Intercessory prayer has been a part of my life since I can remember. My family prayed daily since I was an infant. Our prayer time included worship songs, Scripture, and petitions. We would close by singing the Our Father together. By the time I was in elementary school, we had added a decade of the Rosary. Around the time I reached junior high, my family included a full rosary in our nightly prayer. I have to admit, in many ways my sisters and I would dread our 45 minutes of family prayer every evening!
Even so, this taught me that when I have a need, I can bring it before God, and do so confidently.
In fact, in retrospect it was no surprise or coincidence that I spent time in a religious order that focuses on intercessory prayer.
This year, during the Triduum and Easter, I became quite aware of several persons online asking for prayer for specific intentions. Along with the pandemic, which has complicated many of our day-to-day activities, divisions in the Church—both in the US and globally—have magnified the discouragement and desolation many are experiencing. In a recent piece, I shared how we can seek Easter joy amid the ongoing pandemic, which includes both experiencing Christ as the consoler, and imitating Christ in consoling others.
One of the ways we can console others is by praying for one another.
The range of intercessory prayer is broad. People pray for a new job, to find a spouse, for a family member’s health, and to overcome addictions. Some intentions are objectively heartfelt and serious, while others (such as winning the lottery, finding a parking spot, or beating the opposing team) might seem frivolous—except to the person who is petitioning. Some people have long and detailed intercessory prayers, while others might not have the words to express what they are seeking. But there is no wrong way to pray for something. The important point is that we ask God for what we desire.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”
Mary, Jesus’ mother, is an exemplary model of how we can pray for others.
Even though we are currently in the Easter season, we can still enter into the scene of the Wedding Feast of Cana (see Jn 2:1-10). A wedding is a celebration, and we can place ourselves in this feast with the jubilance of Easter.
Amid this wedding feast, we read that the wine ran out.
Anyone who has ever been to a wedding (or at least a Catholic or Jewish one) knows that it’s a scandal to run out of wine. And anyone who has ever hosted a wedding knows the importance of every detail, whether the guests actually notice or not. But running out of wine out is definitely a detail that the guests will notice, grumble about, and never forget.
Enter Mary, aware of the wedding party’s dilemma, approaching her son Jesus. “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3).
Mary is quick and to the point: Here’s the situation, Jesus.
Jesus’ response (“Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” [Jn 2:4]) might lead you to think he disregarded her statement, but Mary’s actions suggest that he didn’t. Trusting that her son would come through, she tells the wedding servers, “Do whatever (Jesus) tells you” (Jn 2:5).
Notice that Mary is so deeply concerned with the concern of the wedding party that she presents their situation to Jesus with the expectation that he would solve the problem.
In this incident, Mary teaches us how to intercede for others, by taking on the concerns that others express to us and then placing them before Jesus and letting him know that their concerns matter deeply to us. The words are not the focus of importance but the disposition of our hearts. When our hearts are moved with compassion for others, we imitate Christ (cf. Mt 9:36) who responds within us to those we are concerned for.
When people ask us to pray for them, we can, like Mary, try to sense the feelings of the one asking our prayers, and we can approach Jesus knowing in our hearts how deeply important this is to the person we are praying for. When we do this, our hearts unite with the one asking for prayer. Then when we turn to Christ, our hearts—moved with pity like Mary’s—become united with the Sacred Heart.
We should be cautious not to place too much importance on experiencing feelings in themselves. For example, if someone we are praying for experiences sorrow, if the sorrow is too much for us to bear, then we should not take on that specific feeling. This is where discernment is especially important. We carry only what we can, but the heavy lifting is not up to us, since we hand it all over to Jesus. A way we can pray in this situation is to center ourselves and ask Jesus to take over. Notice that while the dilemma of the wedding party concerned Mary, she asked Jesus from a place of concern, but she remained centered. The concern did not inundate Mary because her faith in God allowed her to make this request from a disposition of peace.
Lastly, like Mary, we must ask Jesus confidently and with the understanding that Jesus will take the lead from here. When we pray like this, we can make our petition and then let it go. Praying in this way allows us to remain in peace and enter more deeply in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
This Easter season and in the future, we can share in Christ’s ministry of consolation by interceding for others like Mary. Like Mary, we can share the concern of the party seeking our prayers and place the intentions before Jesus as if they are our concerns. Then, moved by compassion for the person we are praying for, we unite with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and allow him to minister through us, confident that Christ hears us and will act in the manner he knows best. When we pray this way, we not only imitate Mary as intercessor, but she joins in our intercessory prayer before the Trinity. And just as in Cana, Mary proves to be the intercessor par excellence.
Image: by Lawrence OP, Wedding Feast at Cana. Mosaic by Fr Marko Rupnik SJ from the National Shrine of St John Paul II, Washington DC. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).