Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Hand of God: The Best, the Only (29.C)

The headline of the week was surely on the front page of Thursday's National Post: "I have been with God and I have been with the devil. GOD WON."

The words, of course, belong to Mario Sepulveda, one of the 33 Chilean miners rescued this week—an acknowledged leader the press in Chile called Super Mario.

In an interview, Mr. Sepulveda said "I have been with God and I have been with the devil. They both fought for me. God won. I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get me out of there."

That's about as good a homily as has ever been preached about the need to pray always and not lose heart. For almost ten weeks the miners waited six hundred metres below ground; not all of them were religious, but many were, and they prayed together. One dropped to his knees to pray as soon as he stepped out of the rescue capsule.

All in all, the "Miracle Miners" make a better parable than the one Jesus tells us this Sunday. Sure, the rescue was slow, but if we believe Super Mario, he never doubted things would turn out right.

The widow standing before the unjust judge certainly didn't have that confidence. She didn't know how things would turn out—after all, she was pleading for justice from a man who didn't fear God, much less respect anyone. All she knew was that she had no other options. She was a widow, and therefore most likely poor. If she could have hired a lawyer, she would have.

With only one course of action open to her, she took it, with no sure hope of success. But success is what she got.

We don't always realize it, but many times in our lives we only have one option: to pray and not lose heart. We pretend to ourselves that we have other choices, trying desperately to control the uncontrollable, refusing to accept the inevitable, but really we've run out of time, or steam, or rope—pick your metaphor—and turning to anything or anyone else is pointless.

The parable, as I said, isn't as satisfying as the miners' rescue. But Mario Sepulveda got it right: God's hand is the best hand. And God will get us out of the dark and deep prisons where we've become trapped.

Once we seize the hand of God, though, we have to hang on tight. Relaxing our grip when He doesn't bring us to the surface immediately, on our schedule, means we fall back into the depths. Recognizing that he is our only hope, we can't let go when the going gets tough.

The first reading gives us a powerful image of this. Moses lifted his hands to God in prayer, and when he held them high the battle went in Israel's favour. When he let them droop, the enemy got the upper hand.

I always thought the story was about Moses getting physically tired. I wonder now whether he lowered his hands in worry when he saw things were turning against Israel. Or maybe he was simply weary of praying for such a long time. Either way: we see the results of his persevering prayer.

Another Old Testament text that puts some light on today's parable is found in the wisdom book we call either Sirach or Ecclesiasticus. Many years ago, a passage from the second chapter saw me through a personal crisis, and it has helped me many times since: "My child if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal… and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to him, and do not leave him, so that you may be honoured at the end of your days." [New Jerusalem Bible]

Jesus doesn't offer answers to prayer on demand. But nor does he compare his heavenly Father to the unjust judge. Father John Jay Hughes says that "the point of the story is the difference between the corrupt judge and God."

But if God doesn't have to be bugged or bought off, why do we need to imitate the persistence of the widow?

Father Hughes has simple answer: "Prayer, like everything to do with God, is ultimately a mystery. One thing, however is certain. Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us. It opens us up to the action of God in our lives."

This truth came alive in the life of the newest Canadian saint and the first Canadian born man to be canonized. St. André, the humble brother whom Pope Benedict canonized in Rome today, was known as a miracle worker. But the greatest miracles were spiritual, not physical.

Father Tom Rosica of Salt and Life television, has said that Brother André was able to urge people to pray with confidence and perseverance, while remaining open to God's will. That's the message Jesus wants us to take from today's parable.

Father Rosica, a tireless promoter of modern saints, notes that our new saint "admonished people to begin their path to healing through commitments to faith and humility, through confession and a return to the sacraments. He encouraged the sick to seek a doctor's care.

"He saw value in suffering that is joined to the sufferings of Christ. He allowed himself to be fully present to the sadness of others but always retained a joyful nature and good humor. At times, he wept along with his visitors as they recounted their sorrows."

That is what persevering prayer looks like. With hands held high, despite our weariness and fears, uncertainty and doubts, we pray without losing heart, confident that God will grant us what we need, when we need it, and that prayer will open our hearts to his 'what' and his 'when' in due time.

Let's end by drawing a practical lesson from the story of Moses. In the first place, it's a story of intercession: a reminder that we don't just pray for ourselves. We need to pray for our families, our friends, our parish, our country, and the world, without tiring out. In the second place, we noticed that his brother and another Israelite held Moses hands up for him when he could no longer raise them himself.

Intercession for others is part of Christian life; so is the intercession of the saints. Brother André teaches us about both these truths. As he became known as a miracle worker, he insisted, "I am nothing ... only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph." But now in heaven St. André can both point us to Joseph and lift his own hands for us before the throne of God.


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