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Jesus at prayer

30 November, 1999

Jesus himself prayed in times of emergency and wanted others to pray along with him. His prayer shows him in a very intimate relationship with the one he calls “Abba”, Dada. He urges us to pray in like manner. James McPolin SJ introduces us to Jesus at prayer.

When do we find it helpful to pray? We cannot give a general answer because prayer is such a personal experience. At the same time the example of Jesus in the gospels may help us to answer this question. They portray him as a person for whom prayer was important and helpful.

Timely prayer
Like Moses and Elijah he regularly withdrew into solitude for long hours of prayer: ‘In the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed’ (Mark 1:35).

Another time, ‘after he had taken leave of them, he went into the hills to pray’ (Mark 6:30-31).

Luke reports that Jesus prayed all night on some occasions. More than the other three evangelists, Luke underlines the role of prayer in Jesus’ life (Luke 6:12, 9:28).

We see Jesus praying in times of emergency and also when he had to make important decisions connected with his life and work. For example, before he chose the twelve he spent the night in prayer (Luke 6:12-16). And before setting out on his preaching tour in Galilee, he got up early in the morning and went off to a quiet place to pray (Mark 1:35).

Common prayer
Yet he did not just pray alone; he also prayed with the disciples, his friends (Lk. 5:16, 6:12, 9:28, 11:1). In fact, he wanted others to pray along with him, particularly when he felt lonely and abandoned in the Garden of Gethsemane as he faced his death. In some ways, this painful episode (Mark 14:32-42) is the most comforting one in the Gospels, for we see Jesus at his most human and most vulnerable.
‘He began to be greatly distressed and troubled’ – the words used indicate that Jesus was shattered. He first asks God to remove his suffering. But as he continues to pray he comes to see that he must face the suffering ahead of him: ‘Not what I want but what you want.’ What is very clear is that in his prayer Jesus experiences the strength of God to accept the reality of life that lies before him. Similarly, we too find strength in prayer like Jesus.

Forms of prayer
We find Jesus before his Father in prayer at the decisive moments of his life and work – at his baptism, before calling the twelve apostles and during the Transfiguration. His ways of praying vary but they are all significant: on the cross he makes a prayer of abandonment: ‘My God, my God why have you abandoned me?’

In his joyful moments Jesus thanks God for opening the hearts of people to his word. He is very aware of God working with him in his ministry and he thanks God (Matthew 11:25-27).

He also prays for forgiveness for those who put him to death. ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.’ Thus he practises what he preaches about forgiveness: ‘Love your enemies.’ We, too, in prayer learn to see God at work in our lives in prayer. In prayer we learn from Jesus’ example to forgive.

All these examples show that for Jesus prayer is related to the circumstances of his life.
Besides, for him prayer is a relationship to God and to people. The intimacy of Jesus’ experience in prayer is indicated by his use of the word ‘Abba’ to address God. This is an Aramaic word used by children to address their Father. It is like the English ‘Daddy’. Within Judaism it was common to refer to God with the more formal ‘Father’. It was rare to call God ‘Abba’. Thus at the very heart of Jesus’ prayer-life was the experience of closeness to God, of intimacy.

Concern for others
Jesus’ concern and compassion for others also find expression in his prayer. He understands the failures of Peter and prays for him: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail’ (Luke 22:31-32).

Jesus final and farewell prayer is for his friends, his disciples. His prayer in John’s Gospel is that they may be one with God and with one another (John /7:11), that they may experience God’s love in this life and the next.

In his prayer Jesus brings his disciples into God’s presence. We, too, like Jesus do not just say prayers for others. We bring them into God’s presence with us and look at our attitudes towards them in the presence of God.

Prayer should make us more human towards others. If that does not happen, then there is something lacking in our prayer.

All these descriptions of Jesus at prayer encourage us to pray like him and to link our prayer with the circumstances of our lives, to develop our relationship with God and with others. In that way prayer enables us to keep in touch with God and to become more humane like Jesus.

Jesus helps us to pray not only by his example but also by his teaching. The main instruction he gives us is contained in the Our Father (Matt. 6:7-13, Luke 11:14). We need to pay more attention to its content, to what we should ask for in prayer: the glory of God, the coming of his kingdom, daily bread or our needs, forgiveness of sin.

Our Father
Above all, we are invited to have confidence and trust in God, to believe that he loves us and that he will give us good things. Jesus tells us stories (parables) about prayer: that God is like a friend, benevolent and loving, and that our prayer response is to be one of trust (Luke 11:9-13).

Let our prayer be sincere and direct: ‘When you pray do not be like the hypocrites who love to stand up to pray in the houses of worship and at the street corners so that everyone will see them’ (Matt. 6:5-6). True prayer is simple and direct since ‘your Father already knows what you need before you ask him … Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find’ (Matt. 6:8, 7:7).

As well as being sincere, our prayer should also be humble and persistent. In accordance with the parable (Luke 18:14), we are to be like the tax-gatherer who stood at the rear of the temple praying, ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.’
At the same time we are to pray continually and without getting discouraged, like the persevering widow whose pleas were finally heard (Luke 18:1-8).

It is in prayer that we learn to overcome resentments. ‘Pray for those who persecute you.’ Jesus prayed not only for his friends but also for those who persecuted him. One of his last prayers was to ask his Father to forgive those who were putting him to death.

We need to spend some time with God in prayer for him to soften our hearts so that we may not find ourselves imprisoned in bitterness. Also a prerequisite for approaching God in prayer and worship is reconciliation with others (Matthew 5:43-48, 18:23-35).

Jesus prayed because prayer is a factor of our human condition. His Father is the Creator and the Sustainer of all.

As a human being, Jesus was, like us, wholly dependent on this God.

He turned spontaneously to a Father who would support him and back him in his efforts. He had to plough his own furrow as one sent with a mission. But he was not alone because the Father was with him, and Jesus constantly communicated with him.

The prayer of Jesus alerts us to our dependence on and trust in God. And Jesus still continues to pray for us and with us to his Father.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits. 

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