Sunday, August 31, 2008

Following the Forerunner

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting." (MATT. 17:21)

Today, August 29, is the commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. This day is designated as a "strict fast day" in honor of the austere ascetic of the desert who "wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey." (MATT. 3:4) Being a Friday, it is already a day of fasting, but this commemoration should make us more mindful and vigilant to be obedient to the directive of the Church. St. John lost his life in a brutal manner because he upheld the Law regardless of the ultimate cost. He publicly reproached Herod Antipas for marrying Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Philip. For St. John told Antipas: "It is not lawful for you to have her." (MATT. 14:4) When Salome enticed the enervated Herod by dancing for him at his "birthday party," the reward she drew out of him was the head of St. John on a platter. This was in connivance with her mother Herodias, who bore a spiteful grudge against St. John. What a wonderful mother and daughter "team!" The entire narrative is found in MATT. 14:1-12 and MK. 6:17-29. The contrast between righteousness and unrighteousness, or purity and decadence is quite striking. To fast with and in the spirit of St. John the Baptist is at least a gesture in the direction of desiring righteousness and purity in our own lives.

In broader terms, we can refer back to last Sunday's Gospel reading when Jesus told his disciples that the "demon" afflicting the young boy could only be driven out by "prayer and fasting." (MATT. 17:14-21) I am certain that Christ meant the practices of prayer and fasting fully integrated into our lives - together with almsgiving (MATT. 6:1-18). If prayer and fasting are somehow added on to our "normal life" as religious additives then these practices become perfunctory and irregular. Then we are reduced to a kind of religious minimalism. Christ meant that prayer and fasting must actually define us, or perhaps describe us in our most passionate activities pursued with seriousness of purpose and practice. Then, the inner "demons" of temptation that we face on a daily basis can be "driven out" by the grace of God working in us through faith, and strengthened by "prayer and fasting."

Let the Church New Year truly be a time of renewal and recommitment to our lives "in Christ." We can each be an "Olympian" as we strive for an imperishable crown with the same intensity and devotion as the Olympians we just watched and admired so much labored for gold, silver and bronze medals. Prayer and fasting are difficult practices to "master" over time, but certainly worthy of the effort of those who proclaim themselves as Christians and hence as belonging to Christ.

Fr. Steven

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