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We are in the fourth week of Great Lent; we are in the middle of the Fast by which we are seeking to put to death what’s earthly in us out of our desire to be united to Christ. Our Gospel this morning is a resurrection Gospel. The dark spirit appears to triumph over the father’s son even as it comes out of the boy at the LORD’s command. For, it says, the boy appeared to be dead. The bystanders say, “He is dead!” And, I believe it may well be that he was dead. And the LORD raised him up and returned him to his father.
The Fast is the work of our resurrection. Even now, in the midst of the Fast, in the stillness of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest, we can experience the LORD’s triumph on the Cross in us. We can experience even in the midst of the Fast, before we have come to resurrection of Lazarus, a resurrection in our soul as a foretaste of the Resurrection of Christ!
Apparently, the original reading of our Gospel this morning says, simply: “This kind cannot be cast out except by prayer.” Prayer is the anchor of the Church’s life. One cannot pray without fasting, however; for, prayer is drawing near to the LORD in the fear of God, with faith and in love, not with one’s lips but in the hidden man of the heart (1 Pt 3.4; Isa 29.13). One cannot do this in friendship with the world, for that is enmity with God. (Jas 4.4) To pray truly, then, one must fast from friendship with the world; one must flee the corruption of the world that is in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (2Pt 1.4; 1 Jn 2.16).
I expect this was understood in the primitive Church when the Gospel of St Mark was written; but that later, when the inner essence of prayer as drawing near to God by drawing away from friendship with the world was in danger of being absorbed into a perfunctory formality, that the copyist or a scholiast added ‘fasting’ to remind people that fasting is inherent to true prayer.
Prayer and fasting are the ascetical form of the Cross. Taking up the Fast, we take up the Cross. Adding true prayer to our fasting, we incorporate the Cross into our soul and body. The power of the Cross now becomes active in us.
I do not think it is by accident that the Sunday of the Cross, with its Gospel of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross to follow Christ to deny themselves and take up their cross, is followed by this Sunday and its Gospel of the dark spirit that can be cast out only by prayer and fasting, that is, only by the Cross of Christ.
Let’s remember that we came into Great Lent having beheld the LORD’s Tomb and how His Body was placed in it, and turning downward with the myrrhbearers, into the prayer of the heart [hesychusan] in the mystery of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest, according to the commandment (Lk 23.56). Which commandment? One presumes it’s the commandment that has to do with the Sabbath. But, the Sabbath Rest of God is His death and burial in the New Tomb. And this is the Sabbath Rest the follower of Christ wants to find his soul in. But, in order to find our soul in this Sabbath Rest of God, one must deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and put to death one’s friendship with the world out of love for Christ. That is, one must fast in one’s soul and body.
That means, following Isaiah, going downward, beneath our lips to get down into our heart and to confront our disobedient will and the wall of enmity that has been built deep in our soul through our disobedience that has made us friends with the world and enemies of God, in order to cast out the spirits of greed, of conceit, of anger, of self-esteem and self-righteousness that are so firmly entrenched in our heart, making it a tomb, making us friends with the world and enemies of God.
When we turn downward with the myrrhbearers, we are descending into the hell we are living in here and now. This so-called pandemic has uncovered what was in our hearts beneath the layers of our sophistication and manners, behind the walls of our self-righteousness, our defenses and self-justifications, our rationalizations by which we shield ourselves from ourselves. It has exposed the lie of our piety. It has shown that we are not believers, we are not lovers of God; we are friends of the world. We believe in the world. But there are those who, in the blindness of self-righteousness, do not see any of this in themselves. They are God’s self-appointed policemen. We deceive ourselves believing we are lovers of God, even pious Orthodox Christians; for by our actions, by the restrictions that we have slavishly embraced, that have closed our churches to those who need the Church, taken our icons away, taken the cross from us, we have shown regardless of what our words say that, in fact, we draw near to God with our lips, but in our hearts we are far away from Him! We are in the world, not in the Church!
In our Gospel this morning we see what those who make a sincere effort to turn downward with the myrrhbearers experience when they take up the Fast: an intense inner battle. Note what happens when the LORD commands the evil spirit to come out of the boy: “It cries out and convulses the boy terribly and leaves him for dead!” And, as I said, it may well be, that the boy was dead!
Why are we so lazy when it comes to prayer and fasting? Why do we cower before the threats of the world? We easily and gladly stand at a rock concert or an athletic event for two, three hours, and think nothing of it. We stand in line for tickets for hours, and we are happy to do it, if we get our tickets! But to come to Church and stand in prayer before God, we cannot, we don’t want to do that for even five minutes! Why? Is it not because we are friends with the world? We fear death; we do not fear God! We seek our refuge in the world, not in God or in the Theotokos. We seek our comfort and happiness, our values from the world, not from the Church. We love the world. We do not love God! And so, if we come to Church, we sing prayers to God with our lips, but in our hearts, we are far, far from Him. Is that why so many Orthodox Christians do not observe the Fast?
If the Fast is to be for us the fullness of the power of Christ’s Cross, it must be rooted in prayer: going downward with one’s mind into one’s heart to confront our disobedient will; for this is the root of our death, our becoming spiritual corpses, spiritually paralyzed, so that we have eyes, but we do not see; we have ears, but we are ‘deaf’; we have lips, but we are ‘dumb’.
And what we discover when we take up the Fast centered on prayer in the heart, beneath the lips, and make any effort to do this is that we come very quickly upon our love for the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life; we come upon our friendship with the world. What makes this interior battle so incredibly intense, exactly as we see it depicted in this morning’s Gospel, is that we are fighting ourselves; our own will, our own love for the world, our own fear of death. We come upon the real desire of our soul, which is to find our life in the hope that we will save it in this world!
When we take up the Fast anchored in prayer, in this inner, exceedingly fierce battle to repent, to cleave to Christ and not to our fear of death, we are bringing our soul to the LORD as the father brought his son to the LORD. And when the spirit of the world, the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works even now in all the sons of disobedience (Eph 2.2), sees the ‘dazzling, brilliant Light’ of the LORD’s Cross, as the liturgical prayers of the Church describe it, beginning to shine in the nether regions of our soul from taking up the Fast, that spirit began working its disobedience in us and we see it doing to us exactly what it did to this boy: “Immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. [Mar 9:20] Of course, we don’t do that with our body. On the outside, we seem like our usual selves. But, this is what we feel in our soul. Our soul is the earth that trembled, that shook when the LORD was crucified on the Cross. Our soul is the old wineskin, and it begins to burst when we dare to receive, through the Fast of the Cross, the New Wine of the LORD’s Holy Spirit!
LORD, I believe, help my unbelief! In the intensity of this battle, we discover how powerless we are against the prince of the air who has taken us captive through our friendship with the world and our fear of death. We have not the strength or the willpower to deny ourselves the sweetness of giving in to the desires and egotism of the old man within us, our desire to save our life in order to find it in ourselves!
This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting. That means, only by uniting myself to Christ in the likeness of His death by calling upon Him, cleaving to Him…in prayer, not with my lips but with my heart. The Fast with the body is but the instrument that facilitates this inward, downward descent of my mind into my soul and toward the tomb of my heart. It’s like a relay: the Fast takes my mind so far, and then passes it off to Prayer, that takes me the rest of the way down into my secret closet to stand before God in my heart, where I am wounded, beat up, left for half dead by the side of the road, where I am thrown sometimes into the fire, sometimes into the water, and convulsed by anger, hatred, even—if I would acknowledge it—by the spirit of Lucifer, the spirit of pride and egotism.
The Cross of Christ is the manifestation of God’s unfathomable love for us. Take up the Cross, and you take up this unfathomable love of Christ. Take up the Fast and it is this love that begins to work in you, and to empower you not so that you can fight the prince of the power of the air whose spirits have taken your soul captive, but so that you can cling to the LORD and not to the world. It is the LORD who works in you; not you. It is the LORD, not you, who will cast out the dark spirit, and who will deliver us of our idolatry and our love for the world. How? By revealing to us, even in the thick of the battle, the ineffable Beauty of His extreme humility and compassion that inflames the soul with love for Him. That Beauty of God is our original form. It is the Image in which we were made. It is what is truly natural to us. This is our root; this is the ‘good earth’ in which the hands of God fashioned us in His own image and likeness. It is love for this God, our Creator and Fashioner, this love of the heart that is, if you will, closer to us than we are to ourselves, that is rooted in the deep, beyond all things: this love of our heart is what gives us strength, the desire to cleave to God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. The longing to drink the sweet wine of the LORD and no more the foul Kool-Aid of the world.
Our work, then, is to take up our Cross not for the purpose of casting out the demons in us but for the purpose of losing our lives for the sake of Christ, out of love for Christ, to unite ourselves to Christ in the fear of God, with faith and love, that our life will be found in His Tomb, and no more in the tomb of the world. The LORD Jesus, by the power of His Cross, casts out the demons in us, and heals us, and restores us to our original beauty and wholeness. Our prayer, then, is ‘LORD, I believe! Help my unbelief!’ Which, I think is just another form of the prayer of the heart,’ LORD have mercy on me, a sinner!’ Amen!