Easter 6, 14 May 23
When I was in Year 9 we were the first year of children to sit SATs, examinations brought in as part of the Government’s educational reforms under John Major. Many of our young people are sitting Sats at this time: and I say to you who are, it’s so important during these periods of life when we feel pressure that we keep the disciplines of our spiritual life by being at Mass and I would love those of us not sitting exams at this time to pray for those who are and tell them that you are.
My other abiding memory of Year 9 - or third year secondary school, if you’re not sure what I’m talk about - was how badly behaved we were at school. Presumably hormones going mad contributed to this alongside a slight lack of focus believing it was a bit of a doss year before GCSEs started. One boy in our class decided in a physics lesson that he was going to start meditating so he got in to the lotus position on his stool behind his bench and started going hummmmm. When the teacher told him to sit properly he said, “Oh but sir, it’s my right to practise my religion and I need to meditate.” Of course, then the next child started and the next. Outbreak of disorder. After much frustration and shouting from the physics teacher the class returned to normal.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “meditation” the image is of someone in a lotus position, going hhhhhhuuum and closed eyes, straining for an inner strength. Master Yoda and the Jedi do something similar if you’ve ever seen the Star Wars films and I’m sure there are other instances where this style of meditation is seen as energising. People sometimes ask me about Christian meditation and I’m always reticent about it because supremely we are to be about prayer and I want to explore something of both of these with you today.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues to prepare His disciples for His departure. He’s speaking in the initial sense of His Crucifixion, but of course from that He returns as we celebrate in these days of Eastertide; but we hear these passages on the Sunday before our celebrations for the Ascension on Thursday and for this too is the Lord preparing the disciples: “I shall ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you for ever, that Spirit of truth.” Yes, Thursday’s Feast of the Ascension commences nine days - hence the church traditionally has novenas of prayer - when we are to earnestly seek the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, then, is one who prays for us, He is our Advocate. St John writes elsewhere in his first letter, “We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins,” (I John 2:1). The word advocate is also translated Paraclete or comforter. Elsewhere in the New Testament we also find this sense of our Lord praying for us in Heaven: Christ as priest, we see in Hebrews 7:25 saves those who “approach God through Him, since [Jesus] always lives to make intercession for them.” Christ’s Ascension is not only so that He prepares for us a place but also that He powerfully intercedes for us there (Romans 8:34). Yes, my friends the prayers of Jesus are powerful indeed!
The fact that Jesus continues to pray for us reminds us that our Lord - even in Heaven - is true God and true Man: for it is only humanity who prays, only we can seek to know God and seek to gaze upon Him in eternity. The humanity of the Lord is still pierced with the nails of the Cross and with these wounds does Jesus plead for us. The Sacrifice of Calvary, which achieved for us our redemption, has no need to be repeated; but it is held eternally before the Father that He might look on us, sinners as we are, through the prism of what Our Lord offered there. As we sing in the hymn sometimes, “Look, Father, look on His anointed face, and only look on us as found Him … For lo, between our sins and their reward we set the Passion of thy Son our Lord.” With this same logic, then, do we also know the saints, our fellow humanity in Heaven, praying for us, and we ask them with a quiet trust to do so.
What is prayer? Prayer is seeking to unite our selves to the will of God. Our Lord is one with the Father already, by virtue of His Sonship and His divinity. And so our Lord’s prayer is always for us, that we may be united to the will of the Father. In this we will find freedom, light, hope and joy! Pray is constructed of different elements, particularly adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication (ACTS). When we adore God we recognise He is more glorious than we can imagine. When we confess our sins we recognise we have failed to live up to our calling, deliberately and through mistakes, through action and through inaction. When we give thanks we realise God is the source of our blessings and they are many even when we might be tempted to forget them. When we supplicate, we ask for things, recognising God wants to give us things and knowing that when we ask we are going thorough a process of working out what it is God wants to give us.
St Paul writes that we are to pray “without ceasing” (II Thessalonians 5:16-18). What does this mean? Well Fr Faber gives us a lovely definition: “to pray always is to always to feel the sweet urgency of prayer, and to hunger after it.” When the doors of this Church are open it should be like Boxing Day at Harrods - not that I’ve ever been! - with queues of people desperate to come in and kneel down in adoration before the Lord in prayer. Do you hunger for prayer? Do we pray without ceasing? There’s no set number of times which a Christian should pray but there’s a pretty standard goal (admittedly pitched high but achievable in some stances) of Morning and Evening Prayer and Mass every day. There’s certainly an ancient practise of ensuring we say the Lord’s Prayer three times every day (The Didache 8 from the first century).
Perhaps prayer is more often auricular or spoken. Meditation is more likely to be in silence and I want to finish by saying something about this. There’s been a trend on some so-called training days I’ve had to attend where folk read a passage from the Bible and sit in a circle and then in silence expect some Eureka moment to happen, which seems all a bit unsatisfactory when we believe the Word was made Flesh, not continues to be something abstract! After the prolonged pause we then carry on with the boring meeting. It strikes me this a rather goalless pursuit and a poor example of meditation. Meditation is perhaps best practised as a prelude to prayer. Meditation is when we consider silently some text of Scripture, some doctrine of the Church, some aspect of who God is, some virtue He gives to us. There is no prescribed posture for meditation. We should persevere with it even when it seems to be bearing little fruit for is this not also what God expects us to do in other aspects of our life?
Meditation doesn’t conclude a time of prayer but should lead into the articulation of some intention or, at the very least a thanksgiving for the experience. Indeed meditation can be a useful reminder for us that prayer is not a one way process of us telling God what needs to happen, nor indeed is prayer just a two way process with God then responding and giving us special messages; prayer is always done as part of the fellowship of Christ’s Body the Church. With this in mind we should always be glad for the periods of time we spend in prayer and conclude them with thanksgiving. The Prayer after Communion is a good example of this, which happens at every Mass after we have all received Holy Communion. We say thank you together. And if that is our communal ‘thank you” it is also very good for us to say thank you to God privately. So, let us all resist the temptations to just dash off once the last hymn has finished, or indeed during the last hymn, for it is meant to move us to private thanksgiving followed by departure in joy and missionary zeal as we go.
If you want to find out more about meditation there are two schools of thought which you could confidently look for online: Ignatian, after St Ignatius of Loyola, and Silesian, after Francis de Sales. There is in both these schools to be a firm resolution arising from the mediation. It is not to be a purposeless meander. Prayer stirs our wills to be more like God’s: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” This will take the form of a person with whom we need to be in a better awareness; something we have learnt about God; something we have realised we have not got right in how we behave or speak to people. God will have given us graces when we pray, when we meditate, when we gather for Mass: do we end that period of prayer mindful of what that gift is or do we just rush off to the next thing?
My friends, in our first, the Christians in Samaria had to realise they had more to do in their Christian journey. This passage is important in explaining the Church’s understanding of Confirmation as a second stage of Christian initiation. I hope none of us feel we have cracked prayer or meditation. Given that we must acknowledge we have not learnt everything there is to learn we must also have a deeper desire to pray more often and with greater zeal and greater fruit being yielded. May our prayer draw us closer to Christ, who prays for us in Heaven, that all may be one in Him. Amen.