Since most dioceses have transferred the observance of the Ascension to this Sunday, preaching on these Sunday readings will be relatively rare. Yet they contain rich resources for reflection as the church prepares for the liturgical re-enactment of the coming of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles offers an illustration of the life of the early community as it awaited the power the Holy Spirit would bring. Since Luke is always anxious to portray the early community as faithful to its Jewish heritage, he noted at the end of his Gospel that they returned with great joy and worshiped in the temple every day. Here in Acts he notes that the mount called Olivet was a Sabbath day’s journey (following Jewish law), but describes a different kind of prayer. The disciples return to the upper room, the site of Jesus’ last meal where Luke mentions 11 disciples and then explicitly notes the presence of some women, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. The picture is iconic and idyllic, and they devote themselves with one accord to prayer.
Prayer is one of the major and most important themes of Luke-Acts. From the annunciation to Zachariah through the Ascension and Pentecost and then throughout Acts, major events in salvation history occur when people are at prayer. Both Zachariah and Mary offer canticles of praise; Anna and Simeon are models of prayerful fidelity as they await the Messiah, and prayer is the prelude to major events in the life of Jesus. In Acts breakthrough eventssuch as the selection of the deacons, the episode in which Peter is told to eat unclean food and thus welcome gentiles into the community and major events in the Pauline missionare preceded by prayer. Only Luke includes significant parables about prayer, such as the need for boldness in the face of opposition (the story of the friend at midnight) and for courage in the face of injustice (the poor widow fights for her rights before an unjust judge) and the tax collector’s prayer that as a sinner all he can do is ask for God’s mercy. On Calvary the prayer of a murderer for remembrance by Jesus is answered by a promise of eternal life.
In no other area is it more important for Christianity to tap into its Jewish roots than in thinking about prayer. Before the psalms were called the prayer of the church, they gave voice to the praises, sorrowful laments and joyful hymns of the people of Israel. In our century no author has better expressed both the beauty of prayer and its utter importance than Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), a teacher, scholar and prophet for all people.
Prayer, for Heschel, is not a human quest for God; it is, in the phrase he used as the title of one of his major books, God in search of man. In one of his most profound comments, he describes prayer as an invitation to let God intervene in our lives. In a comment that merits quotation in full, he goes on to say: Our approach to the holy is not an intrusion by an answer. Between the dawn of childhood and the door of death, man [today we would say men and women] encounters things and events out of which comes a whisper of truth, not much louder than stillness, but exhorting and persistent. Yet man listens to his favors and whims, rather than to the gentle petitions of God. The Lord of the Universe is suing for the favor of Man (I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology Abraham Joshua Heschel, Samuel H. Dresner, ed., 1985).
The Gospel presents the first part of Jesus’ final words to his disciples, often called Jesus’ high priestly prayer, because here Jesus, in language incomprehensible apart from his Jewish heritage, prays that his father glorify himself, that he become a Father to his disciples and make them holy, and prays for those who through the word of the disciples may come to know his Father. Jesus’ last testament is that his followers be brought into the kind of loving union with the Father that he has.
Rediscovery of the importance of prayer has been one of the major achievements of church life in recent decades. Newspaper articles and television reports regularly comment on the crowding of monasteries and centers of prayer, in which laypeople set aside the favors and whims of life to listen for the gentle petitions of God. During the past year, from Sept. 11 through the horrible shame of sexual abuse scandals, Catholics (and others) have experienced their equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annus horribilis (a phrase she used in a speech in 1992, after the breakup of her sons’ marriages and the fire in Windsor Castle). Yet still, God remains in search of us, suing for our favor. Amid world problems and ecclesial scandals shine forth the words of Heschel, Dark is the world for me for all its cities and stars. If not for the certainty that God listens to our cry, who could stand so much misery, so much callousness? (in Dresner, p. 21).