“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (St. John 16:33).
Today as we celebrate Rogation Sunday, a special day set aside to make our solemn supplications to the Creator and Sustainer of all life, it is quite fitting that our ancient lectionary has guided us to our Lord’s call to live in a new life of prayer He will make possible with His own body and blood. What comes to mind when we think of prayer? The temptation is merely to adopt the definitions of the pagans; whereby, the Almighty God somehow becomes a cosmic genie we influence by the correct use of magic words: this false, neutered god is then worshipped as our appeased master, or at worst, our slave. For others in the still Christianity haunted West, prayer is a nice, little ritual done before rolling up one’s sleeves to do the real work: an activity situated somewhere between singing “The Star Spangled Banner” before a baseball game and touching a dismembered rabbit’s foot for luck.
The Christian, of course, must banish these definitions from his mind. God the Son by becoming Man invites His disciples to join in the living relationship of the Trinity. He invites us to approach the God described by Moses as a “consuming fire,” He invites us to call the source of all being, “Our Father.” We Christians rightly revel in the intimacy the use of this title brings, for indeed, who but us can claim the Creator of the Universe as our father? But, this intimacy was not something we created, nor is it something we are just born with; no, the wretched stink of our original and personal sin brings nothing but separation and enmity between us and God. It is Christ who makes this new relationship real by doing something concrete and costly. First, it is the pre-incarnate Christ who led Joshua’s army into the promised land to carve out a space where God and Israel’s representative high priest could be together in the inner chamber of the temple, and 1,400 years later the incarnate Christ, by sacrificing Himself on the Cross, rips the veil of that temple in two: signifying the end of the separation between God and His children. As we read in Hebrews, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-23). Christ Himself has become the last high priest of the new heaven and new earth, and so we are invited to enter boldly the throne room of God: to beseech our Father in Christ’s name by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Whoever we are, president or peasant, rich or poor, all God’s children are granted a true royal audience with the king of the universe when we bow our heads in prayer--we are welcomed into the holiest place in existence where we are promised to be heard and loved.
Love, of course, is at the heart of why we pray. After all, we only have this special, new access to the Father because, as Jesus says today, “... the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (St. John 16:27). This love, of course, is not the disposable, fickle love we too often accept in desperation instead of the real thing; no, this love is the scary, untamed love of God: a love which transcends all our fallen notions of fairness, a love displayed in real acts of sacrifice because everything else in this fallen world is just words and convenient fictions. When we try to imagine this love, our minds must try and hold the creation of the world, the death of the cross, and new creation of Easter Day together without exploding. This love then is not abstract or theoretical; it isn’t something we find after much clever searching; it is a love which is gifted to men with broken hearts from the God who is love.
But, contrary to popular opinion, God’s love, as we clearly see above, is not unconditional: “...the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (St. John 16:27). It would be so very easy for us to repeat the convenient lie of our pluralistic society which says that all paths lead to the true God, that we can be the supreme masters of our own salvation by forging from the world’s faiths a designer religion of our own, but this comforting lie--so very well suited to our consumerist idolatry--ends at the Cross. For what purpose could the Cross possibly serve if by praying to Baal or any of the other idols and false gods of this world I could somehow love the true God? If only one of us enlightened moderns could go back in time to find Jesus and tell Him that His sacrifice is unnecessary because we know a bunch of pagans and they seem like good people to us. Of course, we have to imagine saying this to Christ as He hanged naked before a jeering crowd; we have to imagine telling Christ in that moment, “Thanks, but we don’t need your love.” But, of course, we do desperately need His love. Whether we leave this place and shoot crack in an alley or go home to a manicured mansion, there is no one here who is somehow good and righteous enough that He doesn’t need Christ’s love, no one here who has any hope of surviving the human experience outside of the love which drove God to let us destroy Him on a cross, the love which blots out the multitude of our failures and regrets, the love which defeats the legions of our self-serving good works and undeserved self-righteousness.
And so, the only response to this divine love is to love as God loves. Remember, Christ has already shown us what love for the Father looks like: His loving obedience unto death. Or, put another way, we only really love something we are actively dying for. And by dying, I don’t mean some theoretical, “Of course, I would jump in front of a bullet,” kind of a thing. In my experience, one can never tell how a man will react when people start shooting at him. No, the death I’m referring to here is the daily sacrifice of “our selves, our souls and bodies,” the daily death which comes from offering up our own wants and desires so that others may thrive through our sacrifice. We simply lie to ourselves when we pretend there is any other kind of love which matters, aided in this lie by the countless pop-song hymns dedicated to this counterfeit love, the countless movies feeding us its dramatized sacred texts. But, nevertheless, we all know the difference, even if our fallen world tries to beat this understanding out of us with banal, lifeless nonsense.
St. James today gives us a beautiful example of this love when he says, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (St. James 1:27). James obviously thought there was more to Christianity than this short list (otherwise his epistle would be only a sentence long), but this short list reveals a practical example of a love which can’t be returned--a sacrifice of ourselves for the powerless and the unloved coupled with a sacrifice of our desires for all the smoldering fleshpots of this fallen, dying world. This sacrifice is only possible if we truly believe what our Lord says today, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (St. John 16:33). And, when we pray to the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Ghost, we are actively sacrificing our most precious resource: time. We offer up the time we could be spending doing the things we have been trained to desire so we can bind ourselves to the victory Christ has already won. Why? Because the only true peace we will ever enjoy in this life will come from our union with this victory. Every other peace in our lives will merely be a temporary cease-fire as the forces of evil rearm for the next fight. Everyone keeps talking about “getting back to normal” after this pandemic; there is no normal in a world when the world is killing you. It is in prayer, in our act of loving sacrifice to God that we link ourselves with Christ against the world He has already overcome. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that the world thinks prayer is stupid and useless because, despite all evidence to the contrary, the world still believes life is about serving our desires until we can’t serve them anymore. The Christian in prayer is a living symbol of our holy resistance against this cult of death. The Christian in prayer is a living reminder that the power and ambition of sinful men does not rule history. The Christian in prayer is Man truly alive because, humbly, on our knees, we are overcoming the world by asking God to overcome us: to destroy us and make us new.
Let us then be loved and overcome, let us die and live, let us pray.