homily for 8/17/14 - P10 - prayer and fasting
In just a few days, we will celebrate the feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration. On that day, our Lord ascended Mt Tabor with His three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, and there He showed Himself to them in all of His heavenly glory. Descending the mountain, they found the remainder of the disciples engaged with a man who had come asking them to heal his son who was possessed by a demon. The others had tried to deliver the boy from this bondage, but were unable to do so and so now this father approached Jesus, begging him to help. Why could not the disciples deliver this boy from the demon? They had, after all, already been given power to cast out demons and cure the sick when our Lord sent them out previously on their own. Now, however, they seemed powerless.
Over the past couple of weeks we have read of other miracles of our Lord and in each case, the element of faith has been paramount. When the paralytic was carried to Jesus and lowered through the roof, the Gospel tells us that “Jesus seeing their faith, said Your sins are forgiven...Arise, take up your bed and walk.”. And again, the next week, we read that two blind men came to Jesus and He opened their eyes saying, “According to your faith, let it be to you.” Further the next Sunday we heard how the people followed Christ into the wilderness with no thought for their own food, trusting Him completely and last week how the Holy Apostle Peter stepped out onto the surface of the sea and as long as his faith was strong, walked on the water. How great a role faith plays in our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now when Jesus heard how the disciples were unable to deliver this boy, and when he heard the plea of the father, His response centered on the lack of faith. “O faithless and perverse generation....” And again when the disciples came to Him asking why they could not cast out the demon, He replied “Because of your unbelief...” Their faith had grown weak, they had taken the grace that they had received for granted and had begun to rely upon themselves rather than to rely upon Jesus Christ for all things. Earlier, when the multitude had followed them into the wilderness, the disciples came to Jesus asking Him to send them home as many were hungry. But then, Jesus said to them, “You feed them” and they replied that they could not. In this way He reminded them of their own weakness and of His power. He reminded them that they too must depend upon Him for all things. And yet they seemed to have forgotten and their faith grew weak as they began to depend upon themselves as their own pride began to grow stronger.
Our Lord used this opportunity to speak to them about faith saying, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, ... nothing will be impossible”. Faith is the key to spiritual accomplishment; if we have faith, that is if our dependence upon God is strong, then we will be able to do all things, even work out our salvation; but if our faith is weak and we turn to our own strength and resources, then even those things that we thought were within our grasp elude us.
What then can we do to strengthen our faith? In the very next breath our Lord explains to them the two things that strengthen faith for He says to them, “this kind (of demon) does not come out except by prayer and fasting.” Prayer and fasting, these two basic activities of the Christian are in fact the pillars upon which our faith is made strong. First there is prayer, that is our communion with God. When we stand attentively before God in prayer, then all earthly things are set aside and we truly are transported and depend only upon Him for all things during that time. True prayer, when we pray will all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, involves the whole being and there is no attention left for anything of this world, no corner of our mind remains un-illumined, there is nothing in ourselves that is not focused upon God. How often in our prayer does our mind wander from the presence of God? How often to we say the words of the prayer, but attend to some other worldly matter in our thoughts? Or perhaps, even if our thoughts are engaged, the words are dry and without feeling because the heart sleeps and is not engaged in the prayer? Prayer is not something that comes naturally to us in our fallen state - it is labor and requires effort. When we pray we must work to tear ourselves away from this world and to focus all of our being on Christ. The Apostle Peter achieved this type of prayer when he stepped out of the boat in the midst of the storm and began walking on the water to Christ. All of his being was focused on Christ, all of his senses, his thoughts, his feelings were directed only to Christ - but the moment he let even a small thought attend to the world around him, the moment his prayer failed, he began to sink. So we too, in our prayer, are constantly surrounded by the barrage of worldly sensations, thoughts, concerns and cares. They intrude upon our prayer and scatter our attention which was so carefully gathered and focused upon God alone. And so we too begin to sink into the depths of the sea of worldly cares. What then does our Lord do? He goes to Peter and lifts him up and places him in the boat with the others - likewise He comes to us, lifts us out of the sea of worldly cares and concerns and places us together safely in the ark of salvation, the Holy Church. Here in the Church we learn to pray, we practice our prayer. Here we are surrounded by the icons of the saints, the smell of the incense, the sound of the singing and chanting. All of these sensations are designed to pull us away from this world and to help us focus all of our hearts and minds upon God in prayer.
The second pillar of our faith is fasting. Fasting is typical of all ascetic labor and asceticism is the activity of self denial. By fasting we weaken the hold of the world on us and we break the chains of worldly desires and dependencies which hold us back from complete dependence upon God. When we fast, not only from food, but from all passionate desires as well, we turn away from this world and from its call to us. In turning away from this world we have no choice then but to depend upon our Lord Jesus Christ for all things. Fasting weakens our reliance upon worldly things and enables us to turn only to God for the requirements of our life. Fasting also reveals our own weakness, our own frailty and so helps to destroy our pride and the spiritually destructive self reliance and self regard. It turns us instead to rely upon God and to regard only God as strong and good. By this process, fasting weakens our attachment to the world and our independence and instead strengthens our faith in God.
In the epistle to the Hebrews, the Holy Apostle Paul also speaks of faith saying that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Indeed faith and hope are closely tied together and if we wish our faith to be strong, we must also have a strong hope. And so, in addition to the question of our faith, there is also the question of our hope. What is *your* hope? Do you hope for worldly things? Do you hope for riches, for fine food, fancy clothing, majestic shelter, an easy and pleasant life? Is your hope centered even upon a part of this - just enough money, enough food, enough clothing and adequate shelter? Even if this is the case your hope, like your faith is weak for it is centered on the things of this world. Our hope is Jesus Christ. He is our life, He is our breath, He is all of our being. He is our food and drink which we receive in Holy Communion; His glory is our raiment with which He himself was clothed upon Mt Tabor. His heavenly kingdom is our shelter and our home. He is the completeness of our hope and to include anything else in our hope is to weaken it. Our hope is Him, our hope is to be united with Him, our hope is to participate in His life. We must abandon all other hopes and dreams for they make us weak and distract us from the One True Hope.
In his letter to the Corinthians the Apostle again links these two with a third element, “now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” The greatest of these three things is love. If we wish our faith to be strong and if we wish our hope to be strong, then our love must also be strong. If our faith and hope are weak, then our love for God is also weak and diluted. When we fall, when we succumb to temptation - it is because our love for God falters and we begin to love instead the things of this world or of our own fallen nature. The love of God is at the root of all our faith and hope. To love God is the key, to desire Him and Him alone is necessary. If you love anything or anyone - even yourself - more than you love God, then that which you love will pull you away from God. That which you love will become your hope. That which you love will steal your faith and you will be left only with the things of this world.
Our Lord told His disciples that they needed only to have faith like a mustard seed - a very tiny and small thing. But all the same it is a seed which when planted and nurtured and encouraged grows and becomes a tall tree in which the birds of the air build their nests. If we have even this small seed of faith and if we allow it to grow in our hearts then nothing will be impossible for us - we will be able to cast out demons, we will be able to move mountains and we will be able to do that which is most difficult of all, to work out our salvation.
-- Archpriest David Moser St Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church (ROCOR) Homilies: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/propoved/ Website: http://stseraphimboise.org