In the Name of the Father, and of the son and of the Holy Spirit
My dear Father, brothers and sisters!
In today’s resurrectional Gospel reading we are a few chapters further on from chapter 14’s story of the disciples on the sea of Galilee which we heard last Sunday – Peter, James and John had just witnessed the miracle of the Lord’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor where His whole body and clothing radiated with the Uncreated Light of the Godhead, and were coming down dazzled and amazed at what they had just experienced. At the bottom of the domed hill of Mount Tabor, the Lord with three of his disciples encounter a crowd of people and in their midst they come across the father of a child who is possessed with a demon that could not be driven out by the Lord’s remaining nine disciples. As we shall see, this Gospel builds upon the same theme that was set out in our reading last week, namely the nature of faith in God, and the importance of cultivating a real, living and robust faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than attempting to explicate this Gospel on my own, as with our custom, I will instead turn to St Jerome’s commentary.
Let’s start with the father and his ‘sorely vexed’ child who in the blunt rendering of the King James Version is called a ‘lunatic’. Although this sounds an unbelievably harsh, even abusive way of putting it, it is, in fact, a very direct translation of the Greek word seleniazetai or literally ‘moon-struck’. For just as seleniazetai derives from selene, the Greek word for the moon, so our rather dated English word lunatic itself derives from the Latin word for the moon, luna. Whilst, more modern biblical translations render the term perhaps less misleadingly as epileptic, to the ancient mind, the violence of these seizures, where in the father’s own words, he ‘oftimes … falleth into the fire, and oft into the water’ were attributed to the movement of the moon which was the cause of this suffering. St Jerome in his commentary, however, is quick to refute this ancient association and instead to affirm that it was not the moon that caused the boy’s sudden seizures but rather the demons, so that they might try to defame the Creator of the moon. Interestingly, St Jerome looks for a deeper and indeed wider spiritual meaning behind this association, and suggests that we can all become spiritual lunatics when we are tempted by the demons to go suddenly and violently from one destructive sin to another, as from being plunged into fire and then into water.
But let us now turn from this poor child, to his father. After kneeling before Christ and asking for his help with his cruelly afflicted son, the father adds: ‘And I brought him to Thy disciples, and they could not cure him’. As St Jerome notes, this has more than a touch of, implied criticism of the apostles. The man, appears to lack any self-awareness and simply sees the failure of the disciples to heal his son to be due to some fundamental problem or deficiency with them – the disciples – and nothing at all to do with any failing or inadequacy on his own part. As I have said several times before, the Lord in working ‘signs’ and miracles was not just staging a show, very often, in the Gospels, the working of miracles is directly tied to forming an authentic relationship of faith with the person asking for healing. For our Lord had become Incarnate, had taken Flesh, in order to heal us, and healing at the deepest level can only occur when we have faith in Christ not as the thaumaturge, the convenient miracle-man, but as the Son of God. It is then that we see the Lord with the eyes of faith. Thus, as St Jerome says – ‘the inability to cure is sometimes referred not to the weakness of those doing the curing, but to the faith of those who are to be cured’.
In response to the man’s grumbling, the Lord replies in a prophetic manner – ‘O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?’. Again, St Jerome in his commentary stresses here that the Lord is not expressing anger or annoyance with this particular father, or the multitude of requests for healing that surrounded him on a daily basis. How could, St Jerome asks, ‘the gentle and meek one, who like a lamb before its shearer did not open his mouth, erupt into words of rage?’. Rather, St Jerome says, our Lord is like ‘a physician who sees a sick person acting contrary to his orders, He says,’ St Jerome continues, ‘How long shall I come to your house? How long shall I waste my energy and skill?’. Our Lord had come to seek His own, the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and yet everywhere he went he encounters people who did not believe, who did not really see, really perceive Who He was, Who was standing in their midst. Despite this reproach, the Lord as our deeply Merciful Saviour, still condescends to our weakness and expels the demon from the oppressed child who was immediately ‘cured from that very hour’.
We then come to the second part of our Gospel reading where the disciples first talk to Christ privately to establish what had gone wrong and why they had been unable to heal the boy. Our Lord answers:
Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
There is a lot to unpack in our Lord’s answer, but he first clarifies that what was lacking, was a lack of faith – both on behalf of the asker but also the Lord includes the apostles themselves. For whatever may have been the lack in the faith of the father and of the son, the Lord still went on to heal. The likening of faith to a grain of mustard seed is a powerful one and reminds us of how even a tiny speck of a seed like mustard can have a potent impact on the flavour of a dish, completely disproportionate to its size. But what are we to make about Christ talk of how even a tiny amount of faith can move mountains? St Jerome cautions against any literal interpretation and speaks of the folly of ‘those who claim that, since none of the apostles and no believers have ever removed mountains, they did not even possess a little faith’. For, St Jerome continues, ‘no great advantage comes from the removal of a mountain from one place to the another, only the vain display that is sought in signs’.
We shall return back to consider this further in just a moment, but let us conclude our discussion of today’s reading with noting that in the closing lines of the passage we encounter Christ’s prophesy about his future suffering and resurrection which he was to repeat to his disciples many, many times before those seismic events of Holy Week, so that his disciples might understand that His suffering was entirely voluntary, and not any kind of accident. This reminder of the Cross, however, is deeply relevant for us today on this Forefeast of the Procession of the Cross on the first day of the August according to the Church calendar, where the Church recalls the ancient Procession of the Cross that use to occur in the city of Constantinople during the month of August which was often a time of illness and plague. It was also on this day in Kiev in ancient Rus that St Vladimir was baptized together with his court and people.
Let us return back to what our Lord said about faith and the moving of mountains. In actual fact, a little after the time of St Jerome, in the 5th C, there is a reference in the life of St Mark the Athenian to a saint actually moving a mountain though, as we shall see, this geological miracle was actually brought about entirely by accident. This St Mark, was born in Athens, but after the death of his parents he withdrew into the desert to give himself fully to God and spent 95 years as an ascetic on the slopes of Mount Trache in Ethiopia. Through the heights of his ascetic efforts in prayer and in fasting, and the depth of his love and faith in Christ, he scaled the heights of sanctity. At the end of his life Abba Serapion visited the Elder and St Mark then asked –
“Are there now in the world saints working miracles, as the Lord spoke of in His Gospel, ‘If ye have faith even as a grain of mustard seed, ye will say to this mountain, move from that place, and it will move, and nothing shall be impossible for you’ (Mt.17:20)?”
As the saint spoke these words, the mountain moved from its place 5,000 cubits (approximately 2.5 kilometers) and went toward the sea. When Saint Mark saw that the mountain had moved, he said, “I did not order you to move from your place, but was conversing with a brother. Go back to your place!” After this, the mountain actually returned to its place. Abba Serapion fell down in fright. Saint Mark took him by the hand and asked, “Have you never seen such miracles in your lifetime?”
“No, Father,” Abba Serapion replied. Then Saint Mark wept bitterly and said, “Alas, today there are Christians in name only, but not in deeds.”
My dear father, brothers and sisters: in his commentary, St Jerome suggests that there is a spiritual interpretation of our Lord’s word here and that Christ in healing the boy of the demon moved the metaphorical mountain which had been blighting this poor boy’s life. However, at the same time, as the remarkable episode from the Life of St Mark the Athenian shows, to the saints, transfigured by the grace of God, nothing is impossible, even moving mountains. Indeed our whole Christian Faith, the Gospel and the whole history of the Church is nothing other than the story of how God makes the impossible possible. The blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and as we shall see today bread and wine transform into the Body and Blood of Christ. But all this can only happen through an active and living faith, a living relationship with Christ and must be nourished by those two indispensable streams of prayer and fasting through which we come into contact and relationship with God. Although the flatness of our East Anglian landscape, as well as the feebleness and littleness of our faith in these latter times, the poverty of our prayer and fasting, may prevent us from literally moving mountains, as St Mark did, on this eve of the Dormition Fast we can ask ourselves what spiritual mountains will we attempt to move, by God’s grace and our own sanctified efforts? Let us take up our cross, brethren, and seek to move the boulders that keep us pinned to the ground, pinned to the earth and our passions. Let us move beyond a purely mental, intellectual faith, a faith in our heads, and through that mighty mustard seed of faith buried within us, let us enter through our prayer and fasting this coming Dormition Fast, into a deeper living relationship with Christ our God.