By Justin Rossow
I am such an idiot. I had just read something cool about how J. S. Bach started many of his compositions with the initials, “J.J.” Latin shorthand for “Jesus, help!” (I already knew he often finished a score with “S.D.G.” or “to God alone the glory,” and I was really excited about this new discovery.)
Almost immediately, I shared what I had learned with our team of Visual Faith artists just as we were beginning the When from Death I’m Free hymn journal for Holy Week project. I thought the idea of beginning our work with “Jesus, help!” (just like Bach did) was pretty awesome!
Except my Latin isn’t that good and I didn’t triple check before I sent the email because, well, it was an email after all, and no one would have ever been the wiser if my mistake had died a quiet death buried in the inbox of five illustrators.
But I was so pleased with my discovery, that when it came time to write the Author’s Note in the front of the hymn journal, I repeated the story, and ended up repeating the mistake. No one caught it in the proofreading process, because Latin, and so the mistake has blithely made its way into congregations and families across the United States and around the world.
I got the “J.J.” part right, and it does stand for, “Jesus, help!” The phrase should read in Latin, “Jesu Juva.” I told everyone I know that it stands for “Jesu Jura.”
Not a big mistake, you say? That’s fine. Except that I think “Jesu Jura” means something drastically different. I’m no Latin scholar (obviously) but I think “Jesu Jura” should come out to be something like, “Jesus, judge me!”
Not the words of hope and comfort and promise I was trying to share. Not the benediction on our work together I was thinking to promote. As some people who have not tried to draw or color or create since 2nd Grade are getting ready to self-consciously experiment with something new, my brilliant words of advice put the prayer, “Jesus, judge me!” on their lips.
I was feeling kind of bad about my faux pas (French, not Latin) when I suddenly remembered the opening lyrics to a composition by Felix Mendelssohn I sang in choir back in college. The text is from Palm 43:
Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation:
O deliver me from deceitful and unjust people.
For thou art the God of my strength: why dost thou cast me from thee?
Wherefore do I mourn because the foe sorely oppresseth me?
Send out thy light and thy truth, LORD:
O, let them lead me unto thy holy mountain, to thy dwelling.
Then will I go to the altar of God, the God of my joy,
To God, the God of my gladness and joy.
I will praise thee upon the harp, O my God, I praise thee, O God, my God.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul?
And why art thou disquieted within me?
Hope in the LORD: for I shall yet praise him,
who is the health of my countenance, and my God.
Hmmm… The Psalmist is saying to God, “judge me!” But this isn’t a prayer of confession; it’s a prayer of hope and confidence. It’s a prayer for vindication and salvation. “Judge me, O God, and come to my rescue!”
So I got Bach wrong, but maybe Mendelssohn got it right…?
Wondering about what it would look like to pray, “Jesu Jura” as a prayer of faith, I remembered another important song by one of my favorite composers, King David. Psalm 139 ends with the prayer:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Whoa! This is getting personal! David is actually praying to the Almighty God who has known him intimately and personally since before he was born in ways he can hardly comprehend, and his prayer sounds a lot like, “Jesus, judge me!”
Here David isn’t asking to be justified or vindicated. David is opening himself up to the tender judgment of a God who already knows every hidden secret and anxious thought. David is opening himself up to be known, known completely, the good and the bad, so that he might be led to the path of life.
Wow! That’s trust! That’s faith!
That’s a desire to be intimately known by God, or rather, to be aware of how intimately known I already am by God, and to trust that, even if there is an offensive way in me that comes to light as God searches my heart, the God who finds that defect is not there to condemn, but to bring life.
So I’m going to keep using “J.J.” in my own writing and meditation. And I am certainly going to pray the prayer Bach taught me to pray: “Jesu, Juva! Jesus, help!” But I think I will also use “J.J.” to stand for “Jesu, Jura!” Even though that phrase was my mistake—especially because it was my mistake.
The prayer “Jesus, judge me!” doesn’t have to be a malediction. (That’s Latin, and it means the opposite if benediction. I think. But who knows?)
That prayer doesn’t have to condemn. Felix Mendelssohn and King David help me see “Jesus, judge me!” as a prayer for rescue, a prayer of hope, an intimate desire to be known fully, even in my mistakes, so that the God who loves me completely in Jesus can lead me in the way everlasting.
So I’m really sorry if I led you wrong on Jesu Juva. I didn’t mean to.
And I invite you to pray Jesu Jura with me, too. I thought those prayers were opposites. But maybe they are closer than I knew…