February 24, 2013
Second Sunday of Lent
Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.
A father took his small son with him to town one day to run some errands. When lunch time arrived, the two of them went to a familiar diner for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, "Son, we'll just have a silent prayer." The Dad got through praying first and waited for the boy to finish his prayer, but he just sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When he finally looked up, his father asked him, "What in the world were you praying about all that time?" The boy replied, "How do I know? It was a silent prayer."
Last week, we spoke about the time-tested Christian practice, recommended by Jesus himself, of fasting, meant to clear away any undue attachments that might distract us from our Lord. Now, we consider the second traditional Lenten practice, that of prayer, how we are joined to God. As we can see in this story I just told, just because we have been commanded to pray does not mean we automatically know how to pray or understand what prayer is.
Our rich Catholic tradition offers many great teachers of prayer, men and women saints who teach us by the example of their lives HOW to fulfill Jesus’ command to pray. St. Teresa of Avila said, Prayer is "nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us." (St. Teresa of Avila, Life 8: 5c). St. Augustine said, simply, "True prayer is nothing but love." St. John Damascene gave a classic definition of prayer: "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God" (CCC, no. 2559, citing St. John Damascene, De Fide Orth. 3, 24).
However fine are these teachers (personally it has been St. Teresa that has been my best and most beloved teacher of prayer), in the end, the gospel we’ve just heard shows us our best and most important teacher of prayer must be and will always be Jesus himself, who the saints merely mirror. Let’s examine closely this scene of Jesus taking his disciples into prayer, to be taught by Jesus himself: 1) Jesus takes His disciples up the mountain. 2) Jesus’ face becomes dazzling white. 3) Jesus converses with Elijah and Moses. 4) Peter requests the building of three booths, that they might remain in this holy place, but “He did not know what he was saying.” 5) The Father says, “This is my chosen Son—listen to him. 6) They descend the mountain.
The gospel begins, “Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.” In this, Jesus teaches us that, if we intend to pray, we’re going to have to step out of our everyday, workaday world. This first step of prayer seems especially hard for us busy people. But, let’s not flatter ourselves—we are no busier than people of other ages—we’re just busy about different things. No matter what age, if we don’t make space for prayer, and step away from other activity, we will not pray.
Second, we see that Jesus’ face becomes “dazzling white.” God is light, so this reveals the coming of God’s presence, reminding us that, above all, prayer is not about us coming to God, but rather God coming to us. All we do in prayer is prepare ourselves to receive Him when he comes. The pressure is off! Prayer is primarily about God’s actions, not ours. And God faithfully, persistently, relentlessly pursues us.
Third, Jesus converses with ancient figures of Elijah and Moses. Because we find Communion with God, we leave 2013 in Dubuque IA and enter into eternity. Time passes away. Hence, we can also know communion with long-dead saints, whom we meet beyond time in eternity.
Fourth, St. Peter, overwhelmed with joy, wants to build some dwellings, to capture and keep the moment, but the gospel writer comments, “he did not know what he was saying.” Two aspects of prayer are being taught through the figure of St. Peter. First, we cannot control prayer, capture it, and make it persist. When Jesus comes to us, we are thankful, but we will not contain the Lord. Therefore, trying to replicate a particularly prayerful moment will fail. Instead, all we do is prepare for the Lord to come and trust, in God’s time, God will come. Further, our feelings are not the measure of God’s presence. God is present! We trust that. Second, St. Peter “not knowing what he was saying” teaches a second truth: prayer will always take us beyond words—they are too limited to contain or even describe God. So, in many ways, the little boy in the story teaches a great truth: In the end, prayer will become silence, and we don’t need to know what is said—for it will be beyond words. We only trust that the Communion that happens is good and life-changing.
Fifth, the Father says, “This is my chosen Son—listen to him. Here, the Father teaches us the essence of prayer—not so much speaking as listening. Of course, we begin by pouring out our hearts, but finally, we must stop and simply let silence be the occasion to listen. If we are not comfortable with silence, we will not be comforted in prayer.
Finally, Jesus takes the disciples down the mountain. The final reminder is that, after a time of communion in prayer, we are to rejoin others. Any fruits, consolations, joys that come from prayer, are to be taken to others in our lives. The gifts of the spirit gained in prayer: peace, joy, patience, etc., are given FOR OTHERS, not to be hoarded in some private mountain retreat!
In summary, what is Jesus teaching us about prayer? It is as simple as this: prepare for the Lord to come by stepping away from ordinary life, and in silence await and then listen to the Lord who comes to you. We need to support each other by letting each other have the time and space to do this!
As I’ve said before, how concretely do we prepare for the Lord’s coming in prayer? It’s my four R’s: Read—read the scriptures. How about the daily gospel reading, printed in each week’s bulletin and available on all kinds of websites and through lots of apps, like the app Laudate? Reflect—spend only a few minutes thinking about the passage and what the Lord may be teaching you through it. Request—open your heart and ask your heavenly Father for the deepest longing of your heart—you, his beloved child. Rest—remaining in the silence of the eternal God and listening to him.
Through prayer, we are confident that if we seek God, we will find Him, for above all He is seeking us.