21 January 2019

They Came to listen and be healed. . . Nevertheless Jesus Would Withdraw to Pray

It happened that there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where Jesus was;
and when he saw Jesus,
he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said,
"Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean."
Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said,
"I do will it.  Be made clean."
And the leprosy left him immediately.
Then he ordered him not to tell anyone, but
"Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing
what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them."
The report about him spread all the more,
and great crowds assembled to listen to him
and to be cured of their ailments,
but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

 I have written in the past that had Jesus healed every person that came to him in need it would still not have been enough; Jesus' mission was the reconciliation of all of creation, the destruction of sin and death themselves and not merely the  healing of this illness or that form of "demonic possession", this dimension of social dysfunction or that aspect of personal distortion or alienation. Jesus' realization that his mission has various differing priorities may have grown as he matured "in stature and grace", but gospel writers clearly recognized and convey to us he was more than a healer or exorcist.  They do this by comparing him with other healers and exorcists or by identifying him as King and Messiah; they do it by noting his refusal to heal or exorcise at times, and of course they do it by focusing on the import of Jesus' death and resurrection --- where no one was healed and nothing exorcised, but creation as a whole was reconciled to God and sin and death were transformed forever on the way to their eventual total destruction.

But the Gospel lection two Fridays ago ends with an even more surprising set of priorities. After healing a leper and having reports of this and other healing activity spreading far and wide and after crowds of people actually assemble to hear him teach and  heal Luke says, BUT he would withdraw to deserted places to pray. The coordinating conjunction "but" makes it very clear that despite the clear need for his capacity to teach and heal Jesus recognized and embraced a greater priority; crowds of people had assembled so he could minister to them nevertheless he would withdraw (meaning he would regularly withdraw even in these circumstances) to deserted places to pray. Granted, as a hermit, this clear statement of priorities is something I am sensitive to and appreciate; it is a way the gospels indirectly justify my own vocation to mainly eschew active ministry and embrace a contemplative life of prayer in the silence of solitude. At the same time it is a salutary reminder to everyone in active ministry that withdrawal (anachoresis) to the desert is a priority that must be embraced in significant ways even when crowds clamor for our teaching and mediated healing.

I think sometimes we treat Jesus' clear pattern of regular withdrawal to pray as some sort of icing on the cake of his mission --- something which adds sweetness or depth but is not strictly necessary because, after all, "he is both human and divine". But with Christmas we recognize that his mission is to be and truly allow God to be Emmanuel, God with us; this means that Jesus' prayer is the very essence of his embracing this identity because prayer is the very act of allowing God to be present to and active within us. Incarnating the Word of God demands and implies the lifetime dialogue of a human being with God. Incarnation itself is the result of this dialogue; it is the acceptance of a covenant relationship, the actual embracing of an identity as covenant reality. It is to be a person of prayer, and for Jesus, it is to the be  THE person of prayer or even  THE embodiment of God's own prayer (God's Word, plan, will, desire, the very content of God's heart) in our world.

The Incarnation of the Word of God is real at the moment of Jesus' conception but God's desire to be Emmanuel is not fully accomplished at the moment of Jesus' conception and nativity; it requires Jesus' entire life for its full revelation (remember revelation is not just making known or manifest; it also means making real in space and time}. Christmas marks the nativity of the Incarnation, but Jesus' "growth in grace and stature" clearly points to an understanding of Jesus' fuller and fuller embodiment and revelation of the Word of God in every moment and mood of life. This covenantal identity implies his continuing dialogue with the One he calls Abba; again, it implies being a person of prayer and more, the incarnation of God's own prayer in our world. Whether we use the language of dialogue or covenant, prayer and the embodiment of prayer is the priority of Jesus' life, identity, and mission.

I am used to hearing from folks in active ministry for whom prayer is important but quite often seen as a way of "recharging one's batteries", or in some other way serving as a break from active ministry. It may also be understood as something which allows one to recover energy for further active ministry. The problem with these views is that they do not see that Jesus' prayer says prayer is  essential for one's identity as authentically human, as a covenantal reality who can only minister to others when they are authentically human. Maybe for some the idea of prayer (and retreat) as a way of recharging one's batteries is a colloquial way of describing this truth, but it seems to me when one really understands the importance of prayer for one's very identity and only then, for one's capacity to minister God's own Good News to others, "recharging one's batteries" simply fails to capture the truth of the situation. But prayer was essential to who Jesus was; it is meant to be at the heart of who we are as well.

Recently, as I was working through something in spiritual direction, my director asked me, somewhat rhetorically, "Why do you pray?" And looking around briefly to the space in which we were meeting (my hermitage prayer space) she continued, "It is the heart of your life; why do you pray?"  My answer was that I pray so that God might be God in me and, through me, in and to our world. Of course I also pray so that I might be made whole and holy, so that I might become the person God calls me to be --- a counterpart God created the cosmos in search of, someone who can be loved and love in response and therefore, in whatever way possible, reveal the God who is Love-in Act and the nature of the human being as covenant partner of that same God. But all of this is covered under the affirmation that I pray in order that God might be God. In this way my life of prayer is also my mission and I think the same is true of Jesus. This, it seems, is what Luke is saying about Jesus and Jesus' prayer when he points to the striking priority this has in Jesus' life; according to our vocations, I think it is the priority that Luke is asking we each and all embrace in regard to prayer in our own lives as well.