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Homily: “The Many Meanings of ‘Pray for Us'”

Homily delivered on the External Solemnity of the Assumption of Blessed Mary, Mother of God, 2014 at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois. [display_podcast]

The text for this sermon is not itself found in our readings today. But it might be said to point toward the heart of serious, committed Christian religion. The text is simply, “Pray for us,” and it is certainly appropriate to explore the meanings of those three words when we are commemorating, and meditating upon, Our Lady, Blessed Mary, on the Solemnity of her Assumption into heaven, who in the words of our Collect, has been “taken” to God.

The words “pray for us” are often if not even usually part of a Marian prayer or anthem — one thinks of “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death” from the Hail Mary, or “pray for us to the Father” from the anthem, “O Queen of Heaven, be Joyful” as well as “Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ” that is often said at the conclusion of a Marian prayer. It is part of the Litany of the Saints that we pray every Easter Vigil.

It might too be remembered that on any saint’s day, such as last month on the 22nd of July which was Saint Mary Magdalene’s day, the simplest way of effectively remembering that saint, if we have no other time or opportunity to do anything else, is to say, such as in this case, Saint Mary Magdalene, pray for us.

And so, when we say, “pray for us”, we should simply ask, what are we saying? To know what we are doing when we are doing it is a mark of maturity, after all. So, to begin, whom do we address with these words, “pray for us”? We mentioned Our Lady, Blessed Mary, as well as Magdalene or other Saints. What these Christians have in common is a life lived toward Christ in the fullest sense; and so we can say that, in a word, what they have in common is holiness. We ask people who display something of a tangible sense of the holy about them to pray for us. God is at work in them, you might say, and his activity is palpable, apparent to the senses. God is calling them. Their vocation, which only comes from God, is not unfocused but rather discernible and active in their life, sort of like a divine GPS.

Of course the best example of holiness, recognized from the beginning of the Church, is Mary. St Luke wants us to know that “Her soul magnifies the Lord.” Her “spirit rejoices in God.” These are the marks of holiness I think still apply today. Also notice that St Luke, as well as the planners of our lectionary, would have us consider Mary to be prophetic. Her words echo the prophet Isaiah, who wrote “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.” Prophets, through the grace of God, understand the present in immediate and often abrasive terms. And not merely their present tense as they lived, but again through grace, their words point toward the eternal present, which is reality as looked on by the Blessed Trinity. It cannot be a stretch at all to say that Mary looked upon, was struck by, ultimate reality, for what else can the Annunciation imply? Each episode we have of Mary shows us that she was living with this revelation, pondering it. “Living with the revelation” is the heart of what it means to be a disciple.

So when we ask a person who is tangibly living with the revelation to pray for us, it seems to me that we are saying three things at once. The first is that we are asking the person to say or think something that will help us in some way. “Pray for us” here begins in a petition but is expressed as an intercession. “Pray for us, because we really need it — lend us a hand.” This is obviously a way of speaking when we are faced with some difficult challenge or obstacle, or perhaps when we are suffering in a particularly acute way. Because that person exhibits a sense of holy, we are comforted by God, through them, and, who knows, maybe this will lead to relief.

The second dimension of “pray for us” is we are asking the person to pray because we are not able to. “Pray for us” here means vicarious: say or think something on our behalf, in our stead. “We are not able to do it as well as you can.” Here, through these three words, we recognize that some people have a vocation to pray. A vocation to be a Pray-er, in the sense of something full-time, committed, disciplined. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” And so when we ask Mary to pray for us, we are recognizing her vocation to full-time prayer, and we are sharing in that vocation. Prayer is a gift that can only be shared.

There should be nothing strange about the notion that some people have a vocation to “Pray-er” in a particular way. Much like some people are called to play professional football for the Chicago Bears, and the rest of us clearly are not — fans of that team share in the gifts given to these players, and the players share in the gifts given to the fans. The “Chicago Bears” is more than the players on the field — the “Chicago Bears” is the players, trainers, administrators, owners, and on and on, including the fans. The “Chicago Bears” is an event. In the same way, the Church is an event. It is the Body of Christ, the Remnant of Jesus — Remnant meaning what he left behind of himself to continue his ministry — and the purpose and mission of the Church is best understood in this way: the living, organic Remnant of Jesus himself, doing what Jesus did in his own earthly ministry: preaching, teaching, embracing, healing, feeding, listening, leading.

Although it can be helpful to understand the distinctions between these activities, what must never be forgotten is that all of them are forms of prayer. In the words of Martin Thornton, prayer is the total experience of a religious person. The Church, then, is the Remnant of Jesus, and its activity is prayer, which is understood to begin in the total experience and activity of Christ.

All of which points, I think, to the fullest understanding of the text of this sermon. “Pray for us” means relationship. When we ask Mary to pray for us, we are asking her to be in relationship with us, and we are acknowledging our relationship with her. There is a simple, elegant beauty in doing just that. So often, our complaints with other people begin when a person does not acknowledge us, our feelings, our experience, our being. Regular, daily acknowledgment of relationship is the key to its health. We say “pray for us, Mary” because we know that being in relationship with her is better than not.

Mary, after all, is the Mother of the Church. We might say she is the Mother of the Remnant — that which Jesus lived and then left behind as an active culture of divine life, experience, and activity. This culture is kept fecund primarily through Prayer in the total sense: to work is to pray, wrote St Benedict, which is profound when we see our work as continuing what Jesus consummated.

Now, no one but Mary has her particular vocation: the Mother of Jesus, of God incarnate, and the prayerful life that results from that relationship. And not all of us — in fact, few of us — are called to be full-time pray-ers — whether in monastic order or in secular, ascetic order in a parish. Not all of us are called to suit up for battle on Soldier Field against the hated Packers! By all accounts, the vocation of full-time pray-er is fantastically arduous work, difficult, and regularly unpleasant.

Yet let it be understood: all of us have God-given gifts and we are to work to understand them and then to exercise them by the grace and guidance of God. Any gift from God is going to involve work of some sort — heavy lifting of the soul — but by all accounts there is at the same time in all true vocations tremendous joy, beauty, and contentment, as well. God calls us. And when we say “Pray for us,” we acknowledge that to be true.

And so we join holy Church and say: Pray for us, O holy Mother of God — that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.