The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews. (6:13-20) & Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (9:16-30)
In today’s epistle we heard these words that were taken from the book of Genesis, where God says to Abraham “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” St. Paul continues saying “And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.” He continues later and writes “We who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us.”
On this, the fourth Sunday of the great and holy fast we commemorate one of the great giants of Orthodox spirituality St. John Climacus or John of the Ladder. He is called this because of a book that he wrote that became quite famous especially in the monastic traditions in the east. This book is called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. In this book, St. John speaking from his observation of many monks and monasteries and his own spiritual struggle, outlines 30 steps or rungs in the spiritual life. Each of these rungs of the ladder must be climbed in order to reach the next rung and to finally achieve the ultimate goal of our life, salvation and unending communion with God. This of course was written for those pursuing the monastic life but many of the principles apply to every Christian who is struggling to be healed and to enter into prayer with the Lord.
At this point in the holy forty days we are probably beginning to realize the depth of the struggle that is ahead of us. We realize the depth of our deeply rooted sinfulness. We understand that this struggle will continue long after the fast. We find that if we are honest with ourselves, we have only just begun the spiritual struggle. We have only just begun to apply ourselves to love God and our neighbor. We have only just begun to battle courageously. And we have only just started the process of healing or being healed by Christ our King. In this way, we understand Lent as a microcosm of our lives and as a means of recentering and refocusing ourselves towards our Master and Creator.
St. John’s Ladder tells us that all our life is a struggle to climb towards Christ. It is so very easy to fall, but always a struggle to climb. He also tells us that when we struggle with humility, we will be aided by God. In fact God will work on our behalf once we let Him.
A few weeks ago I said something rather difficult. We were speaking about the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, and I said that if we were going to pray like the Pharisee, we would in fact be better off not praying at all. That is, if our prayer is really a cloak for self-righteousness or condemning others, if it is in fact not prayer but sin, it would be better for us not to do it at all. This is clear since it is better not to sin than to fall into sin. But saying this doesn’t mean that we should stop praying. Or that we should wait until we are perfect or holy to begin praying. There is none perfect, not one! St. John of the Ladder reminds us that we are all on different rungs of the ladder, every single person who still lives and breathes is in the midst of a fierce battle and we all need to tackle this through prayer at every moment of every day. It is prayer that unites us to God and heals our wounds and God does not wait for us to be perfect, He wants to be the one to perfect us. So we should pray. Our sins and failings should actually lead us to pray more and with greater humility and contrition. Pray all the time.
Lent is a reminder that all our whole life can become a prayer before God. Indeed, we are so busy with so many services that it is easy to see how our whole life can be consumed in prayer. That is not a bad goal for our lives. In fact that is the definition of genuine life according to Christ. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”(John 17:3).
In today’s gospel reading we see a man who has struggled to find help for his son who is very sick. He goes from place to place and person to person and finally after much toil and difficultly, he finds the Lord Jesus Christ and asks Him to heal his beloved son. The Lord answers the man ““If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” What we see next is a stunning display of the man’s genuine pain and his deep need for the Lord. He replied with tears streaming down his face “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Wow. That should sum up our whole experience of Great and Holy Lent and in turn that could be a verse that sums up all of the Christian life, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Hopefully all of us here love God, but we love God to different degrees. It is not our job to figure out where each person is on the ladder. It is our job to simply keep climbing, to keep going, to keep striving upwards towards Jesus Christ, taking the example of this father who cried out “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” May we each make this prayer our own and continue patiently to obtain the promise and seize the hope that is set before us. And God will touch us and lift us up, giving us new life. To Him alone be the glory Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.