On Ash Wednesday we always listen to the same part of Saint Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus speaks about three ways of self-denial: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Last Sunday’s gospel told us about Jesus’ fasting for forty days in the desert. Today’s gospel speaks about prayer.
“Jesus took with him Peter, John and James and went up the mountain to pray.” They leave people following Jesus and expecting him to perform miracles. They leave their usual works and duties and go to a deserted place to pray. They have to climb up; this is obviously an additional, exhausting effort. So we shouldn’t be surprised that they fall asleep at the top.
We also have been invited by Jesus to join him for prayer. Our holy mountain is the church, where the Lord is waiting for us patiently in the Blessed Sacrament. His Godhead is hidden in the form of bread, just as it was hidden in Christ’s human body. We’ve been invited to leave our work and duties and lose a couple of hours to be with Christ among friends. Sometimes we have to overcome certain obstacles, like bad weather or our apprehension at meeting someone new.
“There were two men talking to Jesus; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory.” This symbolic conversation shows the connection and relationship between these three apparently different parts of the Bible: the Law symbolised by Moses, the Prophets symbolised by Elijah and the Gospel symbolised by Jesus. The whole Bible is the source of our faith.
“A voice came from the cloud saying: ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.” This is the simplest definition of prayer. We’ve been taught that prayer is a kind of rhyme we recite to God. I think this is the main reason that many people abandon prayer when they grow up – reciting rhymes seems to be silly and a useless activity. Sometimes people are let down when they recite some well known prayers expecting a solution for their problems and nothing happens. I met a man who prayed for years for his mother’s health; but she has never been cured. Prayer isn’t just about speaking, but more about listening. We have two ears and one mouth which might suggest that we should listen twice as much as we speak. The expression “to listen” has two main meanings (according to The Oxford Advanced Dictionary): the first one is this: “to pay attention to somebody or something that you hear” – it presupposes that some intellectual effort is required to understand what you hear. The second meaning is this: “to take notice of what somebody says to you so that you may follow their advice or believe them.” This meaning implies a kind of trust and obedience. These two meanings of the expression “to listen” are particularly important when we refer it to prayer.
When I pray I ought to make some effort to hear and understand God’s message for me. This effort might be to find time for prayer; to put off some things which may disturb me; to silence my mind. Let me use a simple example. I have an electrical kettle, very noisy when it is working. So I never switch it on when I listen to the radio or watch TV, because I couldn’t hear anything. I could turn up the volume, but it would be unbearable for my dog (and perhaps my neighbours). Because we can’t turn up God, we have to turn down our internal and external noise.
OK, now it’s time for the second meaning of the expression “to listen”: a kind of trust and obedience. Let me remind you of one sentence from today’s gospel: “As Jesus prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant.” Prayer doesn’t change God’s minds. Prayer changes our minds. When we listen to God carefully we will find a new and more complete meaning to our lives and things that happen around us. Prayer helps us to trust God, whatever the circumstances prayer helps us to find out how and when we should act. Prayer helps us to follow God avoiding the snares of evil.
What happened when Jesus finished his prayer, the cloud, Moses and Elijah disappeared? Jesus took his disciples back to everyday life. They looked like they were before: the same faces, hair and clothes. They came back to do what they used to do. But spiritually changed they were able to survive all the catastrophes that would happen in their lives.
Prayer is not an escape from life. Prayer is something that helps us to live good lives. If you are a troubled individual, listen to God. Your prayer will not change him. It will change you, for the better.