and direction from someone above him: and whatever this superior being may be, it is known to all under the name of God. … {It} is a dictate of natural reason that man should use certain sensibles, by offering them to God in sign of the subjection {subjectionis} and honor due to him, like those who make certain offerings to their lord in recognition of his authority. Now this is what we mean by a sacrifice … 14

If it is true that the prayer of Christ was intended to teach us both that we may legitimately have instinctive affections that are not God’s will, and that we are called to sacrifice such affections to God, one would expect to find an expression of such sacrifice in the prayers of the supreme sacrifice, the Mass. 15 And this is, in fact, the case, most notably with the Lord’s Prayer, in which the priest, acting in persona Christi, assumes the orans posture—manifesting Christ’s own prayer—as he and the faithful pray: “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Given that this subjection of our will to God’s has, for Aquinas, the nature of a sacrifice, it is not surprising that Thomas finds it particularly fitting that those words, and the ones that follow—in which “we ask for our daily bread to be given us”—are used in the Mass to prepare the people to receive Communion. 16

Beyond the Lord’s Prayer, the Roman Missal, throughout the liturgical year, contains petitions acknowledging both the reality that man may naturally will things that God does not will, and the need for man to subject such desires to God. Many of them contain variants of the verbs, transire or transferre, reflecting in their very language the Paschal mystery in which, through Christ, our Passover, we may “pass over” from love of earthly things, to love of heavenly things (cf. 1 Cor 5:7-9, Col 3:1-2). A particularly beautiful example is the Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your  mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass {bonis transeuntibus}
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.

Eamon Duffy observes that this prayer is carefully balanced between affirmation and renunciation. It is a prayer which affirms the goodness of God’s world, and at the same time, points to its dangers. … The things of this world are good, but have to be passed through. We are to be pilgrims, because if we settle for the good things of this world, we will lose ourselves, and God in them. 17

Appropriately, prayers using transferre verbs appear in abundance during the weeks after the Passover of the liturgical year, Easter Sunday. These prayers focus upon the need for our desires to be elevated so that we may be renewed by the Holy Spirit. 18 The manner in which our sacrifice of our desires becomes united in the Mass to Christ’s own sacrifice is highlighted in the Super oblata for Friday within the Octave of Easter: “Perfect within us, O Lord, we pray, the solemn exchange brought about by these paschal offerings, that we may be drawn from earthly desires to a longing for the things of heaven {ut a terrenis affectibus ad caeleste desiderium transferamur}.” 19

In showing how we are to learn from Christ’s own prayer, the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas draws us into a deeper understanding of how the prayers of the Mass enable us to enter more deeply into Christ’s sacrifice. 20 Such prayers, in teaching us to imitate Christ’s subjection of his human will to the divine will, guide us toward the beatitude envisioned by Thomas’ great admirer Dante: “In his will is our peace.” 21

  1. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q. 83, a. 1. Unless otherwise noted, translations of the ST are taken from Summa theologica, tr. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947).
  2. ST III, q. 21, a. 2.
  3. Ibid., Blackfriars translation.
  4.  ST III, q. 21, a. 1, ad 1, Blackfriars translation.
  5. Ibid.
  6. ST III, q. 21, a. 2.
  7. ST III, q. 21, a. 2.
  8. Ibid., Blackfriars translation.
  9. Ibid.
  10. ST III, q. 15, a. 4.
  11. “Neque enim in quo verum erat hominis corpus et verus hominis animus, falsus erat humanus affectus.” ST III, q. 15, a. 4.
  12. ST III, q. 21, a. 2, Blackfriars translation.
  13. Ibid.
  14. ST II-II, q. 85, a. 1.
  15. “Among sacrifices there can be none greater than the body and blood of Christ, nor any more powerful oblation.” Pope Alexander I, quoted in ST III, q. 73, a. 5.
  16. ST III, q. 83, a. 4.
  17. Eamon Duffy, Faith of Our Fathers (London: Continuum, 2004), 117. The reference to the possibility that “we will lose ourselves, and God in them,” is tied to the last line of the prayer as it appeared in the Roman Missal of 1962: “sic transeamus per bona temporalia, ut non amittamus aeterna.” In the Mass of Paul VI, that line was changed. It now reads, “sic bonis transeuntibus nunc utamur, ut tam possimus inhaerere mansuris.”
  18. Cf. Collect at Mass during the day of Easter.
  19. Other Easter prayers making use of the verb transferre in this manner include the Post Communion for the Wednesday within the Octave for Easter and the Collect for the Monday after the Third Sunday of Easter.
  20. Cf. ST III, q. 82, a. 1, ad 2.
  21. Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto 3, line 85.
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Dawn Eden holds a master’s degree in theology from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at Dominican House of Studies, where she is currently studying toward an S.T.L. She is the author of: "My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints" (Ave Maria Press, 2012).

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