John 17:1-11, the Gospel reading for the seventh Sunday of Easter, is the longest prayer recorded by Jesus in Holy Scripture. It has been compared to the “Our Father,” though the prayers are not really similar, other than the commonly-occuring phrase “deliver [them] from evil.”
John 17 has been called a “high priestly prayer” by a number of scripture scholars, including Andre Feuillet in The Priesthood of Christ and His Ministers. [FYI, Feuillet is also a scripture scholar, having authored Etudes Johanniques (“Johannine Studies”)]. Benedict XVI credits the research of Dr. Feuillet when he says of John 17:
The structure and ritual described in Leviticus 16 is reproduced exactly in Jesus’ prayer: just as the high priest makes atonement for himself, for the priestly clan, and for the whole community of Israel, so Jesus prays for himself, for the Apostles, and finally for all who will come to believe in him through their word – for the Church of all times. [Jesus] sanctifies himself and he obtains the sanctification of those who are his. (Jn. 17:20).
In reading Leviticus 16, this parallel may not be immediately evident. However, Leviticus 16 describes an atonement ritual, which the Jewish priest is required to perform on behalf of the community. For Jesus, the act of atonement is the cross (Mark 10:45, I Cor 15:3, I Peter 2:24). If we understand the cross as an act of atonement, then the parallel between Leviticus 16:33-34 and John 17 begins to emerge.
But Jesus prayer in John 17 is not an explicit prayer of atonement. The atonement is the cross itself. The prayer, on the other hand, is a petition to sanctify the disciples, as Benedict points out. Benedict calls the prayer in John 17 a thysia logike, a sacrifice of the Word, or ‘spiritual sacrifice.’ Paul refers to a conceptually similar logiken latreian (literally, praise/service to the Word) in Romans 12:1. The NAB translates the term in Romans 12:1 as “spiritual worship.” Note also that Paul in Romans 12:2 says “be not conformed to this world,” just as Jesus says the same John 17:14.
The petition is at the same time very touching and truly astonishing. Jesus is arguing a case before the Father that the faith of his disciples ought to be found worthy… even if their faith does not always hold firm in the short term.
Given that this prayer is recited at the Last Supper, it is also shows Jesus’ unselfish concern for the church and its disciples, rather than his own fate. Though Jesus has a fair idea that he is about to be arrested, his prayer asks God that those who “belong to the Father” may remain as one, be consecrated in the truth, and know the same love of the Father that Jesus knows . Jesus makes his case in verses 6 to 9:
I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours…
Jesus uses the term ἁγιάζω (hagiazo) three times during the prayer. In English, we would say “sanctify” or “consecrate.” Both the Latin vulgate and the Protestant NIV translate hagiazo as “sanctify,” while the Catholic NAB uses “consecrate.” In plainspeak, to ‘sanctify’ is to make an everyday thing holy, while to ‘consecrate’ means to permanently set aside something for sacred use.
Jesus speaks of sanctifying his disciples, and he speak of God sanctifying him. The “priestly prayer” of John 17 is the end of Jesus’ long discourse at the Last Supper, as recounted in the Gospel of John. The Sunday Gospel readings, having completed the cycle of John 14-17, prepare us for the Pentecost, which is the next Sunday’s readings. In fact, Jesus’ prayer to sanctify the disciples is answered when the Holy Spirit comes upon the eleven, and the church, at Pentecost.