One commentary on the section of Luke we have been reading from the past two Sundays states that from the Parable of the Good Samaritan to the Martha and Mary episode, we are given key qualities of Christian discipleship.
The former emphasizes concern for others, our neighbors, and the latter, the centrality of Christ. This Sunday’s Gospel brings in another element, prayer.
Let us focus on prayer for this Sunday’s reflections. Let us highlight three qualities of prayer as seen in this Sunday’s Gospel and readings; one, prayer as a communal activity and an activity that builds community; two, the boldness and persistence Christ prescribes; and three, the assurance and faith that God hears our prayer and gives us what is best for us.
Let us first look at the boldness and persistence in prayer. The first reading for this Sunday where Abraham haggles with God is a perfect example of persistence. God is all set to punish and destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, until Abraham intercedes and haggles with God.
What is striking is the boldness of Abraham to even try to change God’s mind. As Abraham himself says, “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!”
Then we see Abraham’s persistence with his trying to get the best deal for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He pleads with God to spare the cities for the sake of these few innocent people.
We see these qualities of prayer present in other frameworks. In Fr. John O’Malley, SJ’s book “The First Jesuits,” he quotes one of the Jesuits closest to Ignatius of Loyola, Fr. Polanco, SJ, Polanco describes Ignatius’ admirable leadership gifts as “great energy in undertaking extraordinarily difficult tasks,” which is the boldness in prayer our readings today refer to; “great constancy in pursuing them (the tasks) and great prudence in seeing them to completion,” which is persistence.
Progress and greatness
In another book, the classic 1994 book of James Collins and Jerry Porras, “Built to Last,” they popularized the term BHAGS for Big Hairy Audacious Goals. The BHAGS is the boldness of goals and missions that drove companies to progress and eventually to greatness.
Boldness and persistence, in prayer, in inspired leadership, in great companies—these are qualities that deliver remarkable results, results beyond our wildest dream.
As we will see in these stories—Abraham, Ignatius and great companies—boldness and persistence in prayer occasion breakthroughs.
In the Gospels, we often see breakthroughs that are wrought by boldness and persistence: the blind man who called out to Christ for healing despite many telling him to shut up; the woman with hemorrhage who squeezed through the crowd and despite one failure after another, believed she could be healed; and most moving of all—precisely because the boldness and persistence would not benefit him but a loved one—Jairus being told not to bother Christ since his daughter is dead.
Very much related to boldness and persistence in prayer is the faith that one’s prayer will be heard, and who we pray to will grant our prayer.
The late Fr. Joe Cruz, SJ, told us in one of our retreats that a true friend listens to our every request and plea, or simply to whatever we wish to express. This is the assurance of true friendship: the friend will always be there to listen.
God not only listens to our every prayer, but he gives us what is best for us. Christ, in the Agony in the Garden, goes through this. He asks God, his Father, to spare him the impending passion and death on the Cross. While Christ surrenders at the end of the prayer in the Garden, he did ask with the faith his Father will listen to him.
Christ was not spared from the passion and the death on the Cross, but he was given a far greater grace, the Resurrection.
The final quality of prayer in this Sunday’s Gospel is the communal nature of prayer and how prayer builds community.
As the disciple asks, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.” But it is not a simple prayer that is being asked for by Christ’s disciples, but a community prayer. They cite the prayer of John the Baptist’s community and now ask for one for their community formed by Christ.
Christ uses this moment to further define the core values of his community, the Christian community and the fundamental principles around which the community is formed. God is Christ’s Father, and through Christ we become brothers and sisters under the love of God Our Father. The line “Thy Kingdom come” defines the future that lies ahead for the community.
This is the most compelling message of this Sunday’s Gospel: we must become a community, and prayer is a major building block of a Christian community.
One of the key characteristics of the Ateneo de Manila High School is the Mass. It has a daily Mass in the school chapel, the St. Stanislaus Kostka Chapel, that is well attended, and on certain days has a choir to provide prayerful music.
The once-a-month school Masses are among the most cherished moments. The Masses are well-prepared; the choice of the theme, the readings, the songs, the celebrant and the decorations very meticulously done. The 2,000-plus young men participate in the Mass, are very well-behaved and really pray.
The late Fr. John P. Delaney, SJ, true to his Ignatian roots, remains one of the great inspirations for generations of students from the Ateneo and University of the Philippines for his love for and devotion to the Mass that he inspired in others.
In 1995, Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, wrote an article about Fr. Delaney on the occasion of the annual teachers’ day of the Ateneo de Manila High School, which was named “Delaney Day.” Fr. Arevalo wrote:
“Fr. Delaney wanted an Ateneo… and above all an Ateneo High School that was a community where young people wanted to learn how to be disciples of Christ, how to follow him in all of their lives… The central school activity was the Mass… understand the Mass, live the Mass. He taught us teachers how to teach it in class, how to get into it—not only the minds, but the hearts of our students.
Meaning and power
“Years later, when my own High School students were over 35, 40… not a few of them told me, ‘It was the one thing we learned that has stayed with us.’ ‘For me, my life still somehow centers around the Mass. Not that I have always been faithful, but its meaning and power remain, somehow, with me still.’
“Lord, teach us to pray… ” In response to this request, Christ gave his disciples, gave us, the prayer, “Our Father.” It is Christ and Our Father that build us into a community of Christians, as brothers and sisters under one God Our Father.
In the community where I celebrate regular Sunday Mass, we have developed a “tradition” the past months. At the end of the Mass, after the final or closing prayer and before the blessing, I ask the parents to gather their children together to join me in blessing them, their whole family.
Whenever I notice there are new families around, I would explain this “tradition” and remind them of what the priest says at the baptism of their children.
At baptism, one of the first rituals at the start of the rite is when the priest blesses the child by tracing the sign of the Cross on his/her forehead and invites the parents and godparents to do the same. The priest tells the parents to bless their child every day “for you have the power to do so.”
More than I imagined, this has become a special moment for families who attend Mass. You could see the excitement of children running to their families, parents searching for the members of their family, clans gathering around the lolo and lola.
It is a brief and simple moment, yet I would like to believe it is replete with meaning—the meaning of the Mass as a communal prayer and a prayer that builds community, builds the community of the family into a more caring and prayerful community.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” Let this be your prayer and reflection this Sunday.
May our prayer bless us with boldness and perseverance. May we be blessed with the faith to believe that God hears all our prayers, and gives us what is the very best for us. May we become a community gathered around the table of the Lord to be renewed by His word and His body and blood.
May we rediscover the great gift of the Mass where we—to paraphrase the song—remember how he loved us to his death, and still we celebrate for he is with us here. “We remember. We celebrate. We believe.”