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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
How Jesus Prayed
For most of us, prayer is a way in which we make
our needs known to God. The great paradox, of course, is that
God knows our needs and desires even before we are aware of them
ourselves. The paradox increases when the Gospels show us Jesus
at prayer. Why would Jesus need to pray? After all, he is the
Son of God.
The Gospel accounts dealing with Jesus at prayer
shed light on these assumptions. At the heart of the matter is
that when they describe Jesus at prayer, they are actually showing
us Jesus in communion with the Father. Taking our lesson from
this relationship, we can see that through the Gospels, Jesus
teaches his disciples and us how to converse with God so that
we can be in communion with him as well.
The four evangelists show a great many examples
of Jesus at prayer. It is to our benefit that they do. Because
of the Incarnation, the Son of God takes on human form, and thus
allows us to have eternal life with God. In the meantime, Jesus
shows us how to begin that new life even now on earth. Much of
that life for Jesus centers on prayer.
The Gospel accounts portray Jesus teaching about
prayer and Jesus at prayer. Both the theory and the example show
us how to orient ourselves to participate in Christ's life, and
in so doing, be in constant communion with God.
The three Synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)
do not paint a uniform picture of Jesus at prayer. Despite their
discrepancies in this area, all show him praying at the Lord's
Supper, on the Mount of Olives, and at the crucifixion. John also
presents a praying Jesus in the passion narrative, but in a manner
different from the other three evangelists. These various differences
among the Gospels as well as their common elements give us an
image of the praying Jesus that can both sustain us in our difficulty
and challenge us in our ease.
Studying Matthew's Gospel, we note that Jesus gives
several admonitions on the necessity of prayer, especially in
the Sermon on the Mount (5—7). We are to love and pray for our
enemies (5:44), and when praying, we are not to do so for self-aggrandizement
(6:6-8). In fact, at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus
himself gives us the prayer to use, the Our Father, or Lord's
Although Luke also includes the Our Father (Lk 11:2-4),
it is Matthew's version that the Church from earliest times adopted
for daily and liturgical use. And no wonder! The Matthean Our
Father is a rich summary of Christian theology. It states the
absolute transcendence of God (6:9), while maintaining our participation
in that transcendence (6:10). It expresses our dependence on God
for every need, and simultaneously it implies that we should also
be looking out for the needs of others (6:10-11). It stresses
the effects of the redemption and reorients human response accordingly
(6:12). Finally, the Our Father ends on the hope that God's grace
will be omnipresent through every difficulty (6:13). Of course,
we can see within the Our Father the fundamental theology or mindset
that should be the basis of the Christian life, and that is an
utter dependence on a loving God.
Matthew's Jesus continues to talk about prayer in
other parts of the Gospel, and what he says supports his earlier
instruction. He tells people to pray for every necessity (21:22)
and deliverance from hardship (24:20). Jesus confirms the efficacy
of prayer as well (21:22). He prays for others and in front of
others (19:13), but he also prefers praying alone and by himself
Mark does not feature the Sermon on the Mount. Yet,
other passages in this Gospel discuss prayer. The lessons in Mark
11:24-25 and 12:40 are similar to what we find in Matthew. Jesus
commissions the disciples to his ministry (6:7-13), but in one
very tense scene, not even they are able to perform an exorcism.
Unlike the parallel passage in Matthew (17:20), in Mark Jesus
explains, "This kind can only come out through prayer" (9:29).
Although Mark does not state as much, we can conclude that Jesus
succeeds in the exorcism because he prays. Mark, like Matthew,
also shows Jesus alone at prayer (6:46).
Luke includes an extensive "infancy narrative" at
the beginning of his Gospel. In the verses leading up to Jesus'
birth, we read that Zechariah has been praying for Elizabeth to
bear a child. The announcement of this child occurs while the
people are at prayer outside the temple as Zechariah goes to offer
incense (1:10-17). Further along, the same angel appears to Mary
to proclaim her the mother of the Son of God. These opening words
of Gabriel have become the source for the Catholic prayer, the
Hail Mary (1:26-32).
Both Zechariah in his canticle, the Benedictus (1:68-79),
and Mary in hers, the Magnificat (1:46-55), sing out their prayers
of joy at the marvels God works through them. This first chapter
in Luke, then, sets the context on how we are to receive Christ
in our lives: through longing trust in God's love shown by dedicated
prayer. As Luke writes about Jesus' ministry, the evangelist shows
Jesus providing the example of such longing and loving trust.
In comparison to the other two Synoptic writers,
Luke presents Jesus praying more than speaking about prayer. Indeed,
biblical scholars often refer to Luke as the "Gospel of prayer."
Jesus spends the night alone in prayer before selecting the Twelve
from among the disciples (6:12-16). He also prays alone with the
disciples nearby (9:18-20). Only Luke shows Jesus praying before
John baptizes him (3:21) and during the transfiguration (9:29).
In Luke, Jesus also tells parables about prayer (18:1-8, 9-14).
Luke even uses different vocabulary and different
grammatical constructions to show prayer. For example, the Greek
verb translated "to beg" can also mean "to pray" (22:32). Likewise,
"Father" becomes the first word of two prayers from the cross
The Greek word for "pray" or "prayer" never appears in John's
Gospel, and scenes of Jesus at prayer are arranged in a manner
different from those in the Synoptic accounts. To indicate that
Jesus is praying, John writes that Jesus "raised his eyes" (11:41;
17:1). The Fourth Evangelist also uses the Greek verb meaning
"to ask" on two occasions in which the context suggests that Jesus
is at prayer (17:9; 17:20). Despite the fact that in portraying
Jesus' prayer life, John pays little attention to the same details
as the Synoptics, all of Jn 17 is dedicated to Jesus' prayer for
his disciples as he approaches his impending arrest, death, and
The Passion Narratives
If we compare the Synoptic passages of Jesus' prayer
in the garden with Jn 17, we can observe several points of contact
as well as some points of divergence between the two. The major
similarity between John and the Synoptics is that Jesus makes
this prayer before his arrest. In all four Gospels, therefore,
this last prayer of Jesus with his company of followers serves
to show the reader the mind and intention of Jesus' earthly ministry.
Among the Synoptic accounts, it is to do the Father's will. In
John, Jesus specifies exactly what the Father's will is for us.
Jesus expressly states that his earthly mission, which fulfills
the Father's will, is to unite the disciples to God the Father:
"so that they may be one just as we are" (John 17:11).
The most obvious difference between this prayer
in John and the Synoptic accounts of Jesus in the garden is in
the tone. In John, Jesus is not praying in a state of fear or
near despair. As with the Synoptic presentations, John's Jesus
knows that he is about to undergo a severe trial, but his prayer
is not about letting the cup pass; it is about strengthening and
protecting the group of believers once he is gone (17:14-26).
It is good for us to remember that these words apply to believers
today as well.
The three Synoptic Gospels situate Jesus' great
passion prayer at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. In this garden,
Jesus is most distraught (Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42; Lk 22:39-46).
In Matthew and Mark, Jesus falls flat on the ground from fear
and tension. In Luke, he is on his knees but sweats so profusely
that the drops appear like blood. In all three versions, Jesus
prays not only to alter the Father's will but also for the strength
to carry out that will, whatever it may be.
The Synoptics, moreover, exhibit similar, but certainly
not exact, accounts of Jesus' last prayer from the cross (Mt 27:45-56;
Mk 15:33-41; Lk 23:44-49). Matthew and Mark's version are most
alike in citing the final words of Jesus. Often called the "Prayer
of Dereliction," the cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken
me?" is the first line of Psalm 22. This psalm itself is a deep
lament that plumbs the deepest recesses of despair before giving
way to a slim glimmer of hope at the conclusion. As scandalous
as some might find it, Matthew and Mark show us Jesus feeling
absolutely abandoned by family, friends, and even God, and he
cries out in despairing lament because of it. We are not to think
that Jesus easily gains resurrection for the human race!
Luke and John, however, viewing matters from the
perspective of the resurrection, portray Jesus in a more acquiescent
posture at the moment of death. Nonetheless, Luke still draws
on the psalms to formulate Jesus' last prayer: "Into your hands
I commend my spirit..." (Ps 31:6; Lk 23:46). In John, Jesus voices
his physical thirst (19:28), and although Jesus is not quoting
any one psalm directly, his words strongly echo Ps 42:3; 63:2;
From earliest times until today, Christians view
the Old Testament as prefiguring Christ, even though non-Christians
may view these same books differently. As we see above, the evangelists
put the words of the psalms on the lips of Jesus during his passion.
Along these lines, ancient monks and nuns in the Egyptian desert
heard Jesus' voice in all the psalms. They believed the psalms
were written by King David, but they also believed that the pre-existent
Christ inspired David to do the writing (Ps 110:1). For this reason,
they prayed the whole Psalter daily. This tradition has grown
and changed, but it still continues, faithful to the ancient practice.
In Christian monasteries and many religious houses
throughout the world, vowed men and women gather three to seven
times daily to pray the psalms. If the psalms are the voice of
Christ, then listening to and speaking with that voice unites
their lives with Christ's, the objective Jesus sets forth in Jn
In all four Gospels, Jesus' ministry, passion, death,
and resurrection receive their focus at the Eucharist. The Synoptic
accounts show Jesus actually blessing the bread and cup (Mt 26:26-30;
Mk 14:22-26; Lk 22:14-23), while in John, Jesus washes the disciples'
feet and provides a lengthy discourse (13—17). If we read these
texts carefully, we can see that Jesus is at prayer in all of
This heavy emphasis on the Eucharist, despite the
differences among the four narratives, leads scholars to conclude
that it was of prime importance in Jesus' ministry and a Christian
practice from the earliest moments of the Church's history. The
Eucharist, according to Tradition and Scripture, is Christ's perfect
example of prayer—perfect because we are most closely aligned
with Jesus' ministry, passion, death, and resurrection when we
participate in it.
In the Gospels, Jesus converses with God. In a good
conversation, two people share part of their lives with each other.
Likewise, Christ converses with us through his passion, death,
and resurrection. By reading Scripture, we converse with him and
grow in his life. In communal and private prayer we become one
with Christ who is one with God. We fulfill, then, Jesus' own
prayer to the Father about us, "that they may be one just as we
are" (Jn 17:11).
Next: The Kingdom of Heaven (by William O'Malley,