29 - Fourth Sunday of Lent

Hebrews 6:13-20

Mark 9:17-31

What leaps out at me when I read this morning’s Gospel in its Lenten context is this: “After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, the spirit came out of him, and the boy became so much like a corpse that the crowd said, ‘he has died!’ But Jesus took hold of him by the hand and raised him up and he arose.”

Can you see in this Gospel the icon of the resurrection? Jesus takes hold of the boy by the hand just as he takes hold of Adam and Eve by the hand and raises them up. This Gospel shows that the death and resurrection of Christ is not just a religious story; it is a spiritual reality that is active in the everyday life of those who have united themselves to Christ. It follows last Sunday’s Gospel of the Cross, when Jesus commands those who would follow him to deny themselves and to take up their cross in order to find themselves and live.

Christ tells his disciples in this morning’s Gospel: “This kind cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting.” Read next to Christ’s command to take up one’s cross in order to follow him, it becomes clear that prayer and fasting is how we take up our cross in order to follow Christ.

But what is this deaf and dumb spirit that cannot be cast out except by taking up one’s cross or by prayer and fasting? It is the spirit of death and corruption. In biblical terms, to be dumb is more than just an inability to speak. It means that one cannot speak to praise the Lord, and this is to be dead. So the Psalmist says: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence.”

And, to be deaf in biblical terms is much more than loss of hearing. It means that one cannot or will not hear the word of the Lord; and this is the way that leads to death, as the Lord says to Israel through his prophet, Moses: “Listen, O Israel, to the statutes and ordinances which I teach you, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you.”[1]

The words of God are commandments uttered by His Word, who is Christ in whom all things were created, whose first command was: “Let there be light.” The words of God, that is to say, are life-creating. To be deaf to his word, to hear his commandments and not keep them is to renounce life and to choose death.

Is not the human race, then, like the boy in this morning’s Gospel: deaf because it does not hear or keep the commandments of Christ; and dumb because it sings its own praises and not the praises of God? One hears what one wants to hear; one listens to the words spoken by what one loves. One speaks words of praise for what one loves, and one loves what one lives for. If the world does not hear the word of the Lord to keep it, and if it does not praise the Lord, it’s because the world does not love the Lord. Man is possessed by a deaf and dumb spirit, he is possessed by death; and so he is spiritually dead, even though he lives on this side of the tomb. And because he is spiritually dead, he has no strength, no power to cast out the spirit of death that possess him.

When we take up the Lenten disciplines of prayer and fasting we are doing much more than just “giving something up for Lent”, as though God were a whimsical God who isn’t happy unless we’re unhappy. We are taking up our cross and uniting ourselves to the Cross of Christ by which the hosts of demons are driven back,[2] the tyranny of the evil one is destroyed, and by which we are given strength to be victorious over our invisible enemies, those dark spirits that want to separate us from God and lead us into the darkness of death. Now you see why the Lord enjoins us to prayer and fasting. It’s more than giving something up for Lent; it’s a matter of life and death. The objective of prayer and fasting is to unite ourselves to the death and resurrection of Christ by which he casts out this deaf and dumb spirit of death that possesses us. Through prayer we give our lips to speak the words of the Lord; through fasting we renounce the words of worldly wisdom; through the practice of charity, we give heed to the words, the commandments of the Word of God, Christ our Savior. When we direct our will to choose the cross of Christ over the indolent comforts of worldly pleasure we are stretching out our hands to the Savior so that he can lay hold of us by the hand and raise us up from death to life in the glory of his holy Resurrection.

Taking up our cross, the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting and charity: this is the work of preparing spices and ointments with the myrrh-bearing women, that we may draw near with them to the stillness of the tomb of Christ, to come to the Midnight hour of Pascha and to discover the stone rolled away and space-time opening onto Paradise in the resurrection of the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight – at that point when the old world passes away and the new world dawns at the dawning of the Eighth Day, the Day that knows no evening because it is the Day of Resurrection, the Pascha of the Lord who has destroyed death by his death and given life to those in the tombs, he has cast out the deaf and dumb spirit of death and raised up Adam who had fallen.

If we have taken up the ascetic disciplines of Lent, we have taken up our cross; and we are like the father in this morning’s Gospel bringing our soul and body to the risen Bridegroom as the father brought his young son to the Savior in the hope that he will deliver us from the spirit of death and make us alive and whole in the Spirit of his Resurrection.

In this hope and expectation, let us encourage one another to complete the course of the fast. Let us help one another to keep the spirit of the fast by practicing charity toward one another, that our inward ears may be opened to hear the word of the Gospel proclaimed on Pascha night: “Christ is risen!” and that we may see with the eyes of our soul the splendor of Christ’s beauty and fall in love with God, so that the words of our mouth may show forth his praise who by the power of his grace has destroyed death by his death and raised us from death to life eternal in the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Dt 4:1

[2] Lenten Triodion, p. 334, 340 & 342