“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 4:26–34:
Jesus said to the crowds:
“This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”
He said, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.
Yesterday, I began to reflect a little on prayer and its purpose. My wife is the prayer warrior in our family. She grew up strong in the faith, and got a real Catholic education, and so she knows the traditional prayers by heart. My road was less traditional. Although I did get the early sacraments as a child, I didn’t become a committed Catholic until I was in my early twenties, and wasn’t confirmed until 25. I’ve struggled to recall from memory any formal prayers except for the Our Father, the Hail Mary (which I didn’t even realize I knew until it popped out one day shortly after I went back to church), and the Mass. The new translation of the responses a couple of years ago threw me for a loop for a few months.
I’ve learned a few more by memory, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. When I pray, it tends toward the informal, based on a need of the moment. The traditional prayers provide comfort in that they connect me to my fellow Christians in the church, but I’ll often have to pull them up on my smartphone; thank heaven for Catholic apps, eh? Both traditional and informal prayer connect me with the Holy Spirit, in different ways. But what does it mean, and what does it accomplish?
Jesus speaks about prayer on a number of occasions, and the Gospels note several times when Jesus goes off by himself to pray. Three of them appear in multiple Gospels: when Jesus feeds the multitudes at Galilee, in the garden of Gethsemane, and on the cross itself during the Passion. On all these occasions, plus Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert in which He undoes the sins of Israel all the way back to Adam, Jesus communes with the Father for strength and to stay in full alignment with the Lord’s will. On another occasion, when Jesus casts out a demon from a boy when the disciples were unable, He explains that this particular demon was of a strength that required “prayer and fasting” to dispel.
In Gethsemane, Jesus prays not once but three times. His Passion had begun; He had come to the foot of the mountain to offer Himself as the sacrifice that would offer salvation to all humanity throughout time, but Jesus needs strength to face the terrible price He would have to pay. He communes with the Father, asking for His own petitions but committing himself to doing the Father’s will (Matthew 26:36-46): “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus drew strength through prayer in Gethsemane and on the cross in His indescribable agony, allowing Him to complete the perfect sacrifice, His service to humanity.
When we pray, we ask for intercessions as well, but also to conform to God’s will and to praise Him. The Our Father is actually three prayers in that sense: a prayer of praise (“hallowed be Thy name”), a prayer to conform to His will (“on Earth as it is in heaven”), and a prayer of intercession for strength (“give us this day our daily bread … lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”). Jesus taught the disciples this prayer during the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus also teaches about the virtues of meekness, service, and love of neighbor and enemy as one’s self.
Prayer, then, draws us out of ourselves and closer to God, and when we offer prayers for others, it draws us closer to each other. It pulls us out of our pain and forces us to recognize the pain of others, which in turn allows us to grasp the need for service for God’s children in the world. It offers us a means to sacrifice something of ourselves in the communion with the Holy Spirit, a meekness from which we can gather strength from the Lord.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed to explain faith and the kingdom of God. The mustard seed is tiny, but it grows into an amazingly large tree when fed properly. Faith is the mustard seed, and the tree is the kingdom of God, but that transition doesn’t happen automatically, and not overnight. To add on a very imperfect tangent to Jesus’ analogy, prayer is the cultivation of that faith. Prayer is how we foster that mustard seed and allow it to bloom and thrive. As we focus on praise to and sacrifice for God, our faith grows and gains strength. Our prayers of intercession may not be answered how we wish, but as with Jesus in Gethsemane, we form ourselves to the will of God through prayer anyway, recognizing His will above our own and trusting that holds ultimate joy that transcends momentary sorrow and pain.
Paul speaks about the necessity of recognizing this and committing our trust to the Lord in our second reading from 2 Corinthians today:
We are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.
We walk by faith, not by sight. We cannot grasp the full will of the Lord, but we show faith by aligning our will to His. It is perhaps the most difficult part of being His disciple — putting aside our own wills, our own desires, and our own self-interest to do His work. That also forces us to look beyond our own lives and opening our hearts to God’s children, a mission in which only prayer can sustain us.
At this point of my life, I will probably never fully memorize the beautiful prayers of our tradition, but that’s what the smartphone is for. Instead, I’ll pray for intercessions for myself, family, friends, and strangers, and try my best to include this prayer which has been a gift to me for the past few years. Lord, help me to remember who I am today: a child of God, a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ, and an instrument of Your will. My faith is a mustard seed, and I’m not a very good gardener, but someday I hope to see by faith the Tree of Life through whatever imperfect prayer I can offer.