Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:16-30
We have all fantasized about what we would say or do in certain situations, and we probably all know that we often respond differently in real life than we do in our imaginations. In fact, we never really know how we will act until we actually face the test. Reality has a way of revealing the truth in ways that surprise us.
That was surely the case for the father of the demon-possessed boy in today’s gospel reading. Since the disciples had not been able to deliver him, the father said to the Lord “But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Those are the words of someone who had learned the hard way not to get his hopes up. Perhaps that is what he had said to healers many times in the past who had not been successful. But then Christ challenged him by saying ‘“If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”’ That was obviously not what he had planned to say, for the words came spontaneously from his heart in response to Christ’s challenge. The Lord led the father to a remarkable level of spiritual honesty and clarity. Through his painfully honest faith, the man’s son was healed.
Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation in which a young woman was challenged through the message of the Archangel Gabriel to respond to the outrageous news that she was to become the Theotokos, the Mother of the Son of God. Mary had obviously not expected this strange calling and asked how such a thing could happen, as she was a virgin. When Gabriel explained that the pregnancy would be a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, she said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In response to this astounding and unique challenge, her sense of identity and calling were focused, clarified, and transformed. With her words, she revealed to herself and to us all what it means to be fully receptive to Christ. It is through her humble obedience that the Lord became incarnate for our salvation.
During this season of Lent, we seek to open the eyes of our souls to God’s challenging message to each of us. It will surely be different from what we might fantasize about God calling us to do. It is different from an imaginary religion that serves only the self-centered desires to which we are all tempted in one way or another. Instead, through prayer, fasting, generosity, and repentance, the Lord calls us to gain the spiritual clarity to see the truth about ourselves like the father in our gospel lesson who confessed in humility the weakness of his faith. He calls us to crucify our passions and turn away from our sins so that we will gain the strength to become more like the Theotokos in simple, trusting obedience.
There is really no mystery about how to do this. We must attend Liturgy faithfully on Sundays and weekday services whenever possible. We must keep a daily rule of prayer and Bible reading. We must fast and practice other forms of self-denial. We must give of our time, energy, and resources to others who need them. We must forgive our enemies and ask forgiveness of those we have offended. We must turn away from our sins and toward the Lord. We must prepare honestly for the holy mystery of Confession, and strengthened by the assurance of Christ’s forgiveness, press on in faithfulness. Whenever we fall down, we must get back up as we offer the Jesus Prayer from the depths of our souls.
The Savior wants to heal each of us fully from all the ravages of sin, but we must confess our brokenness from the depths of our hearts in order to open ourselves to receive His mercy. He wants us to discern and obey His calling in the midst of all the challenges and problems of our lives in the “real world” as we know it. Any other type of spirituality is a fantasy. But in order to do so, we must turn away from our usual excuses in order to be fully present to Him. Otherwise, it will be impossible even to hear His message, much less to obey it.
The more that we pursue this simple path, the more the words of the man in today’s gospel lesson will become our own: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” The more that we pursue this simple path, the more we will be able to say with the Theotokos “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The more that we pursue this simple path, the greater spiritual clarity and strength we will have to hear and obey God’s challenging message, not as some kind of fantasy, but in reality as the ultimate truth of our lives. That is the Lord’s calling to each and every one of us in this blessed season of Lent. Let us use it for our salvation.