|26 - Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, Mar 22, 2105|
On Wednesday last, we came to the middle of the Great Fast. Twenty five days were behind us going back to Cheesefare Sunday. Twenty five days lay ahead of us to the Holy Pascha of Our LORD. This made the prophecy from Isaiah we read on that day all the more striking, and very clear in its meaning: “On that day, God will lay His Holy Sword, great and strong, upon the fleeing dragon serpent, on the writhing dragon serpent and He will destroy the dragon.” (Isa 27:1)
“That day” clearly is Great and Holy Friday. The “holy Sword, great and strong,” spoken of by the prophet, Isaiah, then, is the LORD’s Holy Cross. The writhing, twisted, fleeing dragon serpent is the evil one who murdered our souls in the Garden, the serpent, the LORD said, who would bite the heel of Eve’s Son, which of course is Christ, even as her Son, Christ would crush its head.
But, if the ascetic disciplines of the Church are the “flower of abstinence that grows from the tree of the cross” (LT 230), then the holy Sword is the Great Fast. These days of the Great Fast, then, aren’t just the passing of time to Pascha; they are the outward face of the Cross, which means that these days of the Fast open inwardly away from time and onto the eternal mystery of Christ’s Cross. They are therefore charged with the spiritual strength of the LORD’s Holy Sword. Coming to the heart of the Great Fast outwardly in terms of days last Wednesday, then, we have come to the heart of the Great Fast inwardly, in our souls.
We entered this middle week of the Fast last Sunday under the LORD’s command to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we wanted to follow Him and gain our souls. (Mk 8:34-35) This Sunday, as we leave the middle week of the Fast and make our way with the LORD to Jerusalem, we see before us at the heart of this morning’s Gospel the LORD delivering a child from a “mute spirit”. We see the “mute spirit”, as the LORD forces it out of the child, apparently murdering the child, for it leaves the child as though he were dead. And, we see the LORD raise the child to life. Are we not seeing in this morning’s Gospel the latter part of Pascha’s victory hymn: “….and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
But, given what we’ve said, this means that this is happening to us inwardly! We recognize the “mute spirit” of this morning’s Gospel as the fleeing, writhing dragon serpent that the LORD will destroy “on that day”.
In the bible, the mouth opens onto the heart. The LORD Himself says to the Pharisees: “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks!” (Mt 12:34) So, if the “mute spirit” was making the child unable to speak, it was making the child’s heart “mute” or unable to live. The poor child was being suffocated to death by the writhing dragon serpent making its lair in his heart.
But, the LORD raising the child, in effect, from death to life in this morning’s Gospel is showing us that “that Day” spoken of by Isaiah has begun here in the middle of the Fast! The joy of the LORD’s Paschal victory over the writhing dragon serpent on Great and Holy Friday shines even now! Here, in the deep heart of the Fast, we are entering into that victory even now because the Fast that Christ has given to us as our cross is the holy Sword of the LORD that destroys “on that Day” the writhing dragon serpent!
Beloved faithful, we experience this inward battle taking place between the LORD and the serpent in our hearts when we take up the Fast.
The prophets tell us that our mouth becomes “mute”, i.e., our heart dies, from putting our trust in idols. The idols “have mouths but do not speak,” says the Psalmist. “Like them are all who trust in them.” (Ps 113:13-16 LXX) Our idolatry is exposed when we look to see where we turn to escape our inner boredom or loneliness, where we go to find comfort when we are afraid or angry or confused. Do we seek to escape our boredom or our loneliness in the comforts and pleasures of the flesh; or do we turn to make our way through prayer into our heart to call on the Name of the LORD? The first way, of course, is the way of idolatry. According to Isaiah, it is the way all of us have gone like sheep who have gone astray? (Isa 53:6)
The Fast makes the holy Sword of the LORD incarnate; for, when we take up the Fast as our cross, we are laying the LORD’s holy Sword upon our idolatry to destroy it not in the “belief” of religious imagination but in “faith” that is made active in our bodies. Abstaining from meat and dairy is a bodily activity, of course. We physically deprive our stomachs of meat and dairy; we turn our eyes bodily away fromimpure images (e.g., pornography); we keep our hands and feet bodilyfrom impure acts (e.g., masturbation, fornication or sodomy). The physicality of the Fast flushes the “mute spirit” that is in us out into the open and it manifests itself outwardly in a physical, bodily way! For, when we turn away from our idolatry, we’re not feeding it anymore; we’re starving it. We are chasing it out of our stomachs, our minds, our hearts where it has made its lair. From this, we learn the extent to which our sins – the mute spirit’s “brood of vipers – have become part of us, entwined in the nerves, the fibers, the tissues of our minds and our souls like cancerous tumors. We can’t see them; yet, we can see them in how they affect our moods and feelings and in how they influence our thoughts to the point that they even become our thoughts. By means of the Fast, precisely in its physicality, we put the holy Sword of the LORD bodily on this mute spirit’s brood of vipers in us so that we are quite literally doing what the LORD commands: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out! It is better to lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell! (Mt 5:29)
It says, “And when the ‘mute spirit’ saw the LORD, it convulsed the boy.” I.e., it began to writhe and twist about as the dragon serpent Isaiah was speaking of. In the disgust we may be starting to feel about this time in the course of the Fast, in the resistance or even rebellion beginning to rise up in us, we are feeling that vile and loathsome spirit “writhing” about in us, convulsing us, making us “foam at the mouth”; i.e. generating angry thoughts within us against the demands of the Church, whispering in our ear that they are pointless and unnecessary. For, in coming to the heart of the Fast, we have drawn near the LORD’s Holy Cross, great and strong; and, if we are holding fast to the LORD’s holy Sword, what’s happening is that the serpent in us is starting to feel its sharp edge, making its “brood” in us writhe about with all their might trying to “flee” the face of the LORD – and wanting to take us with them so that they can return to their lair in our heart undisturbed.
We are therefore at a critical moment in the Fast – not outwardly in terms of time, but inwardly in terms of our soul. The inward battle that began in us when we voluntarily took up the Fast’s outward disciplines intensifies. Following Isaiah, the time of our “deliverance” is drawing near, and we are coming into the pangs of spiritual labor that we are beginning to feel quite physically as well as emotionally; for through the Fast we have become like a woman in labor, striving to give birth in our hearts to the Spirit of Christ, the Father’s Beloved, in the fear of the LORD. (cf. Isa 26:17-18 LXX) So hear the LORD’s encouragement to us in this morning’s Gospel: “This kind of spirit cannot be expelled except by prayer [and fasting]!” I.e. by the holy Cross of the LORD, great and strong! Perhaps the command of the LORD is becoming less romantic and more real to us now? Whoever wants to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross – the LORD’s holy Sword, great and strong – and follow Me into the inner battle for your life! Do you want to live? Do you want me to save you? Do you want to become a child of God? Then, take up my Sword and put to death what is earthly in you!
In the prayer that accompanies the Fast, we are turning inwardly to take refuge no more in idols but in the LORD. And, where is our refuge if it is in the LORD? It’s in the tomb of our heart! For it is in the tomb of our heart that the writhing dragon serpent is destroyed by the holy Sword of the LORD’s Cross, great and strong. It is from the tomb of our heart that the LORD comes forth in His Holy Resurrection as a Bridegroom in procession, and we, if we have lost our life for Christ's sake and given birth in our hearts to the Spirit of the risen Christ, do we not become "mothers" of God? Already, in the hope of the Cross we can taste the LORD’s victory. So, let’s keep the Fast! It is our victory! May He grant that we eat and drink of it in the joy and love of His Holy Resurrection on Pascha Night! Amen!