Sunday, 21 December 2014

on praying unselfishly

Year B | Advent 4

2 Samuel 7. 1-11, 16; Psalm 89.1-4,19-26; Romans 16.25-end; Luke 1.26-38

Mary, the mother of Jesus — or, if your prefer, the Blessed Virgin Mary — is a figure who has divided Christians for centuries. For some, she has a special place in their faith, worthy of veneration and a noble recipient of their prayers. For others she is indicative of all that was wrong with pre-Reformation Christianity, clinging more to suspect tradition than Biblical truth.

I grew up in the latter tradition, a Protestant in the highly sectarian culture of the West of Scotland where anything that distinguished us from Roman Catholics was fiercely and proudly clung on to. Distancing ourselves from Maryology was one such totem.

I came to learn to love Mary through studying Latin American Liberation Theology at college. For poor and oppressed South American women in a male-dominated society, Mary stands out as a female role model of faithfulness to a God with a heart for social justice.

The words of her great hymn of praise, the Magnificat, used around the world daily as part of the service of evening prayer, gives voice to her understanding of God's preferential option for the poor:
God has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Her personal strength in the face of suffering, and her conviction that God will establish a reign of justice, have sustained the faith of generations of poor women in South America and beyond.

Today's gospel reading reminds us of another of Mary's remarkable attributes — her willingness to offer herself up to God. She receives the remarkable news that she is to bear a son with, initially, some confusion, before displaying remarkable self-giving.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Mary stands as an example of what it means to make ourselves available to God. Her prayer is that God's will be done through her.

This is also something we say when we recite the Lord's Prayer. 'Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.' This is how Jesus taught us to pray. And yet, somehow, perhaps our prayers have a tendency to try and bend God to our will. 'Dear Lord, please do this, that or the other.' We sometimes seek more to draw God into our hopes and desires, than to open ourselves up to understanding what it is that God desires of us. 'Let it be with me according to your word.'

Our Advent theme of prayer was introduced a few weeks ago by Rodney Elton. In his sermon he quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams who has written that:

'... prayer is letting Jesus pray in you, and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action.' (Rowan Williams, Being Christian, SPCK 2014)

Just as Mary demonstrated, prayer is about opening ourselves up to God, so that the Holy Spirit can work in us and draw us into the mission that Christ seeks to fulfil through us. We make ourselves available, just as Mary did on learning that she was to bring the Christ-child into the world. We relinquish our earthly worries and ambitions and instead offer ourselves to God. In the words of the old hymn, 'Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me. Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me.'

'Our prayer is that we may be made one with the will and the action of Jesus.' (Rowan Williams, ibid.)

This isn't to say that we shouldn't pray for the needs of the world, or people we know who are ill or in trouble. To do so is to join Jesus in carrying the pain of the world 'into the heart of God.' (Rowan Williams, ibid.)

But if our prayer is about God's will being done on earth, we need to make sure our prayers are not simply located in our own anxieties or selfishness, but that we have truly centred ourselves on being receptive to God's Spirit working in us.

The power of prayer lies in our willingness to make ourselves available to God. 'When we have a share in God's power then we can go and do miracles... You can go and do miracles like forgiving your neighbours, and giving your property away to the poor, because that is how God exercises power. And if we are having a share in God's power, that is where our share will lead.' (Rowan Williams, ibid.)

We see from this that it is important to understand the direction of our prayers. Prayer is not about bombarding God with our demands, but taking time to tune ourselves into the divine and get on the same wavelength. Prayer is powerful when it is rooted in the will of God, and is an expression of the prayers of Christ within us.

This is why I have learned to love Mary — she blazes a trail, as a disadvantaged peasant woman in a patriarchal society under foreign occupation. It is hard to see where the power is in that. But Mary shares in the power of God by setting her own agenda to one side and offering herself up to join in with the divine plan. 'Let it be with me according to your word.'

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