29th Sunday in Ordinary time

In the year 1979, Communism in Europe seemed unbeatable, indestructible and powerful, with hundreds of millions of people having been enslaved and deprived of their basic rights. On June 2 of that year, there was a man speaking to a massive gathering assembled in a huge square, a crowd of people who had lost hope; a highly reluctant concession of the Communist government. The man finished his speech with a simple prayer, recalling the response of the psalm of that day: ‘Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.’ The speaker was Pope John Paul II, preaching in Warsaw, in Victory Square. How prophetic the place was for that simple prayer! Exactly ten years and two days later, Solidarity – the democratic opposition – won the general election. That started a chain reaction across other countries in the Soviet bloc, leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. What appeared unconquerable in 1979, crumbled, collapsed and completely disappeared within one decade.

In our current political and cultural climate, religion is presented in a negative way as oppressive, sectarian, irrational and dangerous; tainted with abuse of power or associated with terrorism. Seemingly it’s fashionable to be at least religiously indifferent, preferably mildly hostile towards religion. Similarly, in the era of instant communication, quick answers and disposable goods, prayer seems to be a wasteful and completely redundant activity, as it apparently doesn’t provide immediate answers or quick results. So, instead of wasting their time on prayer, many people waste their time on watching, reading or listening to junk.

Today’s first reading shows one of my favourite scenes in the Old Testament (aside from its strictly military, literal aspect). The people of Israel, wandering through the desert on their way to the Promised Land, face a military threat from a hostile tribe. When the battle begins, Moses is standing on the top of the hill completely devoted to prayer, instead of supporting his troops with wisdom and experience. He doesn’t take a sword in his hand, but raises his wooden staff up towards heaven. It’s a very symbolic gesture; this is the same staff with which he performed miracles in the name of God. This staff is a symbol of God’s promise to bring the people of Israel out of slavery to the Egyptians, and to bring them to the land of milk and honey. It’s like Moses saying to God: ‘if you let them perish in battle, your promise will not be fulfilled.’

That’s the first aspect of prayer: its subject is God’s promises. God doesn’t need to be reminded what he has promised; it is us that need to remember them in the darkest moments of our lives. Secondly, Moses is not alone in his prayer; when he weakens, Hur and Aaron support him. Prayer shared with others makes it powerful, because we are not left to our own devices. A couple of my close friends have recently come across their most difficult experience ever; but they are admirably strong, supported by the prayers of their many friends. Thirdly, Moses’ prayer is not a quick and painless solution; it takes all day and it is exhausting. Prayer is a lesson of perseverance, patience and endurance – qualities often forgotten in the current pursuits of fame, wealth or power. Prayer requires time, not because of any reluctance on God’s part or because of any difficulty in bending his will; but because our hearts are so stubborn when it comes to accepting God’s plan for our lives. And last but not least, Moses’ prayer doesn’t replace action, but complements it. Prayer helps us to see our circumstances in the much wider context of God’s loving plan, and therefore prevents us from taking immediate, emotionally driven action. Prayer is a powerful instrument in changing lives for the better. Make use of it.