19 December 2012

Regardless of the answer: give thanks

3rd Week of Advent (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

What do you do/say when God answers your prayers? Notice I didn't ask: what do you do/say when God answers your prayers in the way you want them answered? That would be too easy. If you've spent much time in prayer, you know that God often answers prayers in unexpected and sometimes undesirable ways. We're given the gift of prayer so that we have a way of receiving into our lives all the blessings God has to give us. Like any divine gift, prayer is easily used and abused by a heart and mind twisted in folly. Praying fools, relying on their own sense of what's best for themselves, usually get exactly what they pray for. . .and they usually regret it. Their reaction is always the same: blame God and pitch a fit. However, when the divine gift of prayer is used wisely, that is, relying on God's knowledge of what's best, and receiving all that He has to give, we get what we need. There's only one proper reaction to getting and receiving all that we need from God: copious gratitude and praise. What happens when we fail to respond properly to answered prayers? Look no further than Zechariah and his muted tongue. 

To punish Zechariah for his ingratitude, Gabriel sticks the priest's tongue to the roof of his mouth. The idea here is that if you're not going to use the divine gift of speech to give God thanks and praise for giving you a much-prayed-for son, then you're not going to use it at all. Frankly, Zechariah got off easy. He's a priest. And not just any priest, but the priest selected by lots to offer incense on the altar in the Holy of Holies. And not only that but Gabriel visits him in the Holy of Holies while he's offering the sacrifice of incense! Yet, Zechariah still doubts and questions his Lord's answer to his prayers for a son. So, not only is he ungrateful and slightly petulant upon hearing Gabriel's good news, he's also abusing the divine gift of prayer while praying. Zechariah would have done well to follow Mary's example in responding to Gabriel's news of her son's conception, and submit himself to God's will, saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done according to your word.” Instead, he says—more or less—“Behold, I am an ungrateful brat. How do I know you're telling me the truth?” Speechless. All he can do is gesture at the folks waiting for him outside the temple. What use is a priest who can't offer prayer and sacrifice for his people? 

What does Zechariah's bad example teach us about prayer? It teaches us first and foremost that God answers prayers. Always. It also teaches us that the only proper response to answered prayers—regardless of the answer—is copious gratitude and praise. By questioning Gabriel Zechariah reveals a deeply seated ambivalence about receiving whatever blessing God has to give him. Can he accept a childless life if that's God's will for him? Can he accept a daughter if that's God's will? In the presence of the Lord's messenger, Zechariah confesses a wounding pride, and he uses the divine gift of speech to express his doubt. So, yet another lesson about prayer: it takes more than want and need to beg a blessing from God and receive the blessing He gives; it takes heroic courage, persistent strength, and borrowed wisdom. And more than any one of these or all of them combined, it takes gratitude: the foundation of humility and the only certain cure for pride. Mary is called “blessed among women” not only b/c she said Yes to being the Mother of the Word made flesh but also b/c she did so as a self-confessed and humble servant of the Lord. Courage, strength, wisdom. If we use the gift of speech to pray, then we should use it to give God thanks when He answers our prayers. . .regardless of the answer. 
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  1. Anonymous11:03 AM

    Another one for me, Fr. (I've read it three times...).

    I while ago I realized in a rather, let's say...unpleasant way that I had been putting too much emphasis on figuring out God's will in my life instead of just trusting it. I've been praying much more humbly and confidently ever since.


  2. Yes, good; well constructed - appreciated the development from: "What do you do/say when God answers your prayers?"...all the way to "...give God thanks when He answers our prayers...." I found a lot of good lines in this one (too many to list here), but most especially the last half of the final paragraph. You got me again - our GAs must still be in cahoots! :-)

    Thank you!