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Homily for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, 18 December 2016: The Collect

The Mass is the greatest school of prayer because it is the prayer of Christ himself to his Father. Christ’s prayer was and remains the giving of his whole being to the Father. Prayer, you see, is not so much about words or thoughts, but about giving of self in attentive listening and loving. While on earth, everything Christ did, especially by his death and resurrection, was to live out in our human condition his worship of the Father in eternity, the giving and surrendering of himself to the will and pleasure of his Father; as well as the receiving of the Father’s boundless love and self-surrender to him. The Father and his will: this was Christ’s great obsession, his one desire, the meaning of his own existence. Obedience to the Father could never mean for Christ a loss of his own freedom, but only its fulfilment. For the will of the Father is the source and perfection of all freedom. And because the Father willed us to be saved from sin, from having thrown freedom away with obedience, that will to save us became Christ’s sole intent. He would do whatever it took to accomplish his Father’s desire. The fruit of his deeds is our salvation, lived and relived, enacted and re-enacted in the sacrifice of the Mass.

We have lost our way a bit in the Church when it comes to the prayer of silent and loving self-giving to God and receiving of God. So often our prayer is only about what we want and need, not about what God wants and needs of us. We pray like consumers, not adorers, not true lovers! People expect prayer “to work” as if it were a production machine. And because it does not work, we ignore or dump Him. Consumerist prayer will never be heard for it is essentially godless, it lacks faith and trust in God; it lacks any genuine giving of self. Self-will and materialistic consumerism devastate the communication between heaven and earth. They make us deaf to God’s Word and dumb before God in our self-centred babbling. By all means, we must of course make known to God our desires and needs, but our petitions should arise only once we have listened to Him. Only then will they be in accordance with his will.

True prayer can only be like the prayer of the Son. His prayer is the breathing in of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who has been breathed out from the Father to him, as well as the Son’s breathing the Spirit back out to the Father. Prayer is breath, holy breath; it is life, holy life, the life of God in us. Our prayer is to be caught up into that life-giving exchange of the Spirit between Father and Son. Such prayer is a gift and a privilege given to us in baptism. And it has been given to us! It transforms us into the divine and purifies us of what contaminates our humanity. So, when we approach prayer of whatever kind, the first movement of our hearts must be to invoke the Holy Spirit to awaken us to the presence of Christ. To pray is to shift awareness from our own thoughts and wants to those of Christ. It is to let the Holy Spirit expose us to Christ, to uncover the darkness of our minds and hearts so that the light of Christ may shine on them. Christ the humble and meek Lamb of God only wants to kiss the depths of our hearts and awaken them to the reality of God.

And if this is true when we approach any prayer, how much more is it so when we approach the Mass, the prayer of all prayers, the source and mainstay of all true prayer. Preparing for Mass before coming to church, or once here, we are called not only to have examined our conscience so as to recall and confess our sins. We are also called to turn our deepest self towards the Lord, in silence, humility and sincerity of heart and in deep longing to be one with him. And so, just as the priest invites us to call to mind our sins at the beginning of Mass, so, after praying for forgiveness and after we have sung the Gloria, the hymn of holy defiance, the priest then invites us to silence, to pray. He says, very simply, “let us pray.”

Unfortunately, when he makes that call to prayer the priest himself can then launch immediately into the written prayer in the missal called “the collect” (you will see that name on your Mass sheets). I will return to the meaning of the collect in a minute. But first I want myself to resolve from now on, and to urge you to join me, in taking that call to prayer more seriously. Because once I say, “let us pray”, this whole assembly should then be left in silence. That silence is your opportunity to focus your entire being on the Lord Jesus, on his crucified and risen self. It’s a welcome relief for you to leave aside your preoccupations of whatever kind and to bring back to the forefront of your mind and heart that sole intention of the prayer of Jesus himself: to turn towards the Father, to desire the Father and his will, to expose and surrender your whole self to the Father through the Son. This exercise of silent prayer in each of us expresses a wealth of rich and beautiful truths: it expresses the primacy of God; it expresses our recognition that God has created and redeemed us; it expresses the dignity of our baptism; it is, no less, the highest expression of our humanity. Prayer is where the soul touches God, or is touched by him, much like the fresco in the Sistine Chapel in which the finger of God touches the finger of Adam. In prayer, we aspire to that holy origin of our being. Prayer is in this way a kind of death to this life and a resurrection to the life of God.

What’s more is that we perform this profound and supremely personal act in the presence of others doing the same. We pray as Church, and when we later receive the Eucharistic Body it transforms us even more into the Mystical Body, the Church. There is a power in this depth of communion between us and among us that far surpasses external social greetings, however cordial and genuine and good these may be. Because of Christ, we are able not only to wish one another well, we are actually able to make one another well in the Holy Spirit through the saving power of Christ. Prayer and communion heal us as individuals and as Church.

What the priest then does, once the silent prayer is over, is collect together all of the deep personal prayer that has been going on and put it into words by means of the written prayer in the missal, the collect. So you see the written prayer is not the main thing: no, the main thing is the silent prayer of each one in union with Christ. Your individual prayer becomes our united prayer in the words of the collect. What that also brings about, once you have made the collect your own by saying Amen, is a collective openness to the Word of God which follows. We have all made known our intention to be open to the Father’s will, and now through the inspired and sacred word of God, the Father makes that will known to us here and now. We are now ready to hear his Word and to say to the Father, in the Lord’s prayer: thy will be done.

And that is precisely what happened to both Mary and Joseph. Each had personal plans, good ones. But by the messenger of his word, the Father made known to them what it was he wanted of them. Silent prayer predisposes us, too, to hearing and doing the will of the Father. That might make us feel scared. But remember: prayer is not about feeling good; it’s about feeling God, sensing his presence and his desire for us – so that we have the strength to leave self-will behind and, like Jesus, Mary and Joseph, embrace the sublime will of God.

From now on, then, whenever I say the words, “let us pray” before the collect, I will leave a lot more time for us each to turn inwards and Godwards so that we will be readier to hear the Word and to do it as we part company and return to our daily lives. Don’t let the relentless and invasive noise and the exhausting anxiousness of our world deprive you of this greatest treasure. Pray as Christ and know his peace. Pray like Christ and know his purpose. Pray as Christ and know his Church, his Spirit and his Father. Pray like Christ and know your true self. Pray like Christ and be transformed into God.