How can we respond to the love that Jesus shows us, from this moment when he washes the feet of his disciples, through his agony in the garden, his torture by the soldiers, his long struggle through the streets of Jerusalem, and finally his terrible death nailed to a cross? How can we respond to such love? Well, we can try to imitate that love in lots of little ways, but few of us will ever have the opportunity to enter into anything that gets near to matching what he has done. To be a martyr, to die for him, is a wonderful thing to do, but I am afraid that I am not sure I would be up to it if it ever came my way, and deep down I suppose I hope it never will because I would be frightened of failing him.
So do we just look on from a distance at this terrible story of sacrificial love, and marvel that God loves us so much? Or is there any response, however small, that we can make? Well, as I said, there are lots of little things that we can do; for every little act of love or kindness to another is recognised and appreciated by our loving God. Remember what Jesus said?“Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”(Matt 25:40) But he also asked something else of us on this special night. He said “Do this in memory of me”, and we do, of course, every time we are at Mass ; but then listen to what happened next when he took his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, he said “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrowto the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Then a bit later when they had failed to watch and had fallen asleep, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt 26:38 & 41) Well! I tell you I will feel that when I am trying to keep watch tonight up till Midnight –way after my bedtime!
Yes, tonight is the night when everyone is asked to spend some time keeping the Watch of Prayer, either for a while after Mass, or later, coming back sometime between now and Midnight. Normally I pray best first thing in the morning, probably before most of you are up, so I know that I will find it doubly hard to watch and pray tonight! But of course, what I always say to myself is that if it were easy what would be the point of doing it? How can we show our love for Jesus if we never do things for him that are hard? How can we thank God for all the things he has given us, if we never do anything sacrificial?
To help me pray at times like these, I like to link that command to watch and pray to the one we just heard in the Gospel – to wash one another’s feet (John 13:1-15), because it reminds me that usually the only people you and I are likely to watch and pray over are our friends or family if they are seriously ill or dying. Here is an example of something that can be very hard, very distressing, and yet something we feel impelled to do because we love the person who is suffering so much.
So when we are struggling in prayer, perhaps we might look first at what we do when we watch and pray over a loved one. If you have ever done this, then you will have some idea of how difficult this can be. You sit there endlessly full of a mixture of love and agony, of hope and despair. You want to say something, but can’t think of much to say especially if they are unconscious. You want to stay awake and be with them, but as the hours go by you find you have fallen asleep, and then feel guilty that you might have missed something. You long for your home, your bed, but do not want to leave their side even for a moment.
What helps us at times like these? Because what helps there may also help us with our prayers. Well one thing is to be practical. We organise a rota with friends and family so that even when we are away we know someone is still with them, just like our rota for the Watch tonight. Then we think of things to say to them, or read to them, and at other times we just sit beside them reading a book or the newspaper. Some people even read the book aloud if they are good at that sort of thing, even the Racing results is that’s what they are interested in!
Then there are set prayers. It’s a pity that many people seem to think that only the priest can say prayers out loud at times like this. Familiar prayers and Bible Readings, can be tremendously helpful here. For an unconscious or dying person, saying familiar prayers like the Hail Mary and the Our Father can be very powerful indeed, and if you are familiar with the Rosary, where these prayers are quietly repeated over and over again, you might well use that.
Now none of these things stop what we are doing from being very hard for us to bear, and yet somehow we are given the strength to go on, not least because when we humans love, then the power of love, God himself as Holy Spirit works within us to help us. St Paul says that when “We do not know how to pray as we ought… the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)
This kind of prayer, watching and praying like this, is the heart of what prayer is – giving our time to Jesus our Saviour and our Friend, sitting still in complete silence like this, waiting in hope that he will speak to us, simply because we love him. Those of you who find just sitting in silence really difficult might use some of the things I have suggested for the bedside So maybe you might think of quietly saying the Rosary, or reading the words of some Hymns from the Hymn Book, or reading the Bible, even one of the Gospels right through from beginning to end? “Watch and pray” says Jesus, and then he finds them asleep! Maybe he will find us asleep too, but he wakes us up with the comforting words “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” And we can only say “Yes Lord it is, but thank you for loving me, weak as I am.”