On this fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we honour St John Climacus who, in the seventh century wrote his “ Ladder of Divine Ascent”, a path of repentance with 32 steps, a parallel to the years of Christ’s life on earth, perhaps, also reflecting the path Our Lord himself journeyed along during His earthy life as he too, in human form, followed a path of perfection before He could begin His earthly ministry. If we, like St John are able to master all of these 32 steps, like him, we shall also step off the ladder (of perfection) and step into heaven, our ultimate resting place
Most of us only master a few of these steps and then, as beginners, only partially. Of course, the whole book is designed as a challenge for monks; renunciation of life, detachment, exile, obedience, penitence, remembrance of death, mourning, placidity and meekness, talkativeness and silence, falsity, despondency, gluttony, chastity, avarice, and poverty, to mention but a few of the steps. But, our Lenten journey is to take stock of where we fall short, and how to make remedy and progress in the intimacy of our life in Christ.
Perhaps this year, when our Lenten journey is so different, we can make progress at a different level. Without the usual support of the sacraments of the Church and church attendance, we are challenged, by our self-isolation, to focus more definitely on our solitary life of prayer; our deepening relationship with God. Hesychia to which Fr Zacharias refers (in his notes on coping with the coronavirus already circulated) is withdrawal from the world to be more close to God and to begin to value more, the prayer of silence and stillness. “Be still and know - Be still and know that I AM - Be still and know that I am God”.
The Gospel for today is well chosen. A man brings his young son to Our Lord for healing. The boy suffers from epilepsy activated by a demon. The father says, “…...have compassion on us and help us” to which Jesus replied.” If you can believe, all things are possible to him which believes”. The father cries out with tears, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief”. Jesus then rebuked the spirit and the boy was healed. Later his disciples asked,” Why could not we not cast it out?” To this Jesus replied, “this kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting”.
The lesson here is surely this; we have to have faith and believe; an unwavering faith, a certain belief. Only then can we be in a position to change things, with Our Lord there to help us. He co-operates with us when we are prepared to co-operate with him. Only when we cry, ” Lord I believe, I have faith, help thou my unbelief, my weak faith “ does he grant the answer to our prayer. Too often we plead with God to do this, do that, but we have to add our desire to co-operate with Him for this to happen. Also, we need to be in the right state of preparation. This means through prayer and fasting. Now we see that our Lenten observance is not simply optional discipline and obedience in this Holy Season, but it is a skill we have to learn so that at every moment of our life, we are in tune with God. Then all things become possible and miracles can and do happen.
Through the prayers of St John Climacus may we make progress on our Ladder of Divine Ascent during this time of the Great Fast to experience a joy of Pascha as never before.
Lord I believe, helps Thou my unbelief.
March 22nd will bring us to the Third Sunday of Great Lent, also called Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. This Sunday of Lent is closely paralleled to the feasts of the Veneration of the Cross (September 14) and the Procession of the Cross (August 1) and prepares not only of Our Lords Crucifixion, but it also reminds us that the whole of Lent is a period when we too are called to be crucified with Christ.
The Lenten Fast itself can be likened to the spring of Marah (Ex. 15:23, 24; Num. 33:8) whose waters the children of Israel encountered in the wilderness. This water was undrinkable due to its bitterness but became sweet when the Holy Prophet Moses dipped a piece of wood into its depth. Likewise, through the wood of the Cross Christ comforts us during our course through the desert of the Fast, guiding and leading us by His hand to the spiritual Jerusalem.
Moreover, the Holy Cross is often called the Tree of Life and has been placed in the middle of the Fast just as the ancient tree of life was placed in the middle of the garden of Eden. By this, we are reminded of Adam’s gluttony as well as the fact that through this ‘Tree’ (the Cross), condemnation has been overcome, and that for those who bind themselves to the Holy Cross, they shall never encounter death but shall inherit life eternal.
As we continue our journey through Great Lent having “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24) the precious and life-giving Cross is placed before us to refresh our souls and encourage us. To reminds us not only of the Passion of our Lord, but also to present to us His example, encouraging us to follow Him in struggle and sacrifice; remembering our Lord’s words, “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt.10:38).
In his “The Inner Voice of Love", the Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen writes; “Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds and letting them reveal to you your own truth. There is great pain and suffering in the world. But the pain hardest to bear is your own. Once you have taken up that cross, you will be able to see clearly the crosses that others have to bear, and you will be able to reveal to them their own ways to joy, peace, and freedom"
Through the prayers of all our Holy fathers, O Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us