Today’s readings tell us two very important things about God: God is merciful, not wanting to anyone to perish, and God is faithful. Our readings today also show us what it looks like to have a personal, even intimate, relationship with God. In our first reading, Abraham, who is our father because of his faith, as he does with the story of his whole life, gives very concrete expression to what Jesus teaches about prayer in today’s Gospel (Rom. 4:9-12). All of this is summarized quite succinctly in our Psalm response: "Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me." Our second reading, in a manner more subtle than our Psalm response, also connects our reading from Genesis with today’s Gospel. It does this by discussing baptism, describing it as being "buried" with Christ and then being "also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised [Christ] from the dead" (Col. 2:12).
Jesus teaches that we must approach the Father in prayer with confidence. Our confidence is in God, who is merciful and faithful, truly a heavenly Father, the best of fathers, who longs to give you, not just what you ask for, but to draw you into the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. The biggest problem we encounter with prayer is set forth well by the twentieth century Christian spiritual master, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom: the seeming absence of God when we pray. It is important to realize that, indeed, God is not absent, but everywhere present. "[I]f I lie down in [Hell], you are there too," the psalmist sings of God’s omnipresence (Ps. 139:8). What are we to make of this situation, with which I daresay most, if not all of us, are all familiar? There are two things to keep in mind.
The first thing we must realize is that prayer is a relationship. As such, it involves more than one person. God does not make us pray. He leaves us free in this regard. Just so, to pray is not to summon God as if He were a genie in a bottle that we need only rub three times in order to make appear. No! "The fact that God can make Himself present or can leave us with the sense of His absence" is indicative "of this real and live relationship" (Beginning to Pray 26). After all, if we could mechanically draw God into an encounter, "force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship" because this would not be an encounter, but a summons (26). This comes even more to the fore when we realize how often do we not have time for God, when we effectively say to Him, "Not now, I am busy."
The second thing we must keep in mind is that to encounter the living God is awesome, perhaps even awful, meaning to be filled with awe, because every encounter with the living God "is always a moment of judgment" (27). Metropolitan Anthony goes on to say that it is impossible to "meet God in prayer or meditation and not be either saved or condemned" (27). Of course, this is not meant in an ultimate sense, as if when we finally encounter God in prayer we will in that moment be eternally saved or eternally condemned. It means that when we truly encounter the living God it creates a crisis. Our word crisis comes to us from Greek and means to decide, to judge. In other words, there are times we should be grateful to God "that He does not… present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him" precisely because He is merciful by not coming to us "in an untimely way," thus giving us an opportunity to judge ourselves and sparing us when it might mean condemnation.
Metropolitan Anthony tells the story of a man who wanted very badly to see God and asked this holy priest to show him God. Anthony told the man that even if he was capable of showing him God, he would not be able to see God because to encounter God it is necessary to have something in common. So, he asked the man to tell him if there was a passage from any of the Gospels that moved him. The man responded by saying that he was moved by the story of the woman taken in adultery. He then asked his earnest inquirer who he was in the scene: the Lord, "full of mercy, of understanding," or did he see himself as the sinful woman, or perhaps as one of the men ready to stone her who, at Jesus’ words, walks away, having been made aware of his own sin? The man paused, then said "No, I feel I am the only Jew would not have walked [away] but who would have stoned the woman" (27-28). To which Metropolitan Anthony responded: "Thank God that He does not allow you to meet Him face-to-face" (28).
Like the man who wanted to see God, we must be relentlessly honest before God. God cannot be blinded, distracted, or deceived. Most often we do not flatly refuse God’s word or Christ’s teachings, but we frequently "ignore the divine presence and act according to our own desires [and] moods, contrary to everything that is God’s [expressed] will" for us (28). In trying to blind God, we only succeed in blinding ourselves. There are times when we can only come into God’s presence repentant and broken-hearted and not in the way "we immediately wish to be received," which is as if nothing had happened. This, too, my friends is a great mercy and the primary reason for the sacrament of penance (28). Like father Abraham, we approach God saying, "See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes"(Gen. 18:27).
Too often, like the centurion who wants Jesus to heal his daughter, but does not want the Lord to enter his house, or Peter who says to the Lord, "Depart from me… for I am a sinful man," we want something from the Lord, but we do not want Him. (Matt. 8:8; Luke 5:8). We just want Him to give us what we ask for and then go away. This same attitude afflicts our relationships with people, treating them as means to be employed towards some self-serving end. Even when we pray intensely for someone we love, or a matter of great concern to ourselves, it does not necessarily mean that God matters to us. In fact, even while praying, after “you have made your passionate, deep, intense [petition] concerning the person you love or the situation that worries you, and you turn to the next item, which does not matter” to you quite as much, you often turn cold and mechanical. What happened? Did God leave, or grow uninterested? Most certainly not! "[I]t means that all the elation, all the intensity in your prayer was not borne of God’s presence, of your faith in Him, of your longing for Him, of your awareness of Him" (29).
In order to be able to encounter God in prayer, to be friends with God, like Abraham, "[w]e must recognize that He is God, that He is King, we must surrender to Him," like Job, who, after being informed that his oxen, asses, sheep, shepherds, camels had all been seized in different raids and that all his children, who were gathered in one house, had been killed, tore his cloak, “cut off his hair…cast himself prostrate upon the ground, and said, ‘Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked shall I go back again. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD’” (Bloom 30; Job 1:13-21). Of course, Job’s faithfulness was rewarded in the end. While assets and houses can be replaced, children cannot. After all, as some of us here know, having more children does not erase the pain of losing a child. So, it is only Jesus Christ, who out of great love descended from unimaginable glory to become for us the man sorrows, who can wipe away our tears and take away our pain and emptiness, and bring us to new life, which isn’t merely a life lived for others, but a life of self-sacrificing service to others lived for Him.
Jesus’ point in today’s Gospel is not that God will give you whatever you ask for, or even that God will only give what you need. In his second encyclical, Spe Salvi, the Holy Father points to a letter on prayer written by Saint Augustine to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow, in which he said "ultimately we want only one thing—'the blessed life', the life which is simply life, simply 'happiness'. In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer" (par. 11). Dear friends, only Christ can give us "the life which is simply life." He does this by giving us Himself, body, blood, soul, and divinity by the power of the Holy Spirit in this very Eucharist. In return, he asks you to give yourself to Him, body, blood, soul, and humanity.