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The Son Addresses the Father in Prayer

General Audience — July 22, 1987

—    The prayer of Jesus
—    Synthesis of God's self-revelation in the Son

Jesus Christ is the Son intimately united to the Father; the Son who lives completely for the Father (cf. Jn 6:57); the Son whose entire earthly existence is given to the Father without reserve. These themes developed in the preceding reflections are closely linked to that of Jesus' prayer. It is precisely in prayer that we find particularly expressed the fact that the Son is intimately united to the Father, that he has given himself to the Father, and is directed to him with his whole human existence. This means that the theme of Jesus' prayer is already contained implicitly in the previous themes so that it can rightly be said that Jesus of Nazareth "prayed always without losing heart" (cf. Lk 18:1). Prayer was the life of his soul, and his whole life was prayer. Human history knows of no other personage who was so fully—and in such a way—absorbed in prayer with God, as was Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Man, and at the same time Son of God, "one in Being with the Father."

1.  The prayer of Jesus

There are passages in the Gospels which emphasize the prayer of Jesus, stating explicitly that "Jesus prayed." This occurred at different moments of the day and night and on various occasions. The following are some of them. "In the morning, long before dawn, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed" (Mk 1:35). He did so not only at the beginning of the day (the morning prayer), but also during the day and in the evening, and especially at night. We read: "Great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities. But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed" (Lk 5:15-16). And again: "When he had dismissed the crowds he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone" (Mt 14:23).

The evangelists stress the fact that prayer accompanied events of special importance in Christ's life. "When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened" (Lk 3:21). Then follows the description of the theophany which took place during the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Similarly prayer was the introduction to the theophany on the mountain of the transfiguration. "He took with him Peter and John and James, and went up the mountain to pray. And, as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered" (Lk 9:28-29).

Prayer also constituted the preparation for important decisions and played a part at moments of great significance for Christ's messianic mission. Thus, at the commencement of his public ministry, he retired into the desert to fast and pray (cf. Mt 4:1-11, and parallel passages). Again, before the choice of the apostles, "Jesus went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles" (Lk 6:12-13). Likewise, before Peter's confession of faith near Caesarea Philippi we read: "Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him, and he asked them, 'Who do the people say that I am?' And Peter answered, 'The Christ of God'" (Lk 9:18-20).

The prayer before the resurrection of Lazarus is profoundly touching. "And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, 'Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that you sent me'" (Jn 11:41-42).

The prayer during the Last Supper (the so-called priestly prayer), should be quoted in full. We shall consider at least the passages not already quoted in the previous reflections. First, "Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, 'Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him'" (Jn 17:1-2). Jesus prayed for that which is the essential purpose of his mission, the glory of God and the salvation of humanity. Then he added, "This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do; and now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made" (Jn 17:3-5).

2.  Synthesis of God's self-revelation in the Son

Continuing his prayer, the Son as it were gives an account to his Father of his earthly mission. "I have manifested your name to the men whom you gave me out of the world; they were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you" (Jn 17:6-7). Then he added, "I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours" (Jn 17:9). They are those who have accepted Christ's word, those who have believed that the Father had sent him. Jesus prayed especially for those, because "they are in the world, and I am coming to you" (Jn 17:11). He prayed that "they may be one," that "none of them be lost" (and here the Master mentioned "the son of perdition"), that "they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves" (cf. Jn 17:13). In view of his departure, while his disciples will have to remain in the world and be exposed to hatred because "they are not of the world," just like their Master, Jesus prayed: "I do not ask you to take them out of the world but to guard them from the evil one" (Jn 17:15).

Still during the prayer in the cenacle Jesus asked on behalf of the disciples: "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth" (Jn 17:17-19). Later Jesus includes in the same prayer the future generations of his disciples. He prayed especially for unity, so that "the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (Jn 17:23). Toward the end of his prayer, Jesus returned to the principal thoughts mentioned previously, emphasizing still more their importance. In this context he asked for all those whom the Father "has given" him that "they may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world" (Jn 17:14).

Truly Jesus' "priestly prayer" is the synthesis of God's self-revelation in the Son which is at the heart of the Gospels. The Son speaks to the Father in the name of that unity which exists between them. "You, Father, are in me and I in you" (Jn 17:21). At the same time he prays that the fruits of the salvific mission for which he came into the world may be spread among men and women. Thus he reveals the mystery of the Church, which arises from his salvific mission, and he prays for its future development in the midst of the world. He opens up the perspective of glory, to which all those who accept his word are called together with him.

In the prayers of the Last Supper Jesus speaks to the Father as his consubstantial Son, but in the prayer of Gethsemane, which follows shortly afterward, the fact that he is Son of Man is especially evident. "My heart is filled with sorrow to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake" (Mk 14:34), he said to his followers as he entered the Garden of Olives. Once alone, he fell to the ground and the words of his prayer reveal the depth of his suffering. He kept saying, "Abba (O Father), you have the power to do all things. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you would have it, not as I" (Mk 14:36).

It seems that the Letter to the Hebrews refers particularly to this prayer in Gethsemane when it says, "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death." And here the author of the Letter adds that "he was heard for his godly fear" (Heb 5:7). Yes, even the prayer of Gethsemane was heard, since in it also—together with the whole truth of the human attitude toward suffering—there is perceived above all Jesus' union with the Father in the will to redeem the world, which is at the origin of his salvific mission.

Certainly Jesus prayed on the various occasions determined by Israel's religious tradition and law, as when, at the age of twelve, he went up with his parents to the Temple of Jerusalem (cf. Lk 2:41 ff.); or when, as the evangelists tell us, he went "to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day" (cf. Lk 4:16). However, what the Gospels tell us about Christ's personal prayer is worthy of special attention. The Church has never forgotten it and she finds in Christ's personal dialogue with the Father the source, the inspiration and the power of her own prayer. The mystery of the Son, who lives totally for the Father and in intimate union with him, is expressed in the most personal way in Jesus at prayer.