1 Samuel 1:4-20
It’s a great joy for me to be back at the monastery, after my time of sabbatical. I spent much of my time with my family – my mother and my brothers and sister and their families, my nieces and nephews. I also stayed with friends in England, Ireland and France. It was also a great time for reflection and for prayer. I am so grateful for this time away, and I’m very grateful for your prayers for me.
I visited so many great churches and cathedrals, from York and Durham to Canterbury, and from Cork to Notre Dame in Paris. Whenever I go into a great church, I love to find a place to light a candle, and kneel down, and remember those I love, those who are on my heart, those who I know in need, or have asked me to pray for them. And I know many of you do this in the chapel – lighting a candle and offering up prayers.
Taking the train from London to Paris, and passing through Calais, with its huge camps of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and then in Paris itself, with its many Middle Eastern émigrés, I was aware of the terrible human suffering all around me in Europe – people lost, homeless, exiled. Two weeks ago, lighting a candle in Notre Dame, and praying for those exiled families, I could not have imagined the awful killings and bloodshed which have taken place this weekend. One of the sites of the shootings was a restaurant only two blocks away from where I was staying.
Today we hold all those who have died in our hearts and in our prayers.
But when I say, ‘we hold them in our prayers,’ when President Obama says that the people of Paris are in his prayers, what do we mean? What am I doing when I kneel down in a French cathedral, and light a candle, and pray for my brothers in Boston? What are we doing when we hold a vigil of prayer (as will be held in a few hours in Notre Dame Cathedral – and on Boston Common). When we gather to pray, and pray with deep longing and love and compassion for those who are suffering? Why do we do it?
What drew Hannah in our Old Testament reading today to go into the House of the Lord, and to pour out her heart to the Lord – to pray and pray with such fervor that Eli thought she’d been drinking!
It’s because we believe that this kind of prayer – our heartfelt prayer of desire and longing for another in need – actually does something. The prayer of intercession is powerful and can change lives.
“I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day”: Saint Paul to his beloved Timothy.
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you”: Saint Paul to the Church in Philippi.
St. Paul knew the power of prayer because he saw it in the life of Jesus. Jesus prayed and prayed and prayed. Through the night, before day break in a deserted place. In the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood, and he prays on the cross.
Jesus’ disciples learned the power of prayer from Jesus. Jesus died, rose again and ascended into heaven. But the disciples believed that although he was now exalted in the Father’s glory, he was still very close to them – and they had no doubt that his prayers for them continued. And so we get the imagery which we have just read in the Letter to the Hebrews of Jesus as our high priest who has opened up a way for us – a way for our deepest prayer, our deepest longing to reach the very throne of God. Jesus, as high priest, carries on praying for us to the Father. Or,as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it in chapter 7 “he always lives to make intercession for us.”
If I say that Jesus is making intercession for you right now with his Father, I wonder what you imagine that would look like. What image do you see? Maybe whispering in God’s ear ‘please care for Jane’ or‘strengthen Geoffrey – he’s got to preach this morning’.
But actually, that verb “to make intercession for us” literally does not mean, making petitions, nor saying any words at all. The Greek word entunchanein ‘to make intercession’ means to meet or be with someone, on behalf of another. So when we talk of Jesus making intercession for us to the Father, it’s not Jesus talking to God about us. It is Jesus being intimately close to his Father and carrying us whom he loves, on his heart, and into the heart of God.
And that’s what we are doing when we light a candle and just sit or kneel in silence, with our sorrow for another, our love, our yearning for healing for another. When we spend hours in vigil on Boston Common or in Notre Dame, sharing the grief, the sadness, the burden of another. True intercession, the sort that Jesus shares with the Father, is not just a detached impassioned shopping list of the needs of the world, nor is it informing God of something he knows already. Rather, it is a profound, loving and costly holding up of others who are on our hearts before God.
It is first becoming close ourselves to the heart of God in loving adoration, and then bringing those we love and long for, with us, into the heart of God.
True intercession is being with God, with the people on our hearts.
There’s a great image of what we are doing in intercession, in the description in the Old Testament of the work of the high priest. It is an insight which comes from Archbishop Michael Ramsey in his wonderful book The Christian Priest Today. When Hannah prays so fervently for a child, Eli, the high priest at first thinks she has been drinking, but soon he understands and receives her yearning and the desire of her heart. He answers her that her prayer would be answered. He of all people could answer her, because he, as high priest, was the only one allowed to enter the holy of holies, the throne of God. When he entered into the holy of holies he had to wear an ephod – a breastplate. On that breastplate were jewels representing the tribes of Israel. So when he went into the presence of God he literally carried the people on his breast, or his heart.
The wonder and the mystery is that each one of us, through our baptism, become like high priests and share in the priesthood of Christ. We too, have access, through Christ, to the holy of holies, to the very throne of grace. We too have the incredible privilege of being able to draw very close to the heart of God, and bringing with us those whom we love, those we hold on our hearts, those we long to be healed and restored.
As our Rule puts it, “It is a wonderful thing that God makes us his fellow workers, and uses our love, acting as intercession, to further the reconciliation of all things in Christ.”
Praying for others. Lighting a candle. Holding a vigil. Intercessory prayer – praying for another is one of the most beautiful things we can do. I wonder what your ministry of intercession is like right now? Who do you pray for? When do you pray for those who are on your heart? Holding a loved one in need before God can take time, passion, patience. Don’t give up. Hannah didn’t give up.
In my prayer corner in my cell, I have a small notebook where I write down the names of those I want to pray for, so I don’t forget. Here in the monastery we have an intercession board where we put up the names and concerns which you have asked us to pray for, and we pass the board each time we come into chapel. Writing down names and concerns is a great idea I think. It helps us write them on our hearts: helps us bring them into the very heart of God.
Praying for another is a wonderful ministry in which we can all share. It is a sign of our dignity as children of God, called to share in the intercessory work of Christ. It is a prayer which can change others, and change ourselves. If we abide in Christ, he will accept the offering of our prayers and use them to bless and uphold the world.
I’d like to close with the beautiful prayer of intercession to close the day, by St. Augustine:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; all for your love’s sake. Amen.
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