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  • Writer's pictureLuigi Gioia

2 - The Way Jesus Prayed

"The way Jesus teaches us to pray corresponds to how he himself prays. Jesus too uses the Our Father in his prayer".

We might think that, through the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is simply teaching us what we should ask of God and how to ask it, so that we can be sure of being listened to. This is true, but there is much more to it. Or rather it is true because there is more to it. All hinges on the relation between Jesus’ own prayer and our prayer. What Jesus teaches us is how he himself prays.

Only two Gospels narrate the teaching of the Our Father to the disciples: Matthew and Luke.[1] The defining feature of Luke’s version is that this happens when Jesus himself is praying. The passage starts with this sentence: One day Jesus was praying in a certain place.[2] This time he was not praying alone and in a solitary place [3] as usual, but where he could be seen by his disciples.

Of course Jesus valued the intimate character of personal prayer. He insisted that its proper place is not where one can be seen by others, but in one’s room, behind a closed door, in secret.[4] Whenever he prayed, he would choose desert places or mountains, often early in the morning, when everyone else was still asleep. Not because there is anything to hide in praying, or anything to be ashamed of, but to preserve its freedom, to make sure that our motives are pure, that we engage in it truly out of love for the Father, and because we value our relationship with the Father above all else. We do not pray to be seen by other people[5] and to give us an aura of spirituality that increases our reputation or our power over others. We pray because we need this relationship with the Father.

Thus, if this time Jesus prays in a place where his disciples can see him it is because the moment has come to teach them how to pray by drawing them into his own prayer. And sure enough the disciples are puzzled and fascinated by this sight: how long he stayed there, motionless, his eyes closed, intent on something that absorbed him utterly: it seemed as though he might carry on for hours. Something mysterious, something valuable was happening and, however perplexed by it, none of the disciples dared to interrupt Jesus – despite their impatience, none of them went to him until he had ceased to pray. Not that Jesus would have rebuked them – he loved them, and had any of them approached Jesus when he was praying, he would just have opened his eyes, smiled, and listened to him. Prayer needs quiet to thrive but the test of its authenticity is that noise and disruption do not bother it, but can be welcomed with the peace, kindness and gentleness that are the unmistakeable signs of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.[6]

The disciples were waiting. Jesus knew they were observing him but he went on praying. Letting them wait was the beginning of his teaching on prayer. It meant that the first secret of prayer is that it lasts, it needs time to sink in and search deep into our hearts. Praying is dwelling with the Father, remaining in his love.[7] We do not just need to know that we are loved, we need to feel this love, to let its warmth and its light awaken the seeds sown by the word of God in our hearts and allow them time to bear fruit.

Thus Jesus asks us to pray because he himself prays. He too needs to pray, he needs to dwell with the Father, to remain in his love just as much as we do. This is what he teaches the disciples when they finally ask him, Lord, teach us to pray, and he answers, ‘When you pray, say: Father!’[8]

Here we reach a key aspect of prayer: the way Jesus teaches us to pray corresponds to how he himself prays. Jesus too uses the Our Father in his prayer. Hints to this can be found in many pages of the gospel, whenever we are afforded glimpses into Jesus’ own prayer.

Some of these glimpses are sudden and unexpected. They are like geysers that suddenly burst into the open air because groundwater has come into contact with hot rocks. They express a joy that Jesus cannot contain any more: At that time, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, Jesus said: ‘I praise you, Father . . .’[9] Glimpses like this are not meant to teach us how to pray, they simply tell us what happens when Jesus prays. When Jesus prays he does exactly what he teaches us: he calls God Father.

‘No big deal’, we might be tempted to think, and yet it is this that makes the whole difference, it is this that makes the Our Father not just one prayer among many, but the prayer. We can say Father only because Jesus says it himself. The possibility of calling God Father not only as Jesus does, but with him, is the gift of the risen Christ, the result of his death and his resurrection. Only after he has risen from the dead does Jesus’ Father become our Father, as we learn from his sentence to Mary Magdalene: I am returning to my Father and your Father.[10]

Interestingly, the glimpse into the content of Jesus’ prayer quoted above corresponds to the initial sentence of the Our Father. When Jesus is saying, I praise you Father,[11] is he not hallowing the Father’s name? Just as elsewhere he expands the sentence your will be done on earth as it is in heaven when he affirms that it is the Father’s good pleasure to hide things from the wise and learned and reveal them to little children [12] Or again elsewhere, he expands the sentence Your kingdom come when he acknowledges that everything belongs to the Father, everything comes from the Father, that the work he has come to accomplish is the Father’s: All things have been committed to me by my Father.[13]

This means that the Our Father is first of all Jesus’ own prayer, and this is confirmed by another interesting finding in the Gospels. In some rare but crucial moments of Jesus’ life, we are offered glimpses not only of his prayer to the Father but also of the Father’s answer. We are actually told what the Father tells Jesus when he prays:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’[14]

In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew we hear the Father’s voice both at the baptism and at the transfiguration, but it is addressed to the people who surrounded Jesus during those events: This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him![15] In contrast, in the version of the baptism by Luke just quoted we are told that Jesus at that moment was praying and therefore the Father’s sentence is addressed to him You are my Son . . . with you I am well pleased.[16] And as this happens, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove.

After the decision of Adam and Eve to go their own way, to be like God, to decide by themselves what is good and what is evil, they had been driven out of the garden of Eden, a cherubim had been placed at its door and a sword flaming and turning guarded the way to the tree of life.[17] This is reversed at Jesus’ baptism: heaven, the way to Eden – that is, the possibility of re-establishing a loving relation with God – was restored. This is signified by the Holy Spirit descending in bodily form like a dove: communication between heaven and earth was re-established, because this is what the Holy Spirit is. He is the link, the communication, the connection between the Father and the Son; he is the love they have for each other, that which unites them, the life they constantly exchange.

When Jesus says All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,[18] he is talking of the Holy Spirit, that which the Father hands down to the Son and the Son gives back in thankfulness to the Father: at that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father . . .’[19] Thanks to the Holy Spirit the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father and through the Holy Spirit we too are introduced into their reciprocal knowledge, which is also and inseparably their reciprocal love. All that Jesus does, and especially his prayer, always happens ‘in the Holy Spirit’, as in the sentence quoted above: At that time, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, Jesus said: ‘I praise you, Father . . .’[20]

These glimpses into Jesus’ prayer so far teach us that when he prays Jesus too says the Our Father: he calls Father, the Father answers my Son, and in that moment the Spirit descends on him. Jesus, of course, says many other things to his Father. But all he says can be summed up in this vocative and in the trust, the familiarity, the intimacy it conveys. And all the Father says to Jesus can be summed up in these words and their corollary: ‘My Son, I love you and I am pleased with you, and I show my love for you by pouring out my Holy Spirit on you, by pouring my love into your heart.’[21]

[1] Mt. 6.5-14 and Lk. 11.1-13. [2] Lk. 11.1. [3] Cf. Mt. 14.23 and Mk. 1.35. [4] Mt. 6.5-6. [5] Mt. 6.5. [6] Gal. 5.22-25. [7] Jn 15.10. [8] Lk. 11.1ff. [9] Lk. 10.21; cf. Mt. 11.25. [10] Jn 20.17. [11] Mt. 11.25. [12] Mt. 11.25. [13] Mt. 11.27. [14] Lk. 3.21-22. [15] Mt. 17.5; cf. also Mk 9.7; Lk. 9.35. [16] Cf. also Mk 3.21 where the Father’s sentence is addressed to Jesus as well, although it is not said that he was praying as in Luke’s Gospel. [17] Gen. 3.24. [18] Mt. 11.25ff. [19] Mt. 11.25ff. [20] Lk. 10.21. [21] Cf. Rom. 5.5: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’


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