The Great Prayer
Fifth Sunday of Easter. Fr Robert Sharp preaches on the Great Prayer of Jesus, which enfolds all human prayer.
I have just turned eighty; also I have received notice to get my bags packed. Where away? Our second reading today describes a vision of the kingdom or final reign of God in a ‘holy city, resplendent as a bride for her husband’. God will dwell with humans and they will be his people. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes, death and suffering will be no more, for the former things will have passed away. Now for us the way from here to there has been pioneered; it is for us to follow.
Jesus spoke often of his Father’s kingdom and of the way leading to it. He summarised his message to us: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand: make your minds new and believe the good news!’ On the last evening before he died, he shared Passover supper with his friends. He startled them, ‘I am going away and you cannot come with me now.’ They were to live on in the world and learn to love people in the way he had loved them. And he promised to send them his help.
‘Now is the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified,’ he had said. Facing down evil with love, alone in pain and death, he would pass over from our Not-Yet humanity into the eternal mystery of God, where all is fulfilment and light. In his self-sacrificing passage he is ‘glorified’, and pioneers a jungle-path for us who remain behind. We who are born in the jungle of this-worldly values form even now a moral bridge between the two Ages, having one foot in the jungle and one in the steps of our pioneer.
The prospect for Jesus that night was terrifying. His mission to introduce and proclaim God’s Kingdom had landed him facing a tortured death. In trust he surrendered himself to the evil human situation as it now enmeshed him. At least he would see it through in loyal faithfulness and love for God and his friends. In human flesh he would only see the answer to the question why this way? when the action was completed on Easter morning. The answer lay in his own human will, his hope and love and trust: God’s salvation and our redemption work through that. God in his providential wisdom would in his own way bring good from it: our salvation and eternal life would somehow emerge out of the evil, a pattern would be set for the Church and by extension for the world.
What is the place of self-sacrifice in all this? Sacrifice is the ritual gift of self by which we humans cross over to the space of someone we have separated from, so as to be reconciled. A gesture to say ‘sorry!’. It could take the simple form of chocolates or a good shared meal with wine. Sacrifice to God is an acted-out prayer by which humans render themselves a holy and acceptable gift to him. It expresses love and obedience as we surrender, pass over to the divine will. The greatest sacrifice was Jesus’ gift to God of his humanity in which he rose, glorified: ‘The bread I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world.’
The Great Prayer enfolding all human prayer was Christ’s on Calvary. That prayer in a human situation which seemed hopeless was answered, not by a miracle rescue out of it, but within it, by God raising Jesus in his action of saving love for us, in solidarity with all followers who are willing to sacrifice self in love and trust for God and others.
As Christians we of course do all we can to eliminate evil of every kind. But when we cannot avoid its grip on us (for example if we suffer sustained injustice from others, or perhaps from incurable cancer), we can still insert ourselves into that great enveloping prayer of Jesus on the cross, just as the Church does at every celebration of the Eucharist. Simply, Mass is the sacrament of the Great Prayer. Obviously evil looks no less evil when viewed through the eyes of faith, and the suffering of self-sacrifice in Jesus’ footsteps still hurts. But with faith trusting in the glorified Jesus Christ, we retain our Christian hope in Life with God, for us and for the world.