45 - Prayer and Fasting, Milk of Divine Royalty, Aug 28, 2016 (with audio)

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I Corinthians 4:9-16

Matthew 17:14-23

The Gospel tells us the epilepsy afflicting the young boy was the action of a demon that had taken possession of him. But, even if it was only a neurological illness, as the earth-bound mind would believe, the Church recognizes it as unnatural, as is every disease and infirmity of body and soul.

For, we were created by God in His own Image, which is Christ (Col 1:15). This is the Christ who was transfigured on the Mount (Mat 17:1-13). In the Transfiguration, we see Christ in His divine personal identity as the Son of God; but He is not transfigured in His divinity. He is transfigured in the flesh as the New Adam, the Son of God (Lk 3:38). We see in His Transfiguration how we were made to be by God, not how we have made ourselves to be by the sins of our idolatries.

For, sickness and death are not natural to us (cf. Wisd of Sol 1:15). Made like God, we came to be as children of God (Lk 3:38; Jn 1:13); therefore, as gods, sons of the Most High (Ps 81:6 LXX), able by nature to become perfectly one with God (Jn 17:23), clothed with God as with a garment of divine fire, made to have absolute power over the devil and all his host and all his pride. So, not only is the boy in this morning’s Gospel in an unnatural state. So also are the disciples who were not able to cure the boy.

And, so are we! For, we are subject to the devil through the passions: anger, gluttony, lust, envy, greed, vanity, pride, sloth, despair. When we give in to them and act them out, we, like the boy in this morning’s Gospel, are thrown around sometimes into the fire, oftentimes into the water. We suffer from the passions that master us in soul and body. They war against our mind and bring us into captivity to the law of sin, so that we are not able to do the good we want to do (Rom 7:19). In this, we are just like the disciples.

This morning, St Paul sets himself and the other disciples before us as “fools, weak and dishonored;” but he then urges us to “imitate” them! What did they do that we should imitate them?

Last Sunday, they got into the boat as the LORD commanded them (Mat 14:22). This morning, they are commanded to “pray and fast”. We get into the boat, and we build ourselves into the Temple of God by mastering the passions through prayer and fasting. I.e., in prayer and fasting we get into the boat, we lay hold the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5) to become foolish, weak and dishonored that we may become wise, powerful and glorious in Christ. For, prayer and fasting are the arms of the Cross; rather, they are the “flower of abstinence” that grows from the wood of the Cross (Lenten Triodion, p. 230).

“Let him who would be my disciple, deny himself and take up his cross (the fast) and follow Me (prayer).” In prayer we turn the face of our heart toward God to follow Christ. This is the work of faith. It is work because we must fight to turn away from the idolatry of our self-love and our self-will in order to face Christ, in order to love Christ, through obedience to His will, not ours. There is no prayer, then, without fasting. For, we are “coming out of the city” – we are fasting – in order to come into the “desert place” of our soul, the tomb of our heart, where the LORD stands on His Holy Cross in the Glory of His Resurrection. In prayer and fasting, we answer the call of the Spirit and His Bride. We are rising from the tomb, we are taking up our bed and walking in the Light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.

Through prayer and fasting we bind ourselves to the Body and Blood of the LORD Jesus (I Cor 11:27) in which He has trampled down death and destroyed the devil (Heb 2:14). Therein lies their power. Through prayer and fasting, the Cross of Our LORD is embodied in us; its power becomes active in us, for we are uniting ourselves to His death that puts to death all that is earthly in us. He washes away the law of sin that is in us and writes on our hearts the Law of God in the coming of the Holy Spirit, and we are transfigured from a pagan temple into a holy temple of God filled with the Glory of God.

We are still babes in Christ. We are not full grown adults. So, we cannot expect of ourselves to do the spiritual work of those who have grown to the stature of adults in Christ. Yet, even as babes, we must nourish ourselves on the milk of our Mother, the Church, and not on the food of the world. The milk of the Church is the Holy Spirit that makes us strong to fight the passions and to break our captivity to the law of sin, so that we grow into our original beauty as “gods, children of the Most High!" (Ps 81:6)

Let me offer some ways for us who are still "babes" to drink the milk of the Church through prayer and fasting, by which we can nourish the seed of faith sown in us at our baptism and build ourselves into a Temple of God.

Build your daily, weekly, yearly routine on the foundation of the Church’s liturgical rhythm. In Church, comport yourself in reverence. Dress modestly and respectfully to honor Christ who is invisibly present with His Holy Mother and all the saints. Listen to the prayers of the Church. They carry Christ. Absorb them, make them your own and you receive Christ. Light a candle as a prayer. Make the sign of the cross with prayerful attention. Keep the feasts, observe the fasting seasons of the Church. We should have icons in our homes that we venerate as we come and go, when we awake in the morning, before we retire in the evening. Place the Bible where it is easily accessible, and next to it, the Prologue of Ohrid. Read them daily, with attention. Beside these, place the Festal Menaion, the Lenten Triodion. Read and reflect upon them at home for the feasts, especially if circumstances prevent us attending the feast at Church. Say table blessings. Put together an Orthodox library. Turn off the TV, if you don’t get rid of it altogether. It has been called the altar of the devil. Come away from the city: fast from entertainments and diversions that evoke or inflame the passions. Such entertainments are a golden calf, idols of the world. Through the passions they arouse in us, they keep us slaves to the idolatry of Egypt we’re trying to be delivered from.

Fast from vulgar speech, from fantasies and vain imaginations. Learn to discern thoughts that appear to be innocent, even good, but have the subtle effect of drawing your eyes off of Christ, feeding your vanity and your self-righteousness and blinding you to the beam in your own eye while you, thinking you’re doing the LORD’s work, are trying to remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye.

Make your home a sanctuary of quietude where you may hear the still small voice of God. In the love of Christ and His Holy Mother, surround yourself and your children with what is true, holy, just, pure, beautiful, noble (Phil 4:8) so that this, not the swill of the world, nourishes and shapes our mind.

Do your job in the world for the sake of Christ, with integrity and competence as a ministry to your customers, clients, patients.

See how the sacred work of prayer and fasting, even as milk, would shape us in the Church’s ennobling culture of grace and truth! Through baptism, we became children of God, heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. Prayer and fasting is the milk (and the meat) of divine royalty. It makes us worthy, strong enough (ikanos), to receive the inheritance of our baptismal birthright, which is the LORD Jesus Christ Himself! (Num 18:20)

Drink this milk of the Church and we will grow in the Spirit naturally. By it, our souls will be transfigured; we will attain the bearing of divine dignity and nobility, for we are being shaped in the Spirit of God. This is the very principle of our nature. Even with the small “baby” steps of prayer and fasting, we walk in the light of Christ, and the muscles of our spiritual legs will grow naturally by divine grace in the power of the Holy Spirit, empowering us to trample down all that is earthly in us by the death of Our LORD, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the milk of the Church working in us to perfect us to do His will (Heb 13:21), and that is that we should become perfectly one with Him so that the love of the Father that is in Christ may be in us, and that even Christ may be in us! (Jn 17:23-26; Col 1:27). Amen!