Reflection for Sunday – January 10, 2016
My theology nerd heart beats a little faster every time lectionary year C comes around. As my students would tell you (rolling their eyes of course), I love Luke’s Gospel. As would be expected, I love it because it features some truly remarkable women—Mary and Elizabeth, Anna, the woman with the lost coin. But I also love it because, in addition to affirming my importance as a woman of faith, it also challenges me to truly be a person of prayer.
While all of the Gospels indicate the centrality of prayer, Luke does so more intentionally. His account of Jesus’ baptism is a perfect demonstration. This is made clear when we contrast it with Mark and Matthew’s accounts. These two authors write that the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and the voice rang out as Jesus came up from the water. This presents a dramatic image—water is dripping from Jesus’ hair, the crowds are watching, something monumental is happening.
What seems like a slight variation in Luke’s account makes a world of difference. Luke writes that the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and the voice rang out after Jesus had been baptized and was praying. This picture is much less dramatic—it’s quieter and more personal—but no less significant.
Doesn’t Luke’s description echo more closely our own experiences of God’s presence? Some of us may be lucky enough to have encountered God in a dramatic, public, extraordinary way. But in most cases, I suspect that we recognize God in a subtler manner, in a moment of quiet reflection or feeling of peace.
It would seem to follow, then, that we would make room for those quiet meetings with God. But do we? This is why I say that Luke’s Gospel challenges me to be a person of prayer. Prayer is hard. Not “hard” in the sense of complicated, but “hard” in the sense that it requires effort, attention, and patience. So, even though the benefits of prayer are clear, we don’t always give it the energy it deserves.
Most of the time, I stink at praying. A few years ago, I did the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. This meant that for 10 months I dedicated an hour a day to praying with Scripture and other texts, journaling about it, and meeting with a small group and a prayer guide once a week to talk about our prayer.
I think I set a record for making it through the Exercises with the least time actually spent in prayer. It seemed like every time I sat down to pray, I fell asleep. Or if I managed to stay awake, my mind wandered to the papers I had to grade or the chocolate covered graham crackers in the kitchen cupboard. On the rare evenings when I remained mostly focused on the Scripture, still it seemed like nothing was happening. I was frustrated and felt like I was failing. No wonder the Pauline epistles tell us to persevere in prayer. Prayer is hard.
Obviously my prayer guide encouraged me to keep at it, presenting myself to God each evening for an hour even if I suspected it would become naptime. So I began to start my prayer with a somewhat flippant greeting to God, “here I am, sitting in my prayer chair, trying to be with you.” In the ten months I was engaged in the Spiritual Exercises, I never had the kind of profound experience Luke describes in his account of Jesus’ prayer after his baptism. The sky never opened except in an occasional rainstorm. Rather than the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, I saw only cardinals and robins out the window. And the only voice I heard was that of my husband on the phone downstairs. But in those quiet hours, I did experience God. Those hours shaped my heart in ways I didn’t recognize at the time, but can see now.
When I hear the line from Isaiah in today’s first reading, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased,” I can now recognize those words as God’s response not only to Isaiah’s suffering servant made flesh in Jesus, but also to my own flippant, “here I am” to God. Because prayer, though it is hard, enables us to recognize who we are—God’s chosen ones, people with whom God is pleased. And hopefully when we recognize this, we, like Jesus, will begin the work of justice.