Today’s first reading has a lot to tell us about prayer. One of my scripture teachers at the seminary thought our first reading is one of the highpoints of the Old Testament. It has so much in it. We have so many different ways God is present to his people, Israel. We have the Ark of the covenant. We have the Temple. We have the Davidic monarchy. All these three are being united in a complicated manoeuvre.
More importantly, we have an interesting dance between the prophet Nathan, King David and God. This dance has a lot to teach us about prayer, especially when we understand in light of this Sunday’s focus on our Lady. So, what does it have to tell us?
You probably noticed that our first reading starts with David wanting to build a home for God. This is a pious attitude. He looks at what God has done for him, and is a bit embarrassed at what he has done for God. So, he resolves to build God a house. And the prophet Nathan thinks this is a good idea, too, and so Nathan tells him: go for it!
But then something interesting happens. God’s word comes to Nathan, and contradicts Nathan’s earlier instruction. God says, David, you don’t build a house for me. I build a house for you! So, what’s going on here? In this Advent season in which we think of prayer, fasting and acts of charity, what does this back and forth tell us about prayer?
Well, to think about that, I would like to switch focus a bit. One of the challenges this year has been trying to adapt. People have been using the phrase the new normal to describe the process of finding a new equilibrium amidst the challenges. It became clear early on that we all had to find new routines in order to stay sane. We had to find a new way to live. A new way to work. A new routine, when our old routines had gone.
And so most of us just made up new rule of life. We had to decide when we would do our walk. We had to decide when we would do the shopping. What did we need to do for our own mental health? Who did we need to check in on? All of these little decisions began to form a pattern. We began to organise our life, and then after a while this little way of living began to sustain us. We adapted and the new pattern helped us keep the chaos at bay.
You read something similar in discussion of marriage vows. The impulse of love impels a couple to make vows to each other. They promise a new way of living. They create a new spiritual reality. But then at certain moments of married life, perhaps of difficulty, the vows and the little ways of shared living carry the couple through. What seemingly began from within their love for each other, now carries that love, sustains it, feeds it.
Perhaps the best example of this dynamic, though, is our Lady. She initially says yes to God and then conceives God in her womb. The life is within her. However, that life is God, the one who holds her in the palm of his hand, the love that forms the universe and keeps all things in being.
In each of these versions, there is a sense of beginning something that over time one realises has embraced me. Later on, there is a more mature realisation that I did not begin this, somehow it begun through me. I am a cooperator. Except that is in the case of Mary. She knew right from the beginning that she was handmaid of the Lord. She knew all generations would call her blessed, but not for anything she had done, but for what God had done through her.
This lesson is worth thinking about in relation to prayer. Prayer is like starting something and then the prayer giving birth to something far greater. Initially prayer seems like my work. Initially, it seems all about me. And there is something to this. We are asked to be faithful. We are asked to commit. To stay the full allotted time. We do have to come up with a new pattern of living.
However, the more we are faithful, the more we listen to God’s word, the more we realise that it is like the word to Nathan, or the word to our Lady. God says, It is not your work. It is my work. I am not part of you. You can be part of me. If it seems like I am at home in you, it is only because your home is in me.
This is the deep mystery of prayer. It is God talking to God in us. It looks like the Mass. Father and Son united in the Holy Spirit. So, in our Mass today and in our prayer this week, let’s like David and our Lady, begin to pray. But let’s also ask our Lady to pray that like her we might be open to the majesty of God who seeks to become incarnate in our lives, and gradually envelop us totally until he is all in all.