Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization
Intercessory Prayer and the Confidence of the Cross
Infants and young children are quite clear about their needs. A baby cries, a mother feeds the child, the baby’s tears cease. A child falls down and cuts his knee, his father hugs him, gives him a kiss, washes out the wound, affixes a Band-Aid, and the child resumes his play. A young girl approaches a family friend at a party, asking them to read her a story, and the family friend (unless they are a horrible person, incapable of love), of course, does. There is such confidence in these requests, particularly in a loving family, because the child knows that most of these simple intercessions will be fulfilled. The need, the petition, and the fulfilled request are virtually simultaneous moments in the life of the child.
Yet, as we grow older, we lose some of this confidence. Perhaps, it is because we have learned that our parents cannot grant all of our desires. They cannot take away from us the disappointment of being turned down for a first job, or the sorrow at watching a relationship—once so full of promise—come to an end. They cannot ensure that we will get into the college of our dreams, or that once we’re there that we’ll succeed. They, and no creature for that matter, can answer for us those “depth” questions that arise in the human heart as we grow: “What is the purpose of life?” “Why is there death in the world?” “Is moral uprightness really worth it, when injustice seems to be rewarded more often than not?”
A similar dynamic, dear friends, is often at work in our formation into intercessory prayer. When we are young, we have confidence that God will answer our most simple requests quickly and with ease. Yet, as we grow older, more attentive to the ways that our prayers seem to be unfulfilled, we may give up intercessory prayer except in the most extreme moments of life. We have cried out that our friend may not die, and yet we have not been heard. We have asked God that our poverty might be relieved, and yet we have not been heard. We have sought God’s voice in helping us choose a path, and yet we have not been heard. For most of us, the answer to this silence is not giving up faith in God but readjusting our expectations of what God can provide us in the first place. We ask for less and not more. We hope God has a plan, but when we’re asked to articulate it, we’re less than clear what such a plan might be.
The General Intercessions on Good Friday are an antidote to this subjugation of intercessory prayer. Having heard Christ’s passion, we respond in trust with a barrage of intercessions for the salvation of the world: that God will guide the Church, increase its faith, and make it effective sacrament of love; that the Pope might be strengthened in his role as servant of Christians; that all ministers, all lay people might reveal this faith in the world; that the catechumens might receive an increase in faith and understanding in preparation for their baptism; that Christians everywhere might be one in the fullness of faith; that the Jewish people might participate in the fullness of redemption, perhaps in a way that we cannot yet imagine (see, Paul’s reflection upon this in Romans); that those who do not believe in Christ may walk nonetheless in sincerity of heart, becoming perfect witnesses of God’s love in the world; that those who do not believe in God may perceive in Christians lives of love and mercy, attracting them to God; that God might lead those in public office to work for freedom, security, and peace; and, that the sick, the dying, the traveler, the captive, the oppressed, the hungry, and the diseased might be strengthened by God, and the source of their suffering blotted from the earth. We pray this while standing and kneeling, taking time to allow the words of the prayers to become our prayer.
Yet, how can we trust that these prayers may be answered? Indeed, on Good Friday, we are reminded that it is not we as individuals who prayer these prayers; we do not stand as those alone, isolated monads expressing wishes that remain unfulfilled. Rather, our voice is Christ’s voice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this quite beautifully:
Jesus also prays for us—in our place and on our behalf. All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross, and in his Resurrection, heard by the Father. This is why he never ceases to intercede for us with the Father. If our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name, even more than any particular thing: the Holy Spirit itself, who contains all gifts (no. 2741).
So, the General Intercessions that we pray on Good Friday are kind of extensive elaborations upon Christ’s own prayer, bestowed at the Last Supper:
that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn. 17:20-23).
It is the gift of love, of unity that seek. Of course, this does not take away the painfulness of our often unanswered prayers any more than the mystery of the Resurrection erased Christ’s wounds. His anguish echoes through the ages (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”) (Ps. 22:1). Thus, when we ask for something that we do not get, including very good things (the health of a loved one, the gift of a child, a job to care for our family), our prayer is not just heard but it becomes Christ’s prayer—his cry upon the cross. It becomes the prayer of the saints, who have joined their prayers with Christ’s, who know our sorrow yet rejoice God’s glory. And the sacramental nature of this prayer means that the sorrow that we feel in uttering seemingly unanswered words can be transformed (through the gift of the Holy Spirit) into a longing for divine life, into a sincere hope for perfect salvation. So, on Good Friday, let us ask God’s intercession as a child does, confident that they will be heard. And let our hearts be opened to the surprising way that God hears these prayers. A savior on a cross. A king made subject. The Word of God made flesh, becoming a lamb led to the slaughter. A world transformed by a preacher from Nazareth. For, it we become used to God’s surprising way of love, his prayer of being “God with us,” then we may begin to hear his voice anew: in the cries of the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the lonely, those who know Christ’s cross all too well.