I wonder what Jesus looked like when he prayed. Did he stand or sit…or kneel? Did he face east or west, turn to the sun or to the sea? Did he walk about as he prayed, matching long strides to the pace of his prayer? Did he take off his shoes or cover his head? Did he hold himself still, or did he daven and silently move his lips? Did he chant or sing or hum? Did he close his eyes and bow his head? Did he smile, or frown, or weep? Did he begin his prayers in silence or with a sigh? Did he stretch his arms to heaven and say, O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you, in the name of the Father, and of me, and of the Holy Spirit? No, perhaps not.
What did Jesus look like when he prayed? The Gospels are fairly mute on the subject. There is, of course, the moment on the mount of transfiguration when Jesus’ garments began to glow white like no amount of sunshine and Clorox could ever bleach them. But other than that one description of Jesus in prayer, the Gospels leave us guessing. They do often tell us where Jesus prayed, that he liked to pray in places that were set apart and secluded – a mountain, the wilderness, places of privacy where the Holy Spirit had enough space to take wing. But what Jesus looked like when he prayed there? We are left only to imagine.
Today’s Gospel reading is equally silent on the subject. Luke tells us that Jesus is off praying “in a certain place,” perhaps one of these deserted spots, away from the maddening crowds. But it seems that this particular “certain place” is not so very far away, because the disciples can clearly see him. And they are watching him closely. Look! they whisper to one another. He’s praying again. Just look at him. I wish I could pray like that. He looks like he is full of peace, full of beauty and holiness. I want to look just like that when I pray.
So when Jesus returns to the group, they ask him to show them how. Lord, teach us to pray, they say, the way that John taught his disciples. Now scripture again has nothing to say about how John the Baptist prayed, but I would imagine that his prayer practices were as severe as his wardrobe. Find a rocky spot in the desert, I can hear him saying, and kneel there until you can feel the sharpness of your sin. If you are ever unsure of your need to repent, walk into the desert and sweat a while. Hairshirts are always helpful tools to keep you from being too comfortable with the riches of the flesh, and always, always remember to say grace before tucking in to your locusts and wild honey.
Who knows what John the Baptist taught his disciples about prayer, and who knows what Jesus’ disciples are expecting when they ask him for some prayer instruction. But one thing is for sure – the disciples want to pray like Jesus. They want to look like him; they want to be like him. They want to be world-class pray-ers, Olympic athletes of supplication, Greek gods of petition. Teach us to pray, Lord, so that we can be really good at this, as good as you are, beautiful and serene and holy, holy, holy, just like you.
Jesus, of course, knows what they are asking. He knows exactly what they are looking for. He knows what it is that they want from him, but he also knows what it is that they need from him. So instead of offering helpful hints about the seven habits of highly effective pray-ers, he just smiles and says, okey dokey – or however you say okey dokey in Aramaic – this, my children, is how you pray.
Father. Hallowed be your name. And with those five simple words, Jesus changes everything. Father. Hallowed be your name, and instantly Jesus takes the focus away from the pray-er to the pray-ee. Because prayer, Jesus knows, is not primarily about our holiness; it is first and foremost about the holiness of God. God is the holy one, the numinous one. The disciples may have been asking about how to be holy themselves, but Jesus knows all holiness, all beauty, all prayer begins with God, the Holy One, the one whose very name is so holy it cannot be spoken, whose being is so holy it can only be expressed in the sound of sheer silence, whose presence is so holy that we cannot bear to look upon it. Take off your shoes, Jesus tells his disciples, for your God is holy, and the place of prayer is always holy ground.
But Jesus’ teaching does not stop there, because he then goes on to show his disciples – including you and me, of course – that this holiness does not exist for its own sake. It is not a disembodied, disinterested holiness; it is holiness on your side, holiness for you. That holiness is your Father, your Mother. That holiness is closer to you than your own heart. That Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One is extremely, intimately, inexhaustibly interested in you. And so ask, and your prayers will be answered. Ask for bread enough, for food enough, for patience and endurance and strength enough. Ask for whatever you need, ask again and again, ask and seek and knock, for our God is holy and righteous and will give you whatever you need, not because of your holiness, but because of His. God will give you whatever you need, not because you prayed well, or enough, or at the right time of day or in the right posture or with the right words, but because God is God and can do no other.
God can do no other – including giving us anything less than a good gift. Jesus promises us that God will respond to our prayers, but he does not promise that God will give us what we ask for in the form that we would prefer the very second we’re looking for it. God actually knows better than that. God will not give us more stuff when what we need is more space. God will not give us a quick fix when what we need is a slow returning. God will not take us out of the wilderness when what we need is to see that he is in the wilderness with us. God will not even give us an instant cure when what we need is an enduring healing. This is good news, of course, but it is not always easy. It’s difficult to lay aside our own expectations about what God’s response will look like or when it will come. We can start to imagine that God has gone deaf and dumb, when really the problem is that while he’s reaching out to offer fish and eggs, we’re looking around for snakes and scorpions.
But the more we pray Father, Hallowed be your name, the better we get at seeing the gifts that God offers. The more we pray Father, Hallowed be your name, the more holiness we begin to see all around us. For the holiness of God cannot be contained. It spreads out and around, landing on everything like sunshine dripping down the soft leaves of summer. It is a saturating holiness that fills in the tiniest cracks and makes even the rests between the notes pregnant with the presence of the Almighty. It is a holiness that rubs off and rubs in, even into you and in me.
When we pray Father, Hallowed be your name, you and I actually become the holiness that we seek. When our eyes are pining for the beauty of God, when we turn our faces to the "splendor of Goddes grace," we actually begin to look like heaven. begin to look like what we’re looking for. “And every gentle heart,” poet Robert Bridges writes, “that burns with true desire/Is lit from eyes that mirror part/Of that celestial fire.” And that is what you look like when you pray. You look beautiful. You are beautiful when you pray. You are beautiful when you say Father, Hallowed be your name. You are beautiful when you join with angels and archangels to sing Holy, Holy, Holy with all of the heavenly choirs. You are beautiful when you sing “Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face,” yes, even you in the back who thinks that God would probably rather you not sing in public, let me tell you, you’re wrong, God loves it when you sing, especially hymns out of The Hymnal 1982. When you sing, when you pray, you are so beautiful, filled with the holiness of God, afire with the light, the truth, the beauty that the world so pines to see. You are so beautiful that someone out there, who is looking for a home or looking for a hope might just look at you and say, wow. I want to pray like she does. I want to look like that. Teach me how to do that. So tell them. Father. Hallowed be your name. Invite them to pray in the beauty of holiness. Alleluia, alleluia! Praise with us the God of grace.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
July 28, 2013
The Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Jackson, Mississippi