46 - Prayer and Fasting, Aug 13, 2017

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I Corinthians 4:9-16

Matthew 17:14-23

The LORD comes down from Mt Tabor after His Transfiguration and immediately He comes upon a young boy afflicted by a demon in the form of epileptic seizures. It is not unlike what happens to us. After the joy we experienced in our baptism, or in receiving Holy Communion, or of Pascha, we go back into the world, it feels like we are coming down, and immediately we are set upon by troubles.

“Why were we not able to cast out this demon,” the disciples ask the Savior. Why are we not able to overcome the troubles we encounter in our daily life? The LORD answers: “Because of your little faith.” But, what does that mean? For, He goes on to say: “If you have faith even as a mustard seed” – i.e., even if your faith is very “little” like a mustard seed – “you will say to this mountain: ‘Be moved from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you.”

It sounds to me like, “because of your little faith,” means, “because you do not have true faith.” For, He goes on to say: “This kind will not go out except through prayer and fasting.” This true faith of the mustard seed, then, is obedience to the commandment of Christ: Let him who would be my disciple deny himself (let him fast), take up his cross and follow Me (let him pray, let him center his life on the liturgical rhythm of the Church’s worship), and lose his life for my sake that he may find it (let him unite himself to me in my death that he may be united to me in my resurrection).

I.e., true faith is doing the ascetic disciplines of the Church: prayer and fasting. “little faith”, then, means, not praying and fasting. To have little faith is to believe in Christ no differently than do the demons. For, like them, you are not denying yourself, not taking up your cross to follow Christ, not working to unite yourself to Him in the likeness (and humble obedience) of His death that you may be united to Him in the likeness (and the power) of His Resurrection.

Let’s listen to St Theognostos who speaks to us in the Philokalia: “You will not be worthy of divine love,” he says – N.B., divine love, agape, is the final flowering that blossoms, e.g., from St Peter’s “ladder of divine ascent” (II Peter 1:5-7); – i.e., from the wood of the Cross; i.e., from the divine qualities or virtues that grow from the humanity of Christ – “unless you possess … faith. I do not mean faith of a theoretical kind, but the faith we acquire as a result of practicing the virtues.” I think many Orthodox presume that they are Orthodox because they accept and hold “Orthodox” beliefs and because they now worship in the Orthodox manner. But, our Church teaches us that to be Orthodox is not simply “believing” that Jesus died for our sins. To be Orthodox is to believe in the Orthodox manner, and that is voluntarily, freely, for the sake of Christ to pray and to fast; i.e., to take up the cross of the Church’s ascesis. Orthodox faith, i.e., is to live the ascetic life of the Cross, to live in our body and in our soul according to the commandments of Christ. Understand what I’m trying to say: “Orthodox” faith is not believing. Orthodox faith is work, the work of the cross given to us in the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting for the purpose of moving the mountain from here to there.

What is this mountain that is moved by faith? Our holy fathers tell us; it is the mountain of our passions, what St Isaac of Syria, e.g., understands as the world; not the world God created but the world man has created by the filthy and evil thoughts that dance in his mind so that they fill the earth(cf. Gn 6:6); or, let’s speak theologically: so that they fill our bodies, they shape our souls and our minds, and they govern our thoughts, our desires, our words, our deeds. They shape what we seek after, they determine what we live for; for, they are the true treasure on the altar of our heart. In this, we are no different from Israel of old. Even as they claimed to be God’s chosen people, they were bringing into the temple the idols of foreign gods and making offerings to them.

This young boy seized by the demons, throwing him into fire and water to destroy him is an image of OT Israel destroyed by Assyria and Babylon, or rather by their gods who dwelt in the idols Israel worshipped. But, this young boy also is an image of our own enslavement to the passions, even we who believe we are Orthodox Christians. For, are we not slaves to the idols of gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, vanity or self-esteem and pride? How can we say that in our secret heart we are shaped and governed by the cross of Christ when we pray very little if at all, when we fast very little if at all, when our lives are centered not on the liturgical rhythm and altar of the Church but on the world; not on the Scriptures and prayers of the Church but on the daily newspaper, even the horoscope, the sport seasons, the opening of new movies?

These passions or idols are the origin of all the “epileptic” seizures that throw the world man has created sometimes into the fire, sometimes into the water because we turn away from God to follow our own will and the wisdom of our own opinions; but, the origin of our enslavement to these passions is in our own will, for we have given ourselves to them, opening ourselves to the prince of the power of the air who is able now to work in our disobedience (Eph 2:2) to our destruction.

We know from our own experience of the passions working in us and of their power over us how profoundly we are enslaved to them. If ever we should try not to give in to them we discover how profoundly we desire them and long to return to them. We are corrupted at the core, in our will. We desireprecisely what we are in the greatest dread of: our own destruction and death. We are just like Israel in bondage to the Pharaoh. Even when they had been delivered from Pharaoh and were making their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land, yet they longed to return to their bondage in Egypt. Even though we have been delivered from the evil one in our baptism, we can find ourselves longing for Egypt if we do not in fact return to Egypt. Our enslavement to the Pharaoh of the passions isn’t on the outside; it’s in our hearts, and the chains of our enslavement are the desires of our own lusts and pride.

This mountain of the passions, then, is great indeed, terribly great, absolutely immovable. As the mountain of the passions, it is the mountain of our death. We absolutely cannot move it. To move this mountain, then, would be same thing as to destroy our death. Taking up the work of faith in order to move this mountain: this is what it is to be an Orthodox Christian. This is the Faith of the Orthodox Church.

This explains, then, why we cannot expel even one passion, let alone all the passions; why we cannot move the mountain of death if we do not possess this faith of the mustard seed. What does the LORD say: “Unless a seed dies and is buried in the ground, it cannot bring forth fruit.” The mustard seed, then, I take as an image of the LORD’s death, and so of His Cross. This faith of the mustard seed, then, is the faith by which we unite ourselves to Christ and take up our cross to follow Him. Prayer and fasting are the ascetic form of the Cross given to those who receive Christ in faith. This faith of the mustard seed, then, is the faith that becomes flesh, incarnate in us by taking up the cross of prayer and fasting.

The LORD says: “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then, the Kingdom of Heaven has come upon you” (Lk 11:20). I.e., the Resurrection has come upon you. May we say that the “littleness” of this faith of the mustard seed is the finger of God? I can imagine that the finger of God is also taken as an image of the Cross. Even the finger of God, then, is able to move the mountain; i.e., it can cast out the demons. So, even if the prayer and fasting – the life of the Church’s liturgical worship and the ascetic disciplines of the Church – that I am strong enough to do is very “little”, it is still of the finger or the Cross of God. And, it is by the power of the finger of God, the Cross, that we will make the mountain of our death move from here in our soul to there in the abyss so that it is removed from us as far as the East is from the West, and as high as the heaven is above the earth. Dear faithful! Let us therefore truly be Orthodox faithful. Let us take up our cross and do the Faith of the Church. Amen!