Friday, October 10, 2008

When Christ Prayed Earnestly...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Rise and pray, that you may not enter into temptation." (LK. 22:46)

We are currently reading from the Gospel According to St. Luke according to our lectionary. A recent passage prescribed from this Gospel begins with a rather laconic notation that nevertheless opens up to us something of the profound and mysterious "inner life" of Christ during His earthly ministry: "In these days he went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God." (LK. 6:12) The incarnate Son of God prayed extensively - "all night" - and assuredly intensively to His heavenly Father. In His humanity Christ was supported, sustained and strengthened through prayer. He is not a "static" being because He is divine. St. Luke emphasizes the fact that there is "growth" in Christ: "And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him." And somewhat later, "Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature; and in favor with God and man." (LK. 2:40, 52) Certainly, His prayer was an integral part of this process. The "hypostatic union" of the divine and human natures in the one Person of the eternal Son of God, will always present to us such paradoxes that are irreducible to purely logical analysis. That is the glory of the Incarnation. If we read this Gospel with care, and search for the many passages that describe Jesus at prayer, we will discover that Christ prayed before making important decisions. The passage above immediately precedes Christ's choice and appointment of His twelve disciples (LK. 6:13-16) Other examples are equally significant, as before the confession of St. Peter:

Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, Who do the people say that I am. (LK. 9:18)

Before offering instruction on prayer:

He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." (LK. 11:1)

Before His agony in the Garden:

And when he came to the place he said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed ... And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples ... and he said to them, "Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation." (LK. 22:40-41;43-46)

When Christ prayed "earnestly," St. Luke informs us that "great drops of blood" fell from His face! Now that is powerful prayer. To emphasize again, before a crucial decision or before a crucial event in His life, Jesus would come before His heavenly Father and pray, sometimes kneeling down in prayer. As a consistent principle of the spiritual life, the Fathers teach us that whatever Christ did, we must do also. That begins with prayer, fasting and almsgiving. When we face crucial and critical decisions in life, we need to turn to "our Father" in prayer. Prayer can bring clarity at times of great confusion. The image of light piercing through darkness gives us some insight into that truth. In moments of overwhelming sadness, sorrow, or great loss - when death itself strikes within our reach - it is prayer that conveys to us the consolation that can only come from God. Yet, we would be horribly mistaken to limit our prayer to "bad times." Prayer is not a "last resort," or a desperate plea at the brink of nothingness. In "good times" - or rather at "all times" - we also come before God in thanksgiving and praise. This, too, is prayer. In prayer, we approach the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Our prayer brings us into the life of the Trinity and puts us in communion with the Trinity. Of course, we must plan, calculate, and make difficult choices, but the example of our Lord should first turn us to prayer. Since God is not a "cosmic butler" we must understand that our prayer will not always attain what we immediately desire and what we are certain are our real needs. But our prayer is our most intimate way of placing our trust in God, regardless of the outcome of events in our life: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" (LK. 23:46)

Yvonne of the Prayer does not begin where action has failed. For prayer is activity. To be active in a crisis or at a time of great joy is, precisely, to pray. To pray is to actively affirm that we are not the prisoners of a closed universe; that the reality of God permeates all things and that "God is with us." St. Paul taught us to "pray without ceasing." (I THESS. 5:17) And St. John of Kronstadt taught that prayer is "spiritual breathing." At a recent retreat in our parish, MadreHogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage reminded us that, "the most important thing in life is prayer." Perhaps we lose sight of this unbroken tradition of the absolute centrality of prayer because we have lost a sense of our dependency on God. We tend to maximize the "virtue" of self-reliance. We have developed our own problem-solving techniques, and our own decision-making processes, that are outside of prayer. Prayer then becomes a kind of "religious additive" that is a pious afterthought rather than the very "atmosphere" within which we approach life and its endless joys and sorrows. Nevertheless, we can always follow the example of our Lord and pray as He directed us - either with two or three gathered together, or alone behind closed doors. I recall a Serbian proverb from many years ago: "Work as if you will live to be a hundred; pray as if you will die tomorrow." Everything is in the hands of God.

Fr. Steven

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