A Word to Maundy Thursday through Easter 2019
Prayers and Pray-ers
From Bishop John Roth
Increasingly, our congregations are crafting the worship services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday as a single symphony with three movements. This is a welcome return to the ancient practice of symbolically reliving the entire progression from the upper room, to the garden, to the cross, and to the tomb. Each service has its distinctive emphasis. But there are no benedictions at the end of the services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (like there is no applause between movements of an orchestral symphony), highlighting that the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus can be rightly grasped only when experienced together.
One characteristic unifying motif in this Holy Week symphony is prayer. You might want to take note of how much praying we do in these worship services – particularly this year, the lectionary year of Luke. With all the praying in it, the Gospel of Luke is a Gospel for Holy Week. Luke’s Gospel is noteworthy not only for its volume of prayers, but for its variety of pray-ers.
The angel attests to Zechariah’s praying before announcing he and Elizabeth will have a child. Mary, as she greets Elizabeth with the news of her holy pregnancy, and Zechariah, when he gets his voice back after the birth of John, sing hymns of praise, which may be taken as prayers. The angels praise God at Jesus’ birth; shepherds return to their work glorifying and praising God. Simeon and Anna pray in the temple. John’s disciples fast in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but in Luke, they also pray. The crowd in Nain glorifies God when Jesus restores the widow’s son. In Jesus’ parable, both the Pharisee and the tax collector pray; the flaw in the Pharisee’s prayer is not that he gives thanks to God for what God has done for him, but that he disdains the tax collector and others whom he considers less worthy than himself.
The premier pray-er in Luke’s Gospel is Jesus. Jesus prays at his baptism, after healing a leper, prior to choosing his twelve disciples, when feeding the 5000, at his transfiguration, when the seventy return with joy, prior to teaching the Lord’s Prayer, at the meal in the upper room, specifically for Peter just before Peter denies him, on the cross (two prayers), and at his departure (though translations tend to obscure that Jesus is praying here).
What are we to draw from all this praying? There is much to learn from Jesus the prayer-er, for all sorts of situations. It is clear that Jesus prayed before pivotal events in his life, such as before selecting the twelve, before his transfiguration, and before his arrest. But by itself, this observation can be misleading. References to Jesus praying are scattered through both “exceptional” and “less exceptional” narrative moments. Jesus’ praying forms the backdrop for the mundane day to day, as well as for momentous occasions.
Jesus’ prayers are not confined to any one purpose and do not serve any one function. Moreover, his prayer may be traditional (e.g. a table blessing) or decidedly non-traditional (e.g. “Father, forgive them”). Jesus may pray in his own words (“Father, if you are willing, let this cup pass from me.”) and with words borrowed from the Scriptures (“Into your hands, I commend my spirit”). Jesus prays at revelatory times and at introspective times.
In this Holy Week, in the three days beginning Maundy Thursday evening and concluding Easter Sunday evening, imagine this, that we are the Marys and Elizabeths and Zechariahs, the Simeons and Annas, the shepherds and crowds, and, oh, yes, the Pharisees and tax collectors coming to God with our prayers.
We are all over the map in our personalities, our successes, our failures, our fears, and our hopes. Yet be assured: God hears all our prayers, and God draws us to the One who is himself both a pray-er and the object of our deepest prayers.