29 - The Power of Prayer and Fasting is the Cross, Apr 7, 2019

For audio, click here

Hebrews 6:13-20

Ephesians 5:9-19 (Saint)

Mark 9:17-31

Matthew 4:25-5:12 (Saint)

In yesterday’s Gospel, Our LORD heals a deaf man with a speech impediment. Today, He heals a father’s son who is mute and deaf from a spirit the LORD says cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting; all this on the Sunday we honor St John Climacus, author of Ladder of Divine Ascent. Is there a connection?

It is a spirit, and a violent spirit at that, that is the cause of the young boy being a deaf-mute. This, then, is a spiritual condition with physical consequences. This spiritual condition, manifested in these two victims of a deaf and dumb spirit, clearly is the “theme” for this fourth week of the Fast. We are given to pray in the Matins for Friday that we are “deaf to conscience” (LTS 219). In the epistle to the Hebrews, conscience looks to be a synonym of the Greek nous, translated often as intellect or spirit, and given by the Church Fathers as the contemplative faculty of the heart. If I am deaf to my conscience it indicates that I am under the rule of this alien spirit; or, that my heart is spiritually dead. I am deaf to my heart because she’s not saying anything. She’s dead.

Also on Friday, we read from Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips but they remove their hearts far from me.” (Isa 29:13) There is in the bible a direct connection between the heart and the lips. We hear this in the Divine Liturgy, when we pray God before the “Our Father” that we may be granted with one mouth and heart to glorify Him. Here in Isaiah, it’s the heart that’s rendered mute because the lips are not expressing what’s in her. There is an unstated irony here: the only way the heart could be connected to the lips again and rendered able to speak is if her lips would confess the sins that are in her.

In this morning’s Gospel, then, if the father’s son is unable to speak, it’s because his heart is muted, she’s dead. What, then, is this spirit that renders the lips mute, the ears deaf, the heart spiritually dead?

Idols have mouths but they speak not,” says the Psalmist. They are mute. “They have ears but they hear not.” They are deaf. “Those who make them are just like them.” (Ps 135:15-18) The deaf and dumb spirit that possesses the father’s son, then, is the spirit of idolatry, or greed (Col 3:5), the root of sin according to the holy fathers. The father’s son appears now as an image of Israel, God’s son of whom He complains to Isaiah: “I have begotten sons and raised them up, but they have rebelled against me. They do not know me.” (Isa 1:2-3) The LORD’s complaint in our Gospel this morning: “O faithless generation; how long must I endure you?” (Mk 9:19) is also from the same reading in Isaiah, where the LORD cries: “I cannot endure [the religious veneer of your idolatry]!” (Isa 1:13) This would seem to confirm our reading of the deaf and dumb spirit.

Idolatry is to exalt oneself as a god alongside God. It originates in the heart turning willfully away from God to copulate with the devil, playing the harlot, an adulteress. It gives birth in one’s soul to “flowers” such as pride, self-justification, scorn or disdain or a perpetually disapproving air. These are virtually impossible to see in oneself without the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Its “petals” are a bit easier to see: anger, lust, envy. These, let’s say, produce such aromas as anxiety, unease, confusion, feeling disoriented, lost, lonely, isolated, distrust, suspicion, resentment, dread. These in turn can grow into despair, hopelessness, meaninglessness and finally terror in the face of death when we stand before the gates of finality.

Idolatry is a spiritual perversion, rooted in the heart; but it becomes incarnate, “entwined and mingled with our soul and body,” (St Macarius, Hom 15.32-35). The “law of sin” dwells in our members, says St Paul (Rom 7). From its spiritual root of idolatry, sin has become corporeal, incarnate; it has taken on dimension, size, weight, such that St Paul calls it the body of death dwelling in our soul and body. As prep for what we’ll be saying in a moment, let’s say that our soul and body have become “flowers” of our idolatry that grows from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our self-love.

This brings into view the final flower of idolatry: our death and all the preceding suffering that announces it, when we who are living corpses become corpses in body as well, drawing from St John Climacus (Step 3). St Macarius calls it an “incurable wound” because it’s not just of the body; it’s of the heart. It has become “strong and entrenched, reaching the heart and not able to be healed by man,” drawing from an ancient baptismal prayer of the Syriac Christian Tradition (Brock, Bapt. Trad, p. 80). Do you begin to feel the force of the Savior’s WORD? This “kind of spirit” is idolatry, the spirit of death; and, obviously, we cannot rid ourselves of death. What, then, is this “prayer and fasting” that the LORD says alone can cast out such a spirit?

Let’s drive this point home. This kind of spirit cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting, says the LORD. That is, an emotional experience, however intense isn’t going to cast it out. Even after the emotional moment, you’re still dead. So what is it about prayer and fasting that it alone can cast out this kind of spirit; i.e., root death out of our heart? Have I just given a clue? Here’s another clue. I said already, St John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent is the Cross; but all his steps are about prayer and fasting.

Let’s return again to the first Wednesday of Great Lent. We hear: “From the Tree of the Cross there grows for all the world the flower of abstinence.” (LT 230) Note that the prayer and fasting of the Church are the “flower of abstinence” that grows directly from the Cross of Christ. Apply this “imagery” to a prayer from last Friday’s Matins: “The saving Cross…sanctifies and illumines with grace the hearts of all who approach in faith” (LTS 218). Note how the faith with which we draw near the saving Cross corresponds to the “flower of abstinence”, prayer and fasting, that grows from the Tree. Put these texts together and they reveal prayer and fasting as the incarnation, the embodiment of saving faith. Taking up the flower of prayer and fasting leads us back as “saving faith” made incarnate into the wood of the Cross. Prayer and fasting is how we approach the Cross not in religious imagination or “belief” but physically, with our body.

Here’s another text also from last Friday Matins: “O lifegiving Cross of Christ, from the night I seek Thee early, and with fear I venerate thee. Give me light and ever shine upon me with the day of salvation” (LTS 221). The Day of Salvation is the First Day of the New Creation, Sunday, that “grows” from out of the Sabbath, Saturday; or rather, from out of the Sabbath Rest of God, i.e., from out of His Tomb, such that it looks just like the “flower of abstinence” that grows from out of the Tree of the Cross. When, therefore, we take up the Fast and draw near the “saving Cross”, we are drawing near the Savior’s Resurrection. Leading us back into the wood of the Cross, the “flower of abstinence” is leading us into the Light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.

From the night I seek Thee early. The night is the Cross of Christ, the death of God. I, seeking the LORD early, then, am the “flower” growing from the LORD’s Cross. That is, the prayer and fasting of the Church transform my body that was a flower of idolatry into a flower of the Resurrection that grows from the LORD’s life-giving Cross.

This kind of spirit, idolatry, can be cast out only by prayer and fasting because prayer and fasting are the mystery of the Savior’s Cross. But, the Cross is the perfect “epiphany” of divine humility. By prayer and fasting, then, I am made strong to cast out this kind of spirit only if my prayer and fasting are uniting me to the humility of God. And, our Gospel gives us to hope that in the humility of the Cross, I can cast out “this kind of spirit” not just in myself, but in my loved ones as well.

My burden is to demonstrate that the Lenten Fast is not a dispensable appendage to “saving faith” in Christ because they are the beams of the Cross stretching out through the centuries, in both directions, to embrace all of creation—as a flower of life-giving abstinence growing from the Tree for all the world (LT 230). To deny yourself and to take up your cross (Mk 8:37) is not a metaphor. It is what faith in action looks like in real, spiritual terms. It is to take up the fast as the Church directs, not as a religious diet, but in prayer, that is in a mind that is wholly oriented to acquiring the Mind of Christ by transforming the discomfort of the hunger of the fast into prayer in which I begin to feel my soul’s hunger for the Living God. This kind of prayer is what unites our hunger to the death of Jesus that we begin to carry now in our mortal bodies, not as a metaphor but in real terms, so that the life of Jesus begins to become manifest in me. Now it is the risen Body of Jesus that is becoming concretely entwined and mingled with my body, rooting out the serpent’s body of death that dwells in my members. This is what makes faith to be not that of the demons “who also believe and tremble!” (Jas 2:19) but “saving faith” that carries the Cross of Christ as a double-edged sword that begins to pierce my inner man like a two-edged sword to the division of my soul and spirit, to discern the thoughts and intentions of my heart, to illumine my idolatry so that I may confess it and give it to the LORD to cast out. “I believe, help my unbelief!” the father cries out. Let the Church tell us what he means: “Give us strength to fast from all evil, O pure Virgin, and enable us continually to refrain from sinful acts, for thou art the protection of all men!” (LTS 221) What is this strength the Beloved Panagia gives to us? It is the cross of her Son and our God, given us in the form of prayer and fasting, which, if we take it up, we can become ourselves flowers of the Resurrection growing from the tree of the Savior’s Cross. Amen!