Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15
In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the young Cordelia Flyte tells the protagonist Charles, upon hearing that he is an agnostic, that she will pray for him, “That’s very nice,” Charles says but Sebastian tells him disdainfully, “She said a novena for her pig.” It is a funny line because of the absurdity of praying for a pig, until we begin to think about it. How many times have we uttered similarly absurd prayers? “Lord, help me find a parking spot at Central Market.” “Lord, let the kids nap long enough for me to finish my novel.” “Lord, don’t let the awkward guy at the party sit next to me at dinner.”
We know as Christians that intercessory prayer is proper. Jesus himself tells us to ask our Father for good things, to “knock and the door will be answered.” In the model of prayer given in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for their “daily bread” and for help avoiding temptation. But intercessory prayer is made complicated by Jesus’ own prayer prior to his passion while in the Garden that “this cup pass over me.” So fervent is his prayer that Luke says he sweated drops of blood. We know of course that his prayer was not answered, at least in the sense that he prayed that his own life be saved.
Our gospel passage from John this week seems to be specifically responding to the tradition that Jesus prayed to save his own life:
Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Father will honor whoever serves me.
“I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?
‘Father, save me from this hour’?
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.
Father, glorify your name.”
In our passage from John, Jesus, consistent with his character in John’s gospel, seems almost above praying for his own life to be saved. So united is he with his Father’s will that he cooly accepts his purpose in this world is to die on the cross. His only prayer seems to be that God’s name be glorified.
One might conclude from this passage that intercessory prayer for earthly goods (life and the necessities of life, etc.) are distractions. After all, doesn’t Jesus say that we should hate our life in this world? But we cannot responsibly draw such a conclusion from a single passage. By putting this passage in dialogue with the synoptic gospels’ depiction of Jesus’ anguish, we have a much more comprehensive understanding of how Jesus models intercessory prayer for earthly goods.
Jesus does indeed pray to be released from his imminent suffering and death. As our second reading puts it, “he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.” And at first glance, his prayer wasn’t answered. But this is not a failure of intercessory prayer. On the contrary, it is a reminder that we do not pray to God in order to influence God’s will in any way. Rather, in the act of praying to God for something, we are turning our attention to God and recognizing that God is the source of the good that we are asking for. In this way, Jesus’ prayer that his life might be saved is good and proper. It is a recognition that God is the author and sustainer of life.
But God does not grant Jesus life, as we know. Our passage from John seems a response to this point specifically. When Jesus claims to pray only that God’s name be glorified, it is showing another dimension of intercessory prayer—the dimension in play when a prayer is seemingly not answered. When our prayers go unanswered, the temptation is see a failure on God’s part or maybe a failure in how fervent our prayers were. But when we pray to God for something specific, something specific that we do not receive, we have an opportunity to glorify God’s name, to seek out God’s will in the “no” that He gave us. In this way, we learn to both discern God’s will for ourselves and to obey it. Our second reading from Hebrews explains that in God’s “no” to Jesus’ prayers and supplications, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”
And this brings us back to our reading from John. At the beginning of the reading, the Greeks want to know Jesus and he explains that they will not truly know him until they see him on the cross. We might take that to be true for us too. Until we experience our own cross, we too will not know the full truth of Jesus’ identity. In this way, God answers the ultimate desire of our prayers—to know Him as the source of all goodness—both in the yesses and the gratitude we experience from God’s beatitude, but also in the nos and all the opportunities we have to return to God, a new prayer fresh on our lips for the deepest desires of our heart that we know God is the answer to.