2 Timothy 3:14-14:2
I don’t know about y’all but I love the Old Testament, especially because every so often it will have one of these gems of a story that we hear this evening, where Joshua and the people of Israel fight against Amalek and his army and th outcome is determined not by might or strategy but by whether Moses hands were up… or down. Yep! So the story goes! The reality is that when God first began to reveal Himself to the people of Israel they were in need of many physical signs and manifestations of His presence and guidance. God used that foundation to speak later of the deeper meaning of the physical signs that would lead His people to a more spiritual approach to life in the Lord. In the end it wasn’t really the placement of Moses’ hands that was all that important so much as the meaning of his hands being raised up in the first place. To have your hands lifted up in the air was a sign of prayer before God. We see it today in the liturgy when the priest extends his hands in prayer at various times throughout the Mass, especially in the Eucharistic Prayer, as well as in many more charismatic communities. Also, consider that Aaron and Hur were on either side holding up his hands and we can easily conceive that Moses was actually holding his arms out, foreshadowing Christ crucified who would win us the ultimate victory. The point of the story is to remind us that to the extent that we are people of prayer and conform ourselves to Christ crucified we will be victorious in our battles. And to the extent that we are not people of prayer and flee from imitating Christ crucified we will experience defeat.
This emphasis on prayer is what St. Luke drives home as a preface to Jesus’ story, as he writes of “the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” It wasn’t that it was highly advisable that the disciples prayer, or that they should do so when they get a free moment and don’t have anything better to do. It is an absolute necessity to pray and to persist in prayer. Our God desires to pour out His blessings on us but we must do our part in seeking them out. We must be people of prayer.
The story from Exodus isn’t just a story of a battle that took place some 3000+ years ago. It’s story of every single one of us gathered here in this church today. That people once bound in slavery had received the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, symbolically of place of life, prosperity and joy. To arrive at that place, however, they had to battle many nations who sought to keep the Israelites from entering the land. Our story is the same except that rather than freedom from physical slavery we fight to be freed from the bonds of slavery to sin. And the battles that we are called to fight, St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:12, are not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. We are fighting against our sinful flesh, against the world that tempts us, and against the devil who always seeks to deprive us of peace. And the land that we long to attain is not an earthly place but our heavenly homeland where all the angels and saints await us. It is for us to be willing to hold up our hands and gain the victory.
On this topic of prayer, Blessed John Paul II said this in a 1979 address to youth: “We must…pray because we are frail and guilty. It must be humbly and realistically recognized that we are poor creatures, confused in ideas, tempted by evil, frail and weak, in continual need of inner strength and consolation. Prayer gives the strength for great ideas, to maintain faith, charity, purity, and generosity. Prayer gives the courage to turn from indifference and guilt if unfortunately we have yielded to temptation and weakness. Prayer gives light to see and consider the events of one’s own life and of history in the salvific perspective of God and eternity. Therefore, do not stop praying! Let not a day pass without having prayed a little! Prayer is a duty, but it is also a great joy, because it is a dialogue with God through Jesus Christ! Every Sunday, Holy Mass: if it is possible for you sometimes during the week. Every day, morning and evening prayers, and at the most suitable moments!”
These words of this soon-to-be saint recall that need for us to come weekly for Mass but also to come before the Lord daily in prayer. The great thing about our Catholic faith is that we have so many diverse ways to pray and there are enough rote prayers written by saints and sinners throughout the centuries that you could write them all on sheets and paper and they’d stack up clear from the floor to the roof of the church and probably higher. But the bad things is that we have so many diverse ways to pray and different prayers we could pray that it easily becomes a problem because we don’t know where to start!
While there are many great ways to pray, there is one privileged place to start with our prayer and that is Sacred Scripture. Our second reading called to mind the fact that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The key word in there is ‘inspired’ because that means that God breathed His Spirit into the text. It’s not just words like every other book in the world, but is a book that is alive and speaks to us if we are willing to take the time to listen. And one way that the Church has offered pray with the Scriptures throughout the centuries is what is known as Lectio Divina, or divine reading. Some of you may have heard of it and some of you may be doing it already without realizing it.
The method of Lectio Divina is simple and composed of four basic steps. First is to read. Pick a selection from the Bible and read through it a couple of times. Usually a word or phrase will stick out if we’re attentive. The second step is meditating on the text. Ask questions about why things are the way they are, what details might be pointing to, what does this have to do with the bigger picture. And spend some time putting yourself into the shoes of the people in the story – consider what it might be like to be the Apostles hearing Jesus teach, or a Pharisee receiving a sharp rebuke, or the Blessed Mother watching your son in His ministry. As we really begin to interact with the text and place ourselves in the scene, the Lord will usually begin to raise questions in our own hearts that are in need of answering. That leads us to the third step of prayer. We take the things we’ve reflected upon and the things the Lord ahs brought up and we bring them to Him in prayer and ask how we can be changed and transformed by what we’ve read. And lastly we sit in contemplation, which is simply to rest in God’s presence not necessarily doing anything for ourselves but letting God give the grace we need to put into action the things we’ve prayed about.
You can do that with any Bible, but sometimes the text isn’t so clear. To help with that I recommend a book entitled ‘The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer” by Fr. John Bartunek (HERE on Amazon; it's also available for iPhone). It is a tool that is worth its weight in gold, and I don’t say that lightly. This book has the power to change and transform our lives by transforming our prayer and I speak from personal experience as I’ve been using it for the past year myself. The first 60 pages or so are a primer on prayer that addresses all of our questions on prayer such as ‘How do I pray?’, ‘What is prayer supposed to be like?’, ‘Am I praying well?’ and ‘I feel stuck in my prayer, how can I get better?’ These and other questions he addresses in a straightforward fashion. Then the next 950 pages or so are used to break open the Gospels. He takes the four Gospel and splices them into sections like we have at Mass and for each section for the entirety of the Gospels he has three separate reflections that help to draw us deeper into the mystery of the Scriptures and to encounter Christ. If we make the time to pray, especially with this book, we will indeed be found possessing that faith the Lord longs to find upon His return. So let us today as God’s grace to keep us strong in our faith, that we might indeed be always lifting up our hands to the Lord in prayer.