Sunday, 27 December 2015

Feast of the Holy Family (Year C)

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; Psalm 83; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

I grew up in an Irish family where we were frequently ticked off for being bold. In every other part of the world parents want their children to be bold. Of course the word had a special meaning in Ireland, it referred to being naughty or troublesome. Its meaning elsewhere has more to do with being confident, assertive and courageous.

In fact the second reading of today's Mass encourages us all to be bold, and to be bold precisely because we are children. In approaching God in prayer the fact that we are already the children of God ought to make us bold. We can be confident that we will receive from God who is our Father whatever we ask.

Sometimes people have problems about the prayer of petition, 'asking God for what we want'. One is that it does not always seem to work. Most people can tell of something they have asked God for, in all sincerity, and it has not been granted. Another problem is that it can seem like a kind of magic, as if we are trying to manipulate God and bring him into line with what we have decided ought to happen. For people who like to think of themselves as adult and mature even in their dealings with God, petition can seem infantile, a matter of 'give me this, give me that, and give me the other'.

There are ways of approaching the prayer of petition that are not good. We may treat God as a distant, benevolent source of good things who might or might not decide to share them with us. Our interest in God may really be in what he can do for us. We are then using God, or trying God out, as it were: no harm in trying. We might even try to establish some kind of commerical exchange with God along the lines of 'if you do this, I promise to do that'. This is to turn God into an all-year-round Father Christmas who has a sack full of goodies if only you can work out how to insinuate yourself into his favour. These are obviously childish ways of understanding prayer.

The prayer of petition, like all the other practices of the Christian life, is about love. The basis of our relationship with God is God's love for us, God's adoption of us as his children in Christ, and his desire that we should come to share his life ('become like him by seeing him as he is', 1 John 3:2). We cannot understand prayer if we do not speak about love. We can be sure of God's love for us: what about our love for God?

Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the Church's greatest theologians, is very keen on the prayer of petition. In a beautiful phrase he describes prayer as 'the interpreter of desire'. Prayer provides words for what is in our heart. What is it you want? What is it you desire? What has won the affection of your heart? What do you love? These are the things we must speak about openly and honestly - boldly - with God. It may be that we might be somewhat embarrassed or ashamed of our answers to these questions. What do I want? What do I desire? Where is my heart fixed? What do I, really, love?

If we learn to pray as Jesus did, then God is a father with whom we can speak about what we want. It may be, of course, that the desires and wants of our hearts need to be sifted and thought about and re-directed. I may want my neighbour to drop dead. I should speak about this with God and tell him that it is what I want. I should not be too surpised if it does not happen. (In fact I will be very shocked if it does, particularly if it seems to come as an answer to my prayer!)

In today's gospel reading, Jesus as a young adolescent seems confident and even a bit smug in his reply to Mary, his mother. At the end of his life we see him in a very different place, in Gethsemane, petitioning his Father and telling him what he wants. He wants the cup of suffering to pass him by. He asks God for this just as he has taught his disciples to ask God for what they want. We know that this petition was not granted. But the other petition in that prayer was granted: 'not what I want but what you want' (Mark 14:36). It is as if he had said: another thing I want is what you want. It is as if he had said: the deeper thing I want is what you want. The basis of the relationship between Jesus and  the Father is simply love, through which, perhaps not immediately on our side, a union of wills comes about. We begin by telling God what we want. Through what is usually a lifetime of bold conversations, we end by wanting nothing but God alone.

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