Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:17-31
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” The father of the young man in today’s gospel lesson cried out these words with tears in response to the Lord’s statement that “all things are possible to him who believes.” The father was not sure that the Savior could actually deliver his son from a condition that had threatened his life since childhood. He had seen the boy almost lose his life many times by falling into the fire and water over the years. The old man had said to Christ, “if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” His faith was not perfect, but he had enough genuine trust to call out to the Lord with integrity from the depths of his heart. He did not try to hide his pain and brokenness. The Savior responded by delivering the young man, but even the healing itself was not easy. After the demon cried out and convulsed, the fellow seemed to be dead. Then the Lord “took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”
The father in this passage provides a good example of how we should respond to the spiritual challenges posed by our current public health crisis. We are all impacted by a global pandemic that threatens disease and death for many people. The prospect of unemployment and a severe economic downturn make people wonder how they will meet the most basic needs of their families. All of us wonder what changes the coming months will bring to the way of life we had taken for granted. Even as the disciples lacked the power to deliver the young man in our gospel text, we have learned our own weakness before circumstances that we cannot control.
When the father told the Savior that the disciples had not been able to cast out the demon, He responded “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” When the disciples later asked Him why they were powerless in this situation, Christ said, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” Their impotence before this challenge revealed that our Lord’s followers had not yet developed true faith in Him; indeed, they lacked the strength that comes from pursuing even the most basic spiritual disciplines. Perhaps they had assumed that their association with the Lord had given them great power over evil. His explanation of their inability to cast out the demon must have opened their eyes at least a bit to the true state of their souls.
Perhaps the difference between the father and the disciples is that the old man had given up any illusion that he had any great spiritual power or was in control of the deep challenges that he and his son faced. He had learned through bitter experience over many years of his own inadequacy before the sufferings of the boy. He was surely not surprised when the disciples, probably like many others he had encountered earlier, failed to heal him. That was why he was not entirely sure that Christ could do so. His great virtue, however, was his humble honesty about the imperfection of his faith. He did not pretend that he was free of doubt or that he had the situation in hand. Instead, he bravely opened his soul to the Lord as best he could for the deliverance of his son.
Today we should all make use of our current worries and fears to grow in humility as we develop a more realistic sense of the weakness of our faith. Of course, we have all faced problems and difficulties of various kinds throughout our lives. We are not complete strangers to sickness, sorrow, and suffering. Perhaps, however, we had found a way to convince ourselves that we had gained the spiritual strength necessary to respond faithfully to whatever challenges we might encounter. Perhaps we had become complacent or self-satisfied to the point of thinking that we had found all the spiritual healing that we needed in order to live faithfully. Perhaps we had imagined that our ongoing pursuit of the Christian life would be a journey characterized by harmony with success in the world, following an easy path requiring no deep struggles. Of course, such naïve assumptions actually reflect a very weak and immature faith, for it is easy to assume that all is well with our souls when things are going well.
Even during Great Lent when we pray, fast, give to the needy, and otherwise reorient our lives to God in preparation to follow Christ to His Cross and empty tomb at Pascha, it is possible to distort our spiritual disciplines into a means of convincing ourselves of how holy we must be. The temptation to self-righteous religious piety is strong, subtle, and profoundly dangerous. If we approach the Savior’s Passion with the assumption that we are spiritually healthy because of our Lenten practices, we will be as poorly prepared to enter into the deep mystery of our salvation as the disciples were to deliver the young man. The disruption of the schedule of Lenten services this year, together with the deep challenges that we face from the crisis, provides us all with the opportunity to see that we are not religious superheroes, but people whose only hope before life-changing problems beyond our control is in the mercy of a Lord in Whom we have weak and imperfect faith.
Despite how He is commonly misinterpreted, Christ is not an icon of our preferred way of life or a genie who gives us what we want on our own terms. He is the God-Man Who brings salvation to the world in a way completely contrary to any conventional human expectations, religious or otherwise. At the conclusion of today’s gospel passage, we read that “He was teaching His Disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.’” He is our great High Priest Who, through His death and resurrection, has gone “into the inner shrine behind the curtain…as a forerunner on our behalf” in the Heavenly Temple. His Kingdom remains not of this world. Nonetheless, even its darkest moments and deepest challenges provide opportunities for the healing of our souls, for He has made even the grave itself an entryway to life eternal.
In order to unite ourselves to the Savior Who has trampled down death by death, we must cultivate the brutally honest humility of the father who “cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’” We must die to our illusions of righteousness and our idolatry of viewing Christ as a means of getting what we want in this world. Let us use our challenges during this unusual Lent to gain the spiritual clarity to see the truth about the state of our souls. That is the only way to gain the strength necessary to follow Him through the Cross to the joy of the heavenly kingdom.