On Thursdays on this blog we are going through the Mass, bit by bit, to see how the liturgy and its rites informs and forms our life of Christian discipleship.
We have reached at last the end of the Liturgy of the Word, with the General Intercessions. In the Mass itself, this is a fairly simple thing—we have come together as an assembly, as the People of God. We have acknowledged our sins, praised the Lord in the Gloria, gathered ourselves together in prayer, and listened together to the Word of God at length. Hopefully the homily gave us something to think about to make some sense of all this, and then we stood and professed our faith together in the Creed. It is obvious and sensible that at this time we bring to the Lord our needs and the needs of the world.
Having been instructed by his word of his goodness and love for mankind, having professed our faith in that, it is normal that we now bring our needs to Him. Now this part of the Mass is probably the one part of the Mass that the ordinary devout Christian has no problem living out. The one thing we all do, if we have faith in God at all, is bring Him our needs and intentions. It is what is called a no-brainer. You believe in God? You tell Him what’s on your heart, what you need, what the people you love need, what the needs of the world are.
I think it is worth pointing out, though, that this aspect of prayer and of faith—intercession—occurs in the liturgy in the context of a whole lot of other prayers and ways of being with God. Sometimes in our spiritual lives, intercessory prayer can become the whole sum and substance of our relationship with God. This is a mistake.
While in itself it is commendable and indeed commanded by God that we should bring Him all our needs and ceaselessly ask His help in all things, a prayer life that consists of nothing but that is impoverished. Intercessory prayer, by definition, focuses our attention on what is not, on what remains to be done, on what is disordered or broken or needy in this world.
It is good to care about all of that, but what about what is? What about all God has done, is doing, will do, all that is given to us continually and constantly? What about praising God and thanking Him? A prayer life that is all ‘God do this! God do that! God do the other thing!’ and has no awareness of ‘God, you have done so much for all of us’ is lacking badly in balance.
And what about suspending our words to God altogether? What about shutting up and letting God get a Word in edgewise? What about lectio divina – the prayerful engagement with Scripture? A prayer life that is all us telling God stuff and has no space for God to tell us anything is pretty thin gruel.
And what about expressing our own penitence and humble contrition to God in our prayer? How about the Jesus Prayer, for example: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner’? Again, a prayer life that is exclusively intercessory prayer tends to give an impression that the only person not doing His job in the world is God. I mean, we keep telling Him all the problems and what needs to be done, and He just isn’t getting on it! And so our prayer has to include a frank and simple acknowledgement of everything that we are not, everything that we fail to do in our own pursuit of the true and the good.
And how about simple prayers of faith? Again, intercessory prayer lacking this can become a veiled criticism of God. We don’t really believe He is up there, listening to us, but we’re going to doggedly keep bugging Him until He comes through, right?
The liturgy teaches us all this, when we see how the General Intercessions follow upon the rest of these ways of prayer. A humble person, aware of his or her sins, praising God for all He has done, listening to His Word and professing faith in His steadfast love—this is the person who knows best how to bring before the Lord all the needs of the world.
Intercessory prayer done rightly—done in the context of the whole attitude of prayer and faith—then becomes what it truly is, a sharing in the offering of Christ to the Father, His obedience and love for the world expressed in an ongoing oblation of love and sacrifice. The General Intercessions, simple and obvious as they are, lead us directly into what follows in the Mass, as our offering of love is joined to His, and our prayer blends with His prayer from the Cross.
Intercessory prayer then goes from its worst and most banal forms—gimme, gimme God!—to being an actual work of the Body of Christ in union with its Head, an ongoing sharing in the work of Christ in time and in eternity, a gift of love for the world. All of which is expressed in the most simple and obvious way—God bless this one, God help that one, God heal her, God have mercy on him, God have mercy on us all. Amen.