St. Mark’s writing is possibly the oldest Gospel account but it is most certainly the briefest inspired version of the life and message of Jesus Christ. St. Mark fits into 16 chapters what St. Matthew needs 28 chapters to convey and what St. Luke and St. John need 24 and 21 chapters to transmit. Yet this coming Sunday’s Gospel account is a fine illustration of how St. Mark manages to relate broad Gospel insights through pointed Gospel events. The cure of Peter’s mother-in-law, the healing of a demoniac, and the need to spread the Good News of salvation to the surrounding countryside manage to outline in ten verses the whole work of evangelization that characterized Jesus’ ministry and that must still distinguish authentic Church ministry today.
The church family, of which St. Peter’s mother-in-law was no doubt an important member, the community’s frail, among whom the demon-possessed were certainly found, and the culturally foreign, who were often neglected by Jesus’ fellow-preachers, are clearly, even to this day, the chief concerns of the world-wide Roman Catholic Church’s apostolates and ministries. Strengthening the church family, nursing the community’s frail, and introducing the culturally foreign to the Gospel message have been the Church’s business for 20 centuries. And these tasks will continue to be vibrant Christian missions in world history if a fourth element, neatly inserted into St. Mark’s concise narrative, remains central to Catholic Church life. At the beginning of Jesus Christ’s busy day, one of many neatly illustrated by St. Mark, the Savior takes time to enrich himself on the source of all authentic spiritual energy and guidance: “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed (Mk.1:35).”
Now after 20 Christian centuries, believers everywhere are certainly convinced that the man Jesus Christ was also none other than the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, true God from true God. So prayer, “the raising of the mind and heart to God,” must have been second-nature to Jesus Christ. In a real sense, Christ was always praying, always in full communication with the Father through the Holy Spirit.
But the believer must recall that Jesus Christ was not only fully God, consubstantial with his Father at all times, but Christ was also fully human. “The Word became flesh,” St. John succinctly teaches. So prayer time for Jesus was the same as prayer time for the rest of humanity. Prayer time for Jesus was the raising of his human nature, the raising of his human mind and human heart in order to relish the presence of God, to experience the nearness of God, to delight in the company of God, as his Divine nature always had.
Jesus’ human nature experienced daily life just like the rest of mankind. Jesus as a man happily rejoiced in the Spirit; but he also as a man wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. He was angered by abuses found in the Temple. He was saddened by his disciples’ lack of faith. He felt threatened by the thought of death. It would have been at these times especially that Jesus would have re-assured his human nature, so to speak, by taking time for prayer.
And Jesus did indeed take time for prayer. He spent forty days in prayer before entering into his public life. He prayed at his baptism, absorbing the significance of the moment. Christ prayed before choosing the Twelve, a big step in his ministry. Jesus invited his friends, Peter, James and John, to come up the mountain for prayer, in preparation for his Transfiguration. And sometimes Jesus just took time out for personal, private prayer as when St. Luke notes, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (5:16).”
Personal prayer in the Judean desert, in lonely places, before vital decisions, when threatened, and especially when breathing his last, allowed Jesus’ human nature to draw strength and re-assurance from the same source that his Divine nature always enjoyed. Prayer put Jesus’ human nature in touch with God, as it were, a source of strength which his Divine nature always knew. Believers, through Divine grace, share the same opportunity. Prayer raises human nature into the presence of God, to be strengthened by God, to be re-assured by God, to be enlivened by God. Christ took every opportunity to pray; Christian humanity should follow his example.