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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Prayers and Supplications

Breath of the Spirit is our electronic spiritual and liturgical resource for our members and potential members. Nothing can replace your chapter or other faith community but we hope you will find further support here for integrating your spirituality with your sexuality and all the strands of your life.

March 21st, 2021: The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:7-9
John 12:20-33

These reflections are based on the Sunday readings from Lectionary Cycle B in the Church's liturgical calendar. If your community is using the Scrutinies, you may be using Cycle A readings this Sunday.

Reflection from John P. Falcone

Among this week’s readings, the Letter to the Hebrews really grabbed my attention:

"Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who is able to save us from death, and Jesus was heard because of reverent submission. Although God’s firstborn, Jesus learned obedience through suffering; and having been made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey."

What struck me most about this passage is the bowing and scraping that it seems to suggest. Jesus “offers up prayers, supplications, loud cries and tears;” Jesus learns “obedience” through because of “suffering;” and is saved by “reverent submission.”

Mark Jordan, the Harvard theologian, has written insightfully about the role of submission in Roman Catholicism. He points especially to its effect on the formation of Catholic clergy: an unhealthy form of submission that rewards kissing up; that trades on the keeping of secrets; that cultivates soul-killing forms of repression.

This is not what the author of Hebrews had in mind.

Hebrews portrays Jesus as the ultimate priest. First-century Jewish priesthood reflects a view of life and religion quite different from that of many Christians today. The job of a priest (in Greek, Roman, or Jewish religion) was animal sacrifice: a practice that may seem barbaric to modern people. But Luke Timothy Johnson in his commentary on Hebrews explains this perspective in more holistic (even admirable) terms. Sacrificial priesthood reflects a religion that focuses less on theological formulas and more on the body; that sees life and lifeblood as a sheer gift from God; that underlines the mutual obligations inherent in gift-giving; that affirms the deep links between animals, humans, land, and the Spirit.

As Christians, we often speak of the priesthood of all believers. If Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” (Heb 12:2) is the prototype of a sacrificial priesthood, then we are called – individually and as communities – to live and to act in similarly priestly ways. We are called to pay attention to our bodies: How do we touch others? How do we treat our own bodies? Where and with whom do we stand? We are called to say, “Thank you,” and to really mean it, rather than treating people, time, and commodities as cheap or disposable. We are called to affirm the deep (i.e., spiritual) links between the people who delight and annoy us; the animals whom we eat and adore; and the land which we occupy and deplete.

Paying attention; saying “thank you;” affirming our connections. This kind of “obedience” excludes bowing and scraping; this kind of “reverent submission” excludes kissing up. It’s completely in line with the original Greek of the Letter to the Hebrews. Hypakoe, which our text translates as “obedience,” also means “listening carefully, paying close attention;” eulabeia, which our text translates as “reverent submission,” also means “care, caution, grasping hold of what’s important and not letting go.”

Our Hebrews passage may reflect an early version of the story of the Agony in the Garden. (Some scholars believe that Hebrews was probably written before Mark, Matthew, and Luke.) This week’s Gospel reading from John also offers a riff on the garden agony scene. Jesus announces, “Now my soul is troubled; and shall I say: ‘Abba, save me from this hour’?” No! Because “when I am lifted up from this earth, I will draw everything to myself.” Each version of Jesus’ prayer in the garden underlines the emotional cost of listening carefully and of opting to love.

Jesus has shown us how to pay attention; how to say eucharisto (that is, “Thank you” in Greek); how to affirm our connection with all people, with all things, and with God. What God says to Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading, Jesus has shown us in the flesh: “I will make a new covenant with my people Israel … I will write my law on their hearts.”

May God’s law truly take flesh in our hearts. May we and our religion finally, fully grasp: how to listen to the world’s truest prayers and supplications; how to pay attention to its loud cries and tears.

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John P. Falcone is a practical theologian, religious educator, and a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed (PhD, Boston College). He has been a Dignity member for more than 20 years with close links to Dignity NY, where he met his husband Matias Wibowo in 2005. He is currently Theologian-in-Residence at St. Matthew’s Bethnal Green (Church of England) in London’s East End.

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