Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The first reading from the Book of Exodus is one of the most intriguing of Old Testament stories. Israel is engaged in battle with Amalek. Moses raises his hands in prayer, holding aloft the staff of the Lord. Remember that this staff is the one he carried when he went before Pharaoh to ask for freedom for the Israelites. It was this staff that he stretched out over the Red Sea and it parted, allowing Israel to cross safely to the other side. He carried the staff with him up the mountain to receive the Commandments. The staff would eventually be placed in the Ark of the Covenant and kept by Israel alongside the tablets of the law. When Moses lifts this staff at God’s command, amazing things happen. So he holds the staff high and when he does so, Israel has the better of the fight against Amalek. When his arms grow tired and he rests, Israel is less successful. So he sits on a rock while Aaron and Hur support his arms. With arms and staff thus held aloft, Israel wins their battle. Let us examine three spiritual lessons present in this story: personal sacrifice, perseverance, and community.
The prayer of Moses during the battle requires more than words. He is not simply speaking to God on behalf of Israel (as we will see in other stories from Exodus). With his whole body engaged, he is making an offering of himself. The faith of Israel (and our own Catholic faith) is deeply incarnational. The body has a purpose, dignity, and worth, even in prayer! This moment calls for personal, physical sacrifice. Moses’ hands have to stay up. In the spiritual life, personal sacrifice is necessary. In the great saints of our history, the spiritual masters, we see personal sacrifice in abundance. Sometimes this takes the form of penance (especially fasting) or almsgiving (in the form of treasure, service, or presence). Personal sacrifice in the spiritual life can also mean simply making time for God each day. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was known to ask people who complained they did not have sufficient time to pray how much they slept each night. After they answered, she would simply say, “Get up an hour earlier and use that time to pray. You have slept enough.” God is ready to give us everything. Personal sacrifice in prayer is a small way in which we can open ourselves to receive more from the Lord.
The Gospel today reminds us of the need to persevere in prayer. The Lord gives us permission to bring any and all needs before Him, even to the point of “pestering.” Moses perseveres in his prayer, even though he becomes tired. His perseverance wins the day for Israel. For us, in our own prayer lives, it is vitally important to keep at it. The truth is that praying can often seem like a dull task with no hint of reward. It’s easy to get distracted or bored or discouraged. Jesus teaches us to keep at it, with the confident faith that our heavenly Father will answer us, will give us what we need, and will care for us in all things. Moses’ prayer throughout the day, in spite of personal weariness, shows us the fidelity of God to His people, especially when they pray.
Finally, we see in Aaron and Hur fine examples of community. While God loves each and every person in a unique and individual way, His plan is not for His people to have only a one-on-one relationship. Rather, the Father wills that our relationship with Him also have a communal dimension. We might think of the personal and the communal as the two lungs with which our prayer life breathes. We need one-on-one time with the Lord, but we also need the support of our community. It is Aaron and Hur literally supporting Moses’ arms that allows his prayer to continue unabated. So when we gather as a community, especially for Mass, our prayer is amplified. If we try for a prayer life as a solo endeavor, we, like Moses, will grow weary. But supported by a community, we are encouraged to continue. There is a similar, if opposite, danger if we think that all we need is the communal dimension and need not pray on our own. In that case, we come to the communal prayer having done little of the personal preparation necessary. It is easy in that case to become a passive observer of the community’s prayer, instead of an active participant. The more we pray individually, the more we are practiced in the art of entering into the presence of God, and thus the more easily we can enter into communal worship.
To be in relationship with God is one of the great privileges He has intended for humanity from the beginning. Adam and Eve walked with Him in the Garden of Eden, but sin caused them to lose this close relationship. The rest of Scripture is filled with the story of how God seeks to reestablish this relationship and how He teaches us to remain in this friendship. Our personal sacrifice, perseverance, and community are all elements meant to keep us in union with the God who from the beginning has willed a relationship of love between humanity and divinity, that we, created in His image and likeness, might live out the full meaning of our dignity as His sons and daughters.