Hebrews 1.10 – 2.3

Mark 2.1 – 12

‘O miserable soul, abstain from the passions and be saved. For abstinence from food is not acceptable as a fast unless we also correct our faults.’ [Wed Matins, LTS 102]

What are these passions, these faults we are called to correct and so make our fast acceptable? St Macarius calls them bitter seeds sown in our soul by Satan (Hom 15.32). They are the bitter seeds of gluttony, lust, greed, anger, sloth, vainglory, and pride, hatred, bitterness.

And what does it mean to correct these faults? The LORD Himself tells us: it means to drive them out, to uproot them, which cannot be done, the LORD says to His disciples, except by prayer and fasting. (Mar 9.29; Mt 17.21) ‘This kind of demon,’ He says, cannot come out except by prayer and fasting.’ So, the faults, which are passions, are diabolical infections of our soul; and they are corrected by driving them out through prayer and fasting. In other words, we are not cleansed of the passions by diets, or by meditation or the many mind-games the gurus of the world throw at us; and psychological counseling can take us only so far. They are corrected, driven out, uprooted from our soul forcefully, by violence (Mt 11.12), through prayer and fasting, through a faith that is acted out in our body and not just held in our mind.

To this, we must add the confession of our sins, according to the testimony of the Psalmist: ‘I acknowledged my sin to the LORD. My iniquity I have not hidden. I said, I will confess my transgressions to the LORD, and He forgave the iniquity of my sin.’ [Psa 32:5] But with this, we come to the Paschal mystery of Jesus and to the substance of salvation that is being revealed in this morning’s Gospel of the healing of the paralytic; we come to the heart of the Christian Faith, which is set before us in this morning’s epistle reading from Hebrews. This is what I want to set before you on this the Second Sunday of Great Lent.

The passions are first conceived in us when we turn away from God and His divine commandments, and our soul moves away from the God of the Garden in the ‘East’ and toward the Pharaoh of Egypt in the ‘West’. Now the serpent becomes ‘master of the house,’ says St Macarius the Egyptian (4th Cent), the house that is the human body made to be a Palace for Christ the King. ‘The devil becomes like a second soul beside the soul. The poison of sin (the passions) enters into the soul and becomes like a member of it. It is united with the bodily man.’ (Hom 15.33) St Paul calls sin, ‘this ‘body of death.’ It dwells in my bodily members.’ (Rm 7.17, 23&24) That is, sin produces bodily consequences that affect not just our mood, our inner attitude; it doesn’t produce just spiritual blindness and deafness. It affects also our body bodily; it becomes incarnate in us and cripples our whole being soul, mind and body. The poison of the serpent’s venom becomes the ‘living waters,’ the ‘life,’ of the soul. And so, our life is death; it is not life. ‘Therefore,’ St Macarius continues, ‘many unclean thoughts [these are the bitter seeds of the passions] spring up in the heart. He who does the wishes of his soul does the wishes of evil, because it is entwined and mingled with the soul.’ (Hom 15.35)

For that reason, ‘when you hear of sepulchers,’ says St Macarius, ‘do not think only of physical ones. Your own heart is a sepulcher.’ (Hom 11.11) We are dead in our sins and trespasses, says St Paul. The heart is desperately corrupt, says the prophet, Jeremiah. Our heart is what defiles us, says the Savior (Mt 15.18). St Macarius says our heart, through sin, has sustained an incurable wound, the incurable wound of death. How can such an incurable wound be cured by meditation, or by diet, or by psychological counseling? In our Gospel this morning, how could any of these make the paralytic, a living image of a corpse, rise and walk?

It was heard in Capernaum, it says in this morning’s Gospel, that the LORD was in the house! He was in the human body that was paralyzed from idolatry, as we read in the Second Biblical Canon (Dt 32) on Tuesdays of Great Lent. He was in the house of the human heart that was become what St Macarius calls a heart-hell. And so, He is in Sheol: Sheol that has enlarged its mouth beyond measure to swallow all the inhabitants of the earth, as we saw in our reading from Isaiah last week. But, this is God who is in Sheol; this is the Resurrection and the Life who is in Sheol. If He is in Sheol, He is breaking the prisoners’ bonds asunder as the Psalmist saw (Ps 107). He is shattering the doors of bronze, He is cutting in two the bars of iron (Ps 107.14&16). For He saw that we were paralyzed (Dt 32.36), that we were but a living corpse, and He comes in His compassion to deliver us and to raise us from our graves and shepherd us into the Land of the Living. (Eze 37.12-13) This last is the vision of Ezekiel that we ‘see’ in our reading from Ezekiel when we come back into the Church, when we come inside the LORD’s Tomb, on Great and Holy Friday evening. And the climax of that reading is this: ‘I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live!’ (Eze 37.14)

And this is the climax in the healing of this morning’s Gospel. The LORD forgiving the sins of the paralytic is not the climax of this morning’s healing. In this, He simply shows that He is the God of the OT who forgives sins—which He did throughout the OT, by means of the Law of Moses. The climax of this morning’s Gospel is when the LORD says to the paralytic: ‘Rise, take up your bed, and walk!’ For in this, He reveals that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, the Last Day is here when He said He would root out the heart of stone, He would ‘drive out’ the dead heart filled with the bitter seeds of the passions, and replace it with a fleshy heart, a living heart. In healing the paralytic, the LORD reveals that the prophecy of Ezekiel is now happening, and that He is the God who ‘will raise His people from their graves and put His Spirit within them and they will live!’

That is, ‘to correct our faults’ goes far beyond a change of behavior in the forgiveness of sins, for this the LORD has done from the beginning in the OT. To correct our faults refers to driving Satan out of our heart and receiving Jesus Christ, the rightful King of our heart, so that our heart is transfigured from a tomb into a palace, restored to its original beauty as the bridal chamber where we become one with God and the temple of our body is filled with the Glory of God.

And we root out the devil from our heart, we ‘correct our faults,’ through prayer and fasting. That is, we lay hold our will and turn it toward the God of the Garden in the East. But how do we lay hold of our will that is immaterial and invisible and spiritual? We do so by laying hold of our bodies and striving in the visible Church bodily through prayer and fasting. For, says an ancient Christian writing, if we are striving in the visible Church that can be seen with the eyes of the flesh, we will find ourselves in the invisible Church of the heart (Liber Graduum, 4th Cent). If we are fasting without seeking to ‘correct our faults,’ without seeking to drive the devil out from our heart and turning our soul to the East, then the fast accomplishes nothing, except to make us proud like Lucifer, which is precisely the fault we’re trying to correct in the first place! On the other hand, if we are not striving in the visible, then we are not striving in the invisible, either; for if we continue visibly to indulge ourselves in gluttony and lust, we continue to indulge in its spiritual root; it is unhealthy self-love of which gluttony and lust are the bodily symptoms, and which turns away from God in the Garden to the East and toward the Pharaoh of Egypt in the West.

But how do prayer and fasting drive out the devil from our heart? The Church, in Her Lenten Triodion, describes the Fast as the ‘flower of abstinence that grows from the wood of the Cross.’ They are the visible, ascetical form of the LORD’s Cross, then; and they accomplish in us the death of God by which He destroyed our death; the Fast is filled, therefore, with the life-giving power of Christ’s Holy Spirit.

‘The grace of the Fast shines upon us,’ it says (LTS 92). Here, the Fast is set before us as the visible form of that Light of the Sabbath that dawned on the world from the Savior’s Tomb. (Lk 23.54—the verb is epephosken) And this morning’s Gospel shows the healing of that incurable wound which that Light carries to our paralyzed spirits. By His Cross, the LORD doesn’t just forgive us our sins—this He did in the OT. He does what the OT Law could not do: He puts in us a new, fleshy heart, a living heart.

I think this OT prophecy of the LORD raising us from the dust of our death and making us to live by putting in us a new heart and a new spirit,  I think this is what St John saw when He went inside the LORD’s Tomb and saw the linen cloths neatly folded, and the turban off to the side. He saw, suddenly, the meaning of the Psalm that we read in our epistle this morning: "Thou, O LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but Thou remainest. They will all grow old like a garment. Like a cloak Thou wilt fold them up, And they will be changed. But Thou art are the same, and Thy years will not fail." [Heb 1:10-12] This body of ours that, through sin, had become a ‘body of death,’ burst like an old wine-skin (Mt 9.17) when the LORD filled its death with Himself, He Who Is the Resurrection and the Life. And in the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest, He ‘folded it up’ and laid it aside in the image of the linen cloths, for He had changed it with the fresh wine-skin of a new body, a new creation, with a new heart and a new spirit. And this is what the Christian Faith of the New Testament is all about!

When we take up the Fast, we are striving in the visible form of the Light of the Savior’s Cross, which invisibly is destroying our death, for it is killing the passions, it is driving out the darkness of sinful self-indulgence, for, because it is the visible form of Christ’s Cross, it utterly destroys the power of devils. (LTS 92, 107, 109, 113)

Something else is revealed, I think in this morning’s Gospel; it is the invisible substance veiled by the ‘visible’ form of the LORD’s ‘empty’ tomb. That is the mystery of the resurrection. And this is, as well, the invisible substance of the Fast. Through the Fast, we become partakers of Christ (Heb 3.14), and receive not simply the forgiveness of sins—this was always so in the OT—but a new heart, a new body. We become a ’new creation.’ Our fault is corrected. We are no more ‘as though’ we were God, apart from God (Gn 3.23); we have been granted to become partakers of God (2 Pt 1.4). We are raised from our bed, we are raised from our grave with the LORD’s command that He gives to the paralytic: go into your own house. But this is to enter into the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy: we take up our bed, we take up our cross, we take up the Fast, and we follow the LORD into the Garden of His Resurrection, into the Land of the Living, in the Light shining from the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest. Amen!