The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (9:17-31)
Today’s reading is given to us on this, the fourth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. This day we commemorate the memory of our father among the saint John Climacus. He is most well known for the spiritual classic which he wrote called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. In this powerful book, he outlines steps of the spiritual life as rungs of a ladder that lead up to heaven. As we climb and gain new virtues through God’s help, we ascend further towards the Kingdom. This book is so highly regarded that it is often the main lenten reading in monasteries around the world. This of course makes great sense when you realize that this book was written for monastics and from a monastic mindset. Nevertheless, it has many wonderful treasures for the average layperson who eagerly studies it with some guidance from their priest and spiritual father.
At the beginning of the book, St. John has some important words of advice for those living in the world, especially those who are single and might consider monasticism. We will get to that in a moment. But I think it is important to remember that not everyone needs to get married. Some are not called to marriage. But if we desire to be single then we must be single in the way that is pleasing to God, and not in the way of the world. If we desire to be single, we should also desire to be celibate or chaste. You can’t stay in the world and live anyway that you like and claim to believe in God and serve Him while living in any way that you please.
The Church teaching (which is the teaching of Jesus Christ), does not allow for the gratification of sexual urges and desires outside of the sacrament of marriage between one man and one woman. We are certainly free to live that lifestyle but it is to our own harm and death, and not to life. So even those who live together and pretend to be married are living in grave sin, that does untold spiritual damage because they have chosen to live without the blessing of God. One of the modern fathers likened this to a man putting on a priests vestments and trying to serve the liturgy. Just wearing the vestments isn’t enough to make someone a priest. He has to be ordained with the laying on of hands, from an authentic bishop, that bestows the grace of the priesthood. And he will have to sweat and struggle to become worthy of the grace that he was given. In similar fashion, the ones who desire to live lawfully and in a godly manner, must wait for the Holy Spirit to bless the union and make the couple, one flesh. Then they must work diligently to confirm the gift they received. So each of us must decide and be firm in our conviction. Nevertheless, right at the beginning of his epic work, St. John has some words of advice especially for those who are unmarried and perhaps feel the pull to the monastic life. He writes,
“In the world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse through laziness or inertia, the call of the heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods. He continues… “Someone caught up in the world can make progress, if he is determined. But it is not easy. Those bearing chains can still walk. But they often stumble and are thereby injured. The man who is unmarried and in the world, for all that he may be burdened, can nevertheless make haste toward the monastic life.”
In this he encourages those who have contemplated leaving the world to do so without delay and to enter the heavenly ranks. As you may know, our very own Mother Angelina and Father Gabriel did just that, and what joy we take in their offering of their lives to the Lord.
Next, St. John gives some words of advice to those who are married and must live in the world. What he says is short, sweet and to the point, and within it the whole Christian life is present. St. John writes,
“Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: “How can we who are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?” I answered: “Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies (Liturgy). Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.”
In a brief paragraph that is dripping with spirit-filled wisdom, St. John all but hands us the keys to the kingdom. He shows us what is required if we want to live in communion and fellowship with the Holy Trinity.
Now some of you may be thinking to yourselves “Father, there is a problem. I want to do all of these things that St. John has mentioned but I cannot seem to do them. I speak ill of others, I judge others, I tell small lies, I carry hatred in my heart, I skip the liturgy at times, I desire and covet what belongs to my neighbor and am not content with what God has given me. What can I do now?”
In a way, the gospel reading is meant to address this. We hear of a boy who is brought to Jesus by his father who asks for the Lords help. The boy exhibits symptoms of being an epileptic. He often falls down and convulses. He has moments where he is no longer in control of himself and in fact, it goes beyond mere epilepsy since his father tells us that often the spirit which possessed the boy, tried to throw him into fire or water and destroy him. To all of this our merciful Lord Jesus responds “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Yet the father, overwhelmed by this trial and the way it has affected his son can only cry out “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” So it is quite similar to where we might be. We want Christ, we want the kingdom of God, we want to do all of the things that St. John mentioned above, but perhaps we feel powerless to get there.
The gospel tells us that the disciples, who had been given power by Jesus, had earlier tried to help the boy but could not do the job and they wondered why. The Lord replied “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” It is the word that the Lord gives us today. We are reminded that we are in the middle of Lent precisely to increase our prayers and fasting. Why? Because it is in heartfelt prayer and humble fasting, that the greatest changes can happen to our spiritual state. Prayer when coupled with fasting, becomes a powerful catalyst in our transformation as sons and daughters of God. Fasting helps us to overcome obstacles and temptations as well as habitual sins that seem like they can never be defeated in our lives. Yet, we notice that it is the Lord Himself who has blessed the act of fasting. It is the Lord who began His own earthly ministry with 40 days of preparation through fasting and prayer.
Fasting allows us to shed our sinful inclinations like a snake sheds its skin. So we fast in order that the transformational power of God might be magnified to it’s fullest potential. And we are amazed that as we are healed and transformed we sense that Christ is doing to us what He did to the boy in the gospel reading. He takes us by the hand and lifts us up. What a beautiful image! The Lord looks each of us in the eyes and He desires to reach out His hand to us and lift us up with His healing touch. We are in the difficult final weeks. Now is not the time to despair. It is the time to cry out “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And Glory be to God forever AMEN.