Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are now in the midst of the Nativity Fast, the special time of year set aside by the Holy Church to prepare us to meet Christ when He enters bodily into His Creation on Christmas Day. While the world around us spends this time in an unparalleled frenzy of shopping and socializing, we Orthodox Christians on the other hand seek to carve out at least some small space in our lives for the newborn Christ and His Virgin Mother, to prepare the cave of our hearts to receive our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. This is what these holy forty days are all about, this is why the Church has appointed for us this season of fasting and repentance.
But how are we to go about this holy and God-pleasing work? What gift can we possibly prepare to give to the Lord, Who alone is the Giver of all good things? How are we to spend these days, in what way can we prepare the cave of our hearts? To find the answer to these questions, let us turn to today’s Gospel reading.
We first hear this: “At that time, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” And here we have the first part of our answer: the lesson of today’s Gospel takes place in the synagogue, in a house of worship, on the day which God had commanded His chosen people to set aside for Him. And so likewise, during this holy Fast we must make a special effort to set aside time for God, to come to church, to attend the Divine Services, and to increase the time we spend privately in prayer and spiritual reading. During times of fasting we refrain from certain foods and worldly pleasures, but the point is not simply to create emptiness in our bellies and in our lives: no, the point is rather to create room in ourselves for better things, for spiritual things, for the Spirit of God to come and to dwell within us.
Next, we hear in the Gospel of “a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years.” And here we have the second part of our lesson: we need to learn patience. We have forty long days in which to fast and to struggle to become better Christians, and this is the case because — like the woman in today’s Gospel — we are afflicted with infirmities, with sins and passions, and chances are that we will not simply become saints overnight. Yes, Christ has the power to come and heal us completely, in an instant, just as He healed the woman in an instant — but even if He does, it will be at the instant which He chooses… not the one that we prefer.
And we must be patient not only in waiting for the coming of God into our lives, but also with ourselves, with our frequent falls and failures. No matter how many times or how many years it takes us, we must never give up in our efforts to grow closer to God. After eighteen years of seemingly unanswered prayers, that woman was still found by Christ that Sabbath day in the synagogue. She was still patient. She was still faithful. And so must we be ourselves.
Thirdly, we see the woman’s response to the healing touch of Christ: “she praised God.” So often we ourselves take the gifts of God for granted, even the great Gift of His Incarnation, and the salvation and deification which He brought to our fallen human nature on that great Christmas morn. So often we are cold-hearted and ungrateful, not pausing to give thanks to God — or even to remember Him at all — amidst the hustle and bustle of all the trivialities of life which we think are so important, and with which we so often fill our lives. So we need to consciously work to cultivate a grateful heart, and we need to beg God with tears to grant us such gratitude, to free us from the infirmity of a bent and crooked heart which is incapable of lifting itself up to give thanks.
We can start by giving thanks to God for this holy fast, for this chance to repent and to prepare ourselves to meet Him. We need to receive the fast with precisely such an attitude: with gratitude, and not begrudgingly. Christ is reaching out through this fast to touch us — just as He reached out and touched the woman in today’s Gospel reading — to straighten and transform our lives and our hearts. Let us imitate the good example of this woman, and receive His touch with gratitude and praise.
Finally, we come to a difficult and painful part of today’s Gospel story, but also the part which contains for us the most important lesson of all: “the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.’” How did so terrible a thing come to pass? How did a zealous and pious teacher of faith come to the point of indignantly condemning God Himself for supposedly failing to follow His own law? The voice of Christ answers us in the Holy Gospel: “if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” It is precisely this — the main thing which the Pharisees lacked, despite all their zeal and piety — which we must strive above all to acquire during this holy fasting season: a merciful heart.
Elder Moses of Optina once said something amazing: “If you show compassion to one who is suffering (and of course, this is not a great deed) you will be numbered among the martyrs.”
But as amazing as this is, Elder Samson once said something equally frightening:
The drunkard, the fornicator, the proud—he will receive God’s mercy. But he who does not want to forgive, to excuse, to justify consciously, intentionally … that person closes himself to eternal life before God, and even more so in the present life. He is turned away and not heard [by God].
So it is impossible to exaggerate how important it is for us to acquire a merciful heart. But how are we to do so? Of course, we must ourselves make an effort: the effort to forgive others, to be good to others, to perform acts of love and charity and kindness to others. The Holy Fathers teach us that in order to be truly effective, fasting must always be yoked together not only with prayer, but also with charity. And this does not simply mean writing a check and dropping it in an envelope — no, it means performing acts of real love to real people. And this can be done even without money or material aid: a kind word and a whispered prayer have far more power than all the nonprofit agencies in the world combined.
So we must make an effort. But often, our efforts are not enough. Often our hearts remain cold and hard. But there is a great mystery at work in today’s Gospel reading, hidden just beneath the surface.
St. Mark the Ascetic once said this: “The mercy of God is hidden in sufferings not of our choice; and if we accept such sufferings patiently, they bring us to repentance.” Why did the woman in today’s Gospel reading respond to Christ’s actions with gratitude, while the ruler of the synagogue responded to our Savior with indignation and condescending pride? Because, quite simply, the woman had already begun to be healed even before Christ’s touch cured her: her heart had already begun to be opened to God during the eighteen long years of suffering which came before. Because the truth is that even such a terrible infirmity had been mysteriously allowed by Christ, not out of callousness or cruelty, but precisely out of His infinite love and His desire for her eternal benefit and salvation.
Consider the following passage from St. Nikolai Velimirovich:
Only the foolish think that suffering is evil. A sensible man knows that suffering is not evil but only the manifestation of evil and healing from evil. Only sin in a man is a real evil, and there is no evil outside sin. Everything else that men generally call evil is not, but is a bitter medicine to heal from evil. The sicker the man, the more bitter the medicine that the doctor prescribes for him. At times, even, it seems to a sick man that the medicine is worse and more bitter than the sickness itself! And so it seems at times to the sinner: the suffering is harder and more bitter than the sin committed. But this is only an illusion – a very strong self-delusion. There is no suffering in the world that could be anywhere near as hard and destructive as sin is. All the suffering borne by men and nations is none other than the abundant healing that eternal Mercy offers to men and nations to save them from eternal death. Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring death if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober men up from the inebriation of sin; for the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace-filled power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.
And now hear these powerful words of St. Macarius of Optina:
Thou, Who by Thy unspeakable goodness hast created us, tell us, why didst Thou fill our lives with grief? Dost not Thy mercy make Thee pity our sufferings? Why dost Thou grant me being and later take it away through a painful death?
I do not enjoy, says God, your illnesses, O man. But, out of the seeds of your grief and sorrow, I want to bring forth for you fruits of eternal and majestic joy.
I imprinted the law of death and destruction not only in your body, but also in every object of this visible world.
I commanded the whole world, together with your body, to cry out to you that this life is not the true and real life, and there is nothing permanent here to which your heart should become attached…
When I torment you with temptations, wear you out with illness, with pangs of remorse, it is that you might abandon your folly, become wise, cease seeking after shadows and return to the path of truth, and at the same time to the path of salvation.
My unutterable mercy and unlimited love for human beings compelled Me to take your flesh upon Myself; through My abasement I have revealed the greatness of God to the human race.
As we draw near to the Nativity of Christ, to His great and glorious Incarnation, let us prepare ourselves by imitating the example of the woman in today’s Gospel passage, by prayerfully accepting with patience and gratitude and love all things which our merciful Savior allows to come upon us in our lives. Let us learn to see in all things His ineffable goodness, and let us learn through His patient instruction to turn away from the passing vanities of this life, so that our hearts might become truly open both to Him and to every single one of His children, to every single man and woman and child whom He sends to us in our lives.
And one final word: let us not forget to turn often and wholeheartedly and in all things to the Most Holy Mother of God. She, more than any other created being, knows what it means to be open to God, to be filled with God, and to pour out in turn the mercy of God upon all Creation. And She, more than any other created being, is able to help us to do the same. Amen.