“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Lk. 9:29).
One of my besetting sins is forgetting to pray: when the time for decision comes, or a significant work is undertaken, I sometimes get moving without remembering to pray. “God, what do you want me to do?” or “Dear Lord, bless the work of our hands”: good prayers to remember before we move to action. I offer no defense, because forgetting to pray is just bad. It may be the besetting sin of leaders, people eager to move to action, but that’s no excuse. Broadly speaking, you might say that prayer is one of the great under-utilized resources of the Christian life.
In spite of this, I’m learning, slowly but surely, what it is to pray. Maybe you’re like me, because it certainly is true that we have a lot to pray about these days. The Pandemic, for one thing; for another, the war in Ukraine. There are a host of things we need to be praying about, some of them known only to us; and in some cases, prayer may be the most effective thing we can do about them. So, I’m learning to pray.
Prayer is the conversation we have with God, in which we open ourselves up to his transforming power. Conversation is part of a relationship: if you’re in a relationship but never speak or listen to the other person then it’s not much of a relationship! This is why forgetting to pray is such a problem for Christians, because our relationship with God dries up after a while, and we become totally self-absorbed.
If prayer is a conversation, then we need not only to say what’s on our minds, but we also need to be listening for an answer. Sometimes our prayer becomes a monologue, because we tell God what we think, but leave no room to listen. Again, not much of a relationship. So, prayer is a two-way street, in which we not only share what’s on our minds, but also leave time for an answer.
We shouldn’t expect the answer to ring in our ears, or to come quickly. Relationships are transformative over time, as love or friendship shapes and forms us in ways that we may not be completely conscious of. The relationship we have with Jesus works in the same way. Sometimes the greatest impact of a relationship lies in influences that are never articulated, because they don’t need to be. Prayer shapes and forms us, even transforms us, as we are present to God in relationship, and he is present to us.
In our Gospel today, on this last Sunday before Lent, St. Luke tells us that Jesus went up on the mountain of Transfiguration to pray. “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray” (Lk. 9:28). Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers who makes it clear that the agenda for the journey was prayer. He also tells us that Jesus’ transfiguration, that transforming experience in which the glory of the Lord draws near to him and changes him, took place while Jesus was in prayer. “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Lk. 9:29).
Notice also that Jesus himself, in his prayer, leaves room to listen. This is not the case with the three apostles, who aren’t listening very closely, and start chattering as soon as they can. “‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said” (Lk. 9:33). They missed the point entirely! These three leaders are moving as quickly as possible to action, without stopping to listen. They then hear the answering voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” (Lk. 9:35).
Prayer is transformative for Jesus, and it can be transformative for us. Perched as we are on the edge of Lent, prayer is on our agenda. It is the under-utilized, but always abundant, resource that draws us closer to God, as he draws closer to us. Prayer deepens our relationship with God as we take the time, in our prayer, to listen to the word that Jesus speaks to us.
Luke’s version of this story also reminds us of the context of this event. Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, where (as Luke puts it) his “departure” (Lk. 9:31) is to take place. This departure is his death, resurrection, and ascension: the three-fold event that wins salvation for the human race. When Jesus opened himself up to the transforming power of God, in this time of prayer, he began to move toward Jerusalem. Peter, James, and John, by contrast, were ready to settle down, because they had forgotten they were supposed to be on the move.
Over the next several weeks, during Lent, we will take the road to Jerusalem with Jesus. We shouldn’t forget to pray! This season, we will have the chance to open ourselves to the power of God through prayer, and to be transformed ourselves. “God, what do you want me to do?” In this holy season, God will bless us and transform us, as we enter deeper into relationship with Jesus, and follow him on the way.