Embracing God with our heartfelt prayer

Father John A. Kiley

During the Jubilee Year of Mercy announced by Pope Francis, the Gospel account of St. Luke is coming under special scrutiny since one of its co-titles is The Gospel of Mercy. Yet, as important as mercy is in the writings of St. Luke, Scripture scholars also award his Gospel account several other co-titles. St. Luke’s Gospel narrative is rightly labeled the Gospel of Universal Salvation. Jesus Christ came to save every man and every woman. Jesus truly died for “the many.” Note that in the Lucan account, Jesus ancestry is traced back to Adam, not simply to Abraham as St. Matthew chose to do. All humanity is the subject of God’s merciful love in Christ.

St. Luke’s writings are also rightly regarded as the Gospel of the Poor. The birth of Jesus in St. Luke’s account is first announced not to well to do Persian elites as in St. Matthew’s account but rather to poor shepherds camped out with their flocks. St. Luke’s first beatitude boldly states, “Blessed are the poor” with no modifying “in spirit” to take the edge off the challenge of evangelical poverty. St. Luke’s chilling words, “Neither can you be my disciple unless you renounce all your possessions,” is just one phrase that reminds the reader that St. Luke’s is also the Gospel of Absolute Renunciation. Practical dedication to Christ in both soul and body is demanded in the writings of St. Luke.

The repeated mention of joy in connection with the Good News lends another titled to St. Luke’s writings: the Gospel of Joy. The angels gave the shepherds tidings of “great joy.” The concerned shepherd placed the lost sheep on his shoulders “rejoicing.” The diligent housewife upon finding the lost coin likewise invites her neighbors to “rejoice with me.” The merciful father justifies his mercy toward his wayward son, saying “But it was only right that we should celebrate and rejoice.” After the Ascension the disciples returned to Jerusalem “with great joy.”

This coming Sunday’s feast of the Baptism of Our Lord recalls still other titles that are rightly accorded to St. Luke’s rendering of the Gospel message. St. Luke’s writings are justly entitled the Gospel of Prayer and the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist wisely blends these two important themes: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Scriptural commentaries rightly note that the evangelist Luke will continue to show Jesus at prayer before every important step of his ministry.

Before Jesus selects the Twelve to be apostles he went up the mountain and “spent the night in prayer to God.” Before eliciting St. Peter’s celebrated confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had been praying “in solitude.” Jesus had likewise “gone up the mountain to pray” when the Transfiguration occurred before Peter, James and John. It was Jesus’ example of praying “in a certain place” that induced the disciples to request, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus states during the Last Supper that he “had prayed” for his disciples. After this Paschal meal Jesus would withdraw to the garden where “kneeling, he prayed.” In St. Luke’s Gospel account, the final recorded words of Jesus Christ before his death are a prayer to his Father: “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; and when he had said this he breathed his last.” At every point in his public life (and certainly in his private life as well), Jesus is in prayerful contact with his Father.

Prayer is indeed “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God” as the Baltimore Catechism wisely instructed generations of American Catholics. Accordingly, while rites and rituals are constructive expressions of prayer, prayer itself is the orientation of one’s inner being, one’s mind and heart, toward God. Prayer is regularly allowing God to become the focal point of one’s life. Prayer permits God to become the heart of the matter. Prayer embraces God; prayer draws comfort from God; prayer rivets one’s attention on God. Prayer enables the believer and God to occupy the same space, so to speak, as the root of the word “contemplation” rightly denotes. Prayer is oneness with God.