1 Corinthians 4.9-13

Matthew 17.14-23

The LORD says to His disciples: ‘If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you.’ It is this faith that we see incarnate in the Holy Virgin Theotokos and in Her Holy Dormition.

Here is a riddle. Let’s set our ear to the melody of the Lyre (Ps 49.4), that is, to the teaching of the Holy Virgin Theotokos, for She is the lyre of David, as we learn in the Akathist to Her Holy Dormition, and let’s listen for the riddle’s solution.

The LORD says in another place: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.’ So, the mustard seed is the Kingdom of Heaven. So, if you have faith like a mustard seed means, if you have faith that participates in the Kingdom of Heaven (for, ‘to participate in’ is what ‘likeness’ means in the Bible), and nothing will be impossible to you.

But, note what the LORD says next: ‘A man took the mustard seed and sowed it in his field.’ St Luke has, ‘he sowed it in his garden,’ which is an image of Israel, ‘and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches’ (Mt 13.31 & Luk 13:19). Can you see that the mustard seed is Christ sown in the ground in His death and burial to become in His Resurrection a mighty Tree that all the birds of the air, all the saints, make their home in? And, indeed, this reading is confirmed in St Ephrem of Syria (4th cent.), in his fifth Hymn on Faith, where He explicitly identifies the mustard seed as Jesus Christ. Suddenly the riddle of the mustard seed bursts open and words of eternal life (Jn 6.68) begin to sprout in the field of our minds.

For, when the LORD emptied Himself and became man, did He not become very small, a ‘little Child’ like a mustard seed relative to His divinity? And yet, clothing Himself in the mustard seed of our human nature and becoming a ‘little Child’, the LORD destroyed death by His death when He was sown, when He was buried in His Tomb in the ‘Garden’ like a mustard seed sown in the field, and He filled even the nethermost depths of hell with the Light of His divine Life and illumined those in the tombs with Life, for the mustard seed of His human nature was filled with the fire of His divinity.

Now we see that ‘if you have faith as a mustard seed’ means, if you have faith that participates in the death of Christ our God and Savior, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you.

And, what is this mountain? Is it not immediately clear that the mountain is death? This reading, too, is confirmed by the holy fathers. St Maximos (7th cent.) says: ‘The mountain here indicates the will and the law of the flesh, which is ponderous and hard to shift, and in fact, so far as our natural powers are concerned, is totally immovable and unshakeable’ (Phil II 190).

The law of our flesh is ponderous and totally immovable because we have willfully given our love to the darkness and not to the light. We hear in the hymn of St John of Damascus (8th cent) in the Church’s funeral service: ‘We have been wedded to death.’ And the Psalmist says, ‘My soul cleaves to the dust,’ (Ps 118/119.25), the ‘dust of death’ (Ps 22.15).

How, then, does one attain such faith that can say to the mountain of death that sits on us, ‘Be gone! And it is gone!’ so that nothing is impossible to us? Can we not see that the Holy Theotokos is the supreme incarnation of this Faith? How, then, do we become like Her? First, we must want such faith so that we can become like Her. And then we must willfully act on our desire to attain such faith. How do we do that?

St Mark records this same incident, but in St Mark the LORD does not say to His disciples that they could not expel the demon from the boy ‘because of their weak faith,’ nor does St Mark give the LORD’s word about faith moving mountains. In St Mark, the LORD simply says: ‘This kind of evil spirit cannot come out except by prayer and fasting.’

I believe the LORD’s answer in St Mark is the same answer He gives in St Matthew; the one explains the other. This biblical faith that can move mountains, then, is acted out, it is made incarnate when it descends from the airy abstractions of the ivory tower to stand firmly on the ground; or, in other words, when we descend with our mind into our heart in prayer and fasting. Now when we hear the LORD saying to His disciples that they could not expel this evil demon because of the weakness of their faith, we hear Him saying, because you fast and pray very little, if at all. You talk the talk but you’re not walking the walk!

Beneath our tongue, in our heart where our will originates, are we still choosing to accommodate ourselves to the spirit of the world and not to the Holy Spirit of God? Like Israel of old, are we giving our heart to the ba’als under every shady tree (Jer 2.20; I leave it to you to discern the shady trees and the ba’als of our day that we love more than the WORD of God)? Are we still double-minded, thinking we can serve two masters? Do we give lip service to God, while in our heart we are far from God (Isa 29.13)? Outwardly, do we appear beautiful, but inwardly we are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness (Mt 23.27) because in our heart, we love the ‘law of the flesh,’ the law of death, and we do not love the Law of God that gives Life?

For, if we are not praying and fasting in a heart that is diligently seeking the Face of God (Ps 26/27.8) in contrition and humility, then we are not yet denying ourselves and taking up our cross to follow Christ. We are still seeking to save our life and we are not seeking to lose our life for the sake of Christ, in love for Christ, that we may find our life in the Tomb of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. For, the Church teaches us that the ascetical disciplines of the Church are the flower that grows from the wood of the Savior’s Cross. And because their substance is the Life-giving Cross of Christ, they bring joy to all the world. Yet do we seek this joy in love for the light, or do we spurn it because we love the darkness more than the light?

The LORD says: ‘Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.’ (Mat 15:19) Note that what comes out of the heart first are evil thoughts, and then from these evil thoughts come murder, adultery, fornication and the rest. And so, St Peter, says: ‘Gird up the loins of your thoughts [dianoiaV].’ That is, take your will and actively lay hold of your heart where your thoughts originate.  We actively lay hold of our heart with our will by choosing to take up our cross in the form of prayer and fasting in the way of the Church. ‘And be sober,’ St Peter says. ‘Set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1Pe 1:13).  That is, lay hold of your will and draw near to the LORD not just with your lips but with your heart and put your hope and your trust in the Grace of Jesus Christ who comes to us from His Cross when He was sown in the ground like a mustard seed and destroyed death by His death, i.e., when He moved the Mountain from here to there.

To attain this faith like a mustard seed, we must fast not only with our stomach, but also with our eyes and ears, our hands, our feet, our tongue. These are all gates into our mind. If the gates are open to the world, our mind will be filled with worldly thoughts pushing us hard within to give them birth, to make them incarnate as words and deeds of adulteries, fornications, angers and all the rest. Thus, we become powerless to expel the passions from our soul because our spirit has become earthly, bound by the law of the flesh, which is death. But if the gates are open toward the things of God, as was the Virgin Theotokos, then, as she became the field in whom the Mustard Seed that is Christ was sown, so our mind becomes a field sown with thoughts and images that carry Christ like so many ‘words of life and light’, and Christ Himself will be working within us to make us His holy mothers, ‘Theotokoi,’ to give birth to Him and make Him incarnate in us in a spiritual life that can move mountains, that destroys the death imbedded in adulteries, fornications, and all the rest through His life-giving death that is actively working within us.

The faith that is like the mustard seed, then, is the faith that takes up the LORD’s Cross in self-denial, out of love for Christ, given to us by our Mother, the Church, in the form of prayer and fasting. This faith makes Christ incarnate in us; it makes us to be each one a ‘Theotokos’. Through this faith, the power of the Savior’s Cross becomes embodied in us, so that we can say to this mountain, to this passion, be gone! And it is gone! And nothing is impossible to us, for in this faith, Christ is becoming incarnate in us, and in this faith, we receive the power to destroy death; for in this faith, we are uniting ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death, and so we are uniting ourselves to His Holy Resurrection. Is this not precisely what we see in the beauty of the Holy Dormition of the Most Beloved Virgin Theotokos? Amen!