A Holy Thursday Homily on Prayer

I want to concentrate on prayer over the three great days of the Easter Triduum, particularly to see how the ceremonies in which we take part, teach us more about how to pray. So let’s begin with Holy Thursday

Our Gospel (John 13:1-15) has given us the  familiar story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and that is the ceremony that Bishops and priests with their people re-enact on this Holy Thursday night. But what we humans too easily tend to concentrate on is the command at the end – to wash one another’s feet. In other words we tend to concentrate on ourselves, on what we should be doing. Now certainly it is important to hear and act on that message to love one another, but if we are not careful we miss out on what comes first, not on what we should do, but what we should allow God to do to us. We have to allow God to love us.

We see this in Peter’s refusal, to start with, to allow Jesus to wash his feet.  In typical Peter fashion he says “Never…. you shall never wash my feet”. Jesus then has to explain to him, and thus to us, that unless we allow ourselves to be washed by him we cannot be in communion with him.

This is the mistake most of us make in prayer. We tend to think that prayer is something we do, that prayer is us communicating with God. When we approach prayer this way we are treating God as a power outside us, at a distance from us. Now although God is distant from us, the heart of the message of Jesus is that God has chosen to come close to us, to be one with us in and through Jesus. To really pray as a Christian we have to begin by recognising  that prayer is principally God speaking to us, God working in us, God with us – Immanuel.

As I said Peter shows us this very graphically. First of all he doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet at all. He wants to love and to follow Jesus, just as we all do, but he wants to do it, as we do, in his way. He has grand ideas, as we do, about being the servant of God, of doing his will and following his ways. But in Jesus God turns the whole thing upside down and Peter has to learn this, just as we do. We have to allow God to serve and to love us first, for he is the source of love and thus the source of all prayer.

This becomes even harder for us to grasp when the ceremonies of this holy night move on. As the altar is stripped of all its finery and everything is left bare, we are reminded that in the end all that we have to offer to God however special it may be, is, in the end, nothing. For in the end it is just us and God.  Let me read to you a parable that expressed this from a great writer on prayer – Ruth Burrows.

It is from her simple book on Christianity called “To believe in Jesus”.

God has given each of us the task of fashioning a beautiful vase for him which we must carry up the mountain in order to place in his hands. This vase represents everything we can do to please God, our good works, our prayers, our efforts to grow to maturity ; all this God values most highly….  When we reach the top a double shock awaits us. God is not there – there is silence, no response when we make our arrival known. Secondly the vase… it isn’t beautiful anymore. There it is in our hands, a tawdry common pot… the vase into which we had put our all. A deep instinct is telling us that if we want God we have to go over the other side of the mountain.. We can’t go down with anything in our hands; we must drop the vase, still precious though so disappointing.. Beautiful or not, we cannot take it with us, we must go to God with nothing in our hands. Our spiritual achievement is our most precious treasure. It has to go.”

Now I do not want you to think that there is therefore nothing we can do for God, nothing we can say to God. Ruth Burrows and other great teachers on prayer make clear that all that we do and say matters to God. The problem comes when it begins to matter too much to us. Then, if we reach a time, when we find it difficult or impossible to pray as we used to, when some tragedy strikes us, or we are faced with illness or depression, we can think that God is not there.  Then we go to Mass and feel nothing, and think that if we feel nothing it is not worth going when actually God is just as present as he has ever been, and what we need to do is go on as if through a desert until some oasis in our life enables us to realise that actually he was there in our darkest moment.

 We will think of this more on Good Friday – the darkest day of the year for Christians – but for now we are left with the challenge that Jesus poses to his disciples after the Supper is over and they have moved on to the Garden of Gethsemane. He simply asks us, as he asked them. “Stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and pray”  This is when prayer gets really difficult for our minds are full of all the things in our life that we want to think about and which seem to distract us from being with him. We try to sit or kneel with him in the silence, and feel we are failing as our mind races around on this or that which seems to take us so far from what we should be doing.

Some people find help here by saying the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer or reading the Bible, and yes these can be good ways of helping us to stay with him, to watch with him. But sometimes it is better just to be quiet with him despite all the distractions, to just admit before him how weak and silly we are, and maybe like the disciples how hard we find it to stay awake. We need then to remember that when he wakes them up, Jesus still loves them as he loves us for that is why he washed their feet. Our prayer has to be most of all a dwelling, an abiding in that love.

Remember how Jesus compares us to the branches of a vine. He is the root, the stock from which all the growth, our love and activity, comes. He says

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. ………..  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing”  (John 15:1-5)

In the end we need to know that prayer is just being with God. That is why the greatest prayer of all is not our words or our thoughts, but simply the action of the Mass. The greatest prayer is his presence with us – his Body and Blood that he gave us as the way to be one with him on this holy night. Yes he wants us to love God and to love our fellow humans in every way we can, but in the end, he calls us simply to be one with him – to be with him in the silence and to know he is always with us even to the end of the world.

 

Learning to watch and pray

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.”