After Christ’s Ascension, we are told the disciples repaired to “an upper room” – perhaps the very same room in which the last supper had been eaten – and there they “all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (1:14), and ten days later, “when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place” (2:1), and it may surmised, again “with one accord in prayer and supplication”.
It’s not difficult to guess what they were praying about: just before being taken up into heaven, Jesus had told them “ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (1:8). Conscious of the greatness of the task before them, and their own weakness and need, they were praying for the power of the Spirit “who spake by the prophets” as they bear witness to Christ in a hostile world. As Paul would put it some years later, in a letter from prison to the Christians of Ephesus, he asks their prayers “that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel,for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:19, 20).
For the church to speak the words of God to the world, “to make know the mystery of the gospel”, it must first speaks the words of God “with one accord in prayer and supplication” for the power of the Spirit. As Oliver O’Donovan said, “the prayers of the Church seek one thing only, the final manifestation of God’s rule on earth. Nevertheless, because it is called into existence in order to witness to that coming manifestation through its own life and word, it prays also for God’s power at work within itself”. As the epistle lesson for the Sunday after Ascension puts it, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).
That’s why, when the English reformers set about the great project of reforming the English church and people by the gospel, they began with a reform of the church’s common prayers, as the foundation for the long process of preaching and teaching, evangelization and catechesis, that would follow. It is probably no coincidence, either, that the first Prayer Book came into official use on the Feast of Pentecost, 1549.
In our own time, when a new proclamation of the word of God is needed once more, a new evangelization and catechesis that begins with the church itself, this legacy of common prayer abides, as the foundation for the renewal of the church and of society. “Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire…”