The beginning of Mark’s Gospel, from which we read today, defines Jesus’ ministry. Here we see our Lord, in a brief period of time, engaged in the same activities that will mark the rest of his work. In the first chapter, Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons; he teaches in the synagogue, and people throughout Galilee hear his words. In our Gospel this morning, we also see Jesus pausing in the midst of all this activity, in order to go apart, to be quiet, and to pray.
It’s the Gospel of John which gives us the clearest picture of Jesus at prayer. In that Gospel, he prays for his disciples, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me… Sanctify them in the truth…” (Jo. 17:11, 17). He prays that the disciples may be one, even as he and the Father are one (Jo. 17:11). Jesus prays, not only for his followers, but for all of us. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (Jo. 17:20-21). He prays that through them and us, the world may come to believe in him (Jo. 17:20).
When Jesus prays in our Gospel this morning, he’s not taking a vacation from his ministry. Jesus’ prayer is a part of his ministry. His prayer is priestly work: work of intercession and mediation. We see this most clearly in the Letter to the Hebrews. There it says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears…” (Heb. 5:7). Now, Hebrews says, he’s been designated a high priest, who makes the offering of himself to God (Heb. 5:10; 7:27). Jesus’ priestly work of intercession was not just in the past, but it continues now; as the writer says, “He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Jesus’ prayer is a part of his ministry, and he continues to pray for us.
We do not know what Jesus prayed for in our Gospel, as he went apart from his disciples and the crowds, and in the early morning sought a deserted place to pray. On the basis of Jesus’ prayers in John’s Gospel, and Hebrews’ reflection on our Lord’s priestly ministry, I think it’s safe to say that he prayed for his disciples. But I also think that he may have prayed for himself as well.
At the very end of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is crucified, he uses the words of Psalm 22 to pray to his heavenly Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34). Jesus uses the words of the Holy Scriptures to pray to God in the greatest crisis in his life. His prayer is for himself, a searching question addressed to God. Jesus did not hesitate to pray for himself, to the Father who would not abandon him, but instead raised him from the dead.
Jesus goes apart from the disciples to a deserted place in order to gather strength for his ministry. Prayer sustains him not only in the moment of crisis, but in the everyday work of his ministry: healing the sick and casting out demons, as well as preaching and teaching. The work of prayer is a part of his ministry, maybe the most important part, because it makes the rest of his work possible. Without turning to his heavenly Father, without listening to his word and being obedient, Jesus’ would have been powerless. When Jesus prays, he’s listening for the voice of God.
These days all of us, our neighbors and friends as well, are facing many challenges. We need the touch of Jesus’ ministry: his healing and teaching and, above all, his prayer for us. He is a priest forever. We need him to intercede for us and to raise us up. We need God to be powerful and present in our lives, here and now.
We ourselves have a lot to pray for these days. All of us, our neighbors and friends as well, need healing in a time of illness. We need to turn aside, like Jesus, and go apart for a while, in order to turn to God. We must pay attention to God’s voice, seek his guidance in our lives, and set out in a direction in obedience to God. We must pray for ourselves and for others in these challenging times. God will not abandon us. He will raise us up just as he raised up Jesus from the dead. Jesus prays for us, and we must pray to him.