From Luke’s Gospel:
Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 22:39-46 (NRSV) – December 17, 2012.)
We are all, every American, still reeling from and trying to comprehend a tragedy. Twenty First Grade children, most age 6, and six teachers and school administrators were gunned down at an elementary school in Connecticut on Friday. There is not a person in this country, probably not a person in the world, who has not uttered some variation on “Father, if you are willing remove this cup . . . .” in the past 72 hours.
We would give anything to have those lives returned to us. But the cup was not to be taken from Jesus and the loss of those innocent lives will not be miraculously restored; the cup will not be removed.
And Christmas is still on the way. Today and tomorrow and the next I will be in my office preparing the liturgies of celebration. I will be reading the oh-so-familiar texts of Isaiah and Luke, contemplating what I might put into a sermon. I will be consulting with the staff musician about music for the Christmas Eve services and attending rehearsals of the choir and our brass ensemble. I will be in conversation with the altar guild director about flowers and vestments and the arrangement of the chancel for Christmas Eve. I will not be remembering or thinking about the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
I will, however, remember them and think deeply about them and their deaths at least twice each day for the foreseeable future. During these hours of disciplined prayer saying the Daily Offices of Matins and Vespers (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer), reading the lessons of the daily lectionary, praying the Psalms; I cannot now foresee a day when they will not be remembered, as are the students at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech, or even those killed in the clock tower shootings at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. (My late brother had been student at Austin and we were fearful that people we knew through him might have been among those shot.)
It is . . . perhaps “easy” is not the right word, but I can’t find the right word . . . to fall to our knees in prayer at times of crisis and I know of many who did, actually as well as metaphorically, in the past few days. Here in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is doing the same. But prayer when we are desperate is empty and specious (and, frankly, dishonest) if it is not grounded in a disciplined habit of prayer . . . if we are not in the practice of spending time daily with God, in praise of God’s majesty, in thanksgiving for the blessings we have received, in petition for our everyday needs, in intercession for the needs of others. Prayer at a time of great distress, if it is not part of daily reverence, reduces God to nothing more than some sort of spiritual fire extinguisher, referred to in time of need, grabbed at in a moment of panic, expected to put out the blazing inferno of our trouble, but otherwise ignored.
I’m not suggesting that this would be true of God . . . but I think we all know what happens when fire extinguishers are ignored. The United States Fire Administration recommends an annual check to make sure that a fire extinguisher is not blocked by furniture, doorways, or any thing that might limit access in an emergency, that the pressure is at the recommended level, that all parts are operable and not damaged or restricted in any way, that hoses and nozzles are free of insects or debris, and that there are no any signs of damage or abuse, such as dents or rust, on the extinguisher. In the case of prayer and time with God, it’s not the “fire extinguisher” that needs to be checked, however, it’s the user, the pray-er. Are we blocked? Are we operating properly? Are we damaged by rust or abuse? Daily prayer checks these things and so much more.
Advent encourages us to develop, if we don’t already have, a custom of spending time with God every day. Advent teaches us to “get up and pray” every day. If we are not doing that, our prayer in time of crisis is simply grabbing at a spiritual fire extinguisher!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.