Year C, Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Transformative prayer

The season of Sundays following the Epiphany is bookended by that voice from heaven that declares that Jesus is the beloved Son of God. On the Sunday following the Epiphany, at the Baptism of Our Lord, the heavens are opened and the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and a voice falls from the sky as a blessing upon Jesus. On this last Sunday before Lent, we always hear the story of the Transfiguration, that mountaintop moment when the voice again rumbles from the clouds and declares that Jesus is the chosen one of God, God’s own Son; and that he is to be listened to.

In the accounts given by Luke, which we read this year, there is besides the voice from the skies another striking parallel between the two stories. Both in the account of Jesus’ baptism and here at the top of the mountain, Jesus is deep in prayer at the moment of blessing. Neither Mark nor Matthew mentions this detail, but from Luke we heard that all the people had been baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized, and was praying when the heaven was opened and the dove came down; and now, taking Peter and John and James, he has gone to the mountain especially to pray, and it is as he is praying, this time just as before, that the strangest things occur.

It can’t be a coincidence that Luke mentions prayer, when no one before him did. It can’t be a coincidence that he mentions it twice, in two transformative stories of Jesus. For Luke, prayer is transformative; Jesus’ prayer is part and parcel of what makes him, what defines him, what reveals him as the Son of God.

But prayer is a gift of God which is shared even with us. The medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, said that “the Goodness of God is the highest prayer, and it cometh down to the lowest part of our need. It quickeneth our soul and bringeth it on life.”[1] Any one of us can pray; I hope that each one of us does pray, because as Jesus demonstrated, prayer is transformative. It brings us into the presence of God, in the company of our spiritual ancestors and companions. It grants us access to heaven on earth. It makes us shine.

Granted, prayer is not always easy. One of the desert fathers, asked by his monks what was the most difficult labour of life in the monastery, answered, “Forgive me, but to my mind there is no labour so great as praying to God: for when a man wishes to pray to his God, the hostile demons make haste to interrupt his prayer, knowing that their sole hindrance is in this, a prayer poured out to God.”[2] We know how often our good intentions to spend time in prayer are distracted by the cares of the world and the call of warm and welcome interruptions. Prayer is offered to us as a gift, but we have to make an effort to unwrap it. One of the reasons that it is so important for us to continue to meet together regularly, religiously, is to encourage one another in prayer, in a life shared with God, lived in love for God and our neighbour.

And here is encouragement: prayer is transformative, even when we do not know it. Moses spoke with God on the mountaintop, and his face shone with the glory that he had seen; he reflected the glory of God through his eyes and his mouth, and the people were afraid to look at him, but Moses didn’t know, until they told him, that it was even happening. He did not know, until they told him, how much his encounter with the divine had changed him. He had been in conversation with God, but he did not know how deeply it had converted him. Like Peter on the mountainside, we rarely know just what we are saying or hearing or receiving when we pray; but God uses our prayer to transform us as God knows our need. At the very least, a habit of intentionally recognizing that we live in conversation with God can help us to recognize the places in our lives where God is already waiting to meet us, hiding as it were in plain sight. Prayer transforms those places in our lives. One desert father asked another, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.”[3]

That is not to say that prayer will always work miracles. When Jesus came down from the mountain, he was confronted by a scene of grief and despair. A man had asked for help and healing from the disciples, and although they had already worked many wonders when Jesus had sent them out on the road, giving them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases, to preach the kingdom of God and to heal (Luke 9:1-2), still, this time, they were powerless.

Some years ago, I received word from a friend that her very young son was in the hospital. He had spiked a fever, and his white blood cell count was through the roof, and his kidneys were in imminent danger of failing, and the doctors were not sure what was wrong, and they were racing to find out, because they could only treat him once they were sure; his small body would not survive trial and error.

On about the third day, the fever broke, and the doctors came back with a diagnosis, one which promised a full and swift recovery. This happened on the boy’s second birthday, and his mother described it as being like the day of his birth all over again; it was as though, she said, she and the boy’s father had been given their son once more as though for the first time, just as Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

We all know that it does not always work out that way. The disciples had been unable to help the child and his father; but God was with that family, in the person of Jesus, and God is with us. There is always hope in the transformative power of prayer, which is why we pray for one another; and there are people praying for each of you, every day, whether or not you know it. While prayer may not change God, because God has always loved us as only God can, and God always will; still, prayer may change us.

While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white… a cloud came and overshadowed them…Then from the cloud came a voice that said, This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.

In the stillness of Lent, may we be transformed by penitence and prayer. In the silence that replaces our Alleluias, may we hear the voice from heaven that speaks to our hearts and changes our minds, transfigures our souls; and may we listen with the confidence of those who are being transformed from one degree of glory to another by the grace and glory of Christ our Lord.

Amen.

[1] Revelations of Divine Love recorded by Julian, Anchoress at Norwich anno domini 1373, “A Version from the MS in the British Museum edited by Grace Warrack” (London, Methuen & Company 1901), Harvard College Library preservation facsimile by Acme Bookbinding, Charlestown, MA 2005, via books.google.com; p. 13

[2] The Desert Fathers, Translated and Introduced by Helen Waddell, Vintage Spiritual Classics (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 116-7

[3] Desert Fathers, p. 117

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One Response to Year C, Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Transformative prayer

  1. heidiannie says:

    and, Amen. My favorite poet is George Herbert, and his poem on prayer –
    PRAYER. (I)

    PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
    Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
    The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
    The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;

    Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
    Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
    The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
    A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

    Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
    Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
    Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
    The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

    Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
    The land of spices, something understood.

    Prayer does transform us- because it keeps our whole being centered on the God whose intention for us is to be like His Son.
    Thanks for this post, Rosalind.

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