PROPER OF THE SEASON
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
SAINT JOHN OF THE LADDER
(Heb. 6:13-20; Mk. 9:17-31)
Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther
Today is named after John Klimakos – John of the Ladder (c 570-649). He was a hermit, who became abbot of St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. His book Ladder of Paradise deals with the vices and virtues in 30 steps (30 chapters) to match the age of Jesus at his baptism. In a Spanish translation from a Latin translation, this was the first book published in the New World (Mexico), in 1532. It is sad to think that the Roman Church could convert native Americans with torture while offering them a book which upholds the idea of apatheia: dispassionate faith.
What is this quality? According to Klimakos, passion is unnatural, something separate from a person’s true self. Human feelings are to be uprooted. This is a negative view; which other spiritual teachers, such as St Isaiah the Solitary do not hold. The passions can be transformed and used. Although Klimakos takes a negative view of human feelings, we can understand his writings even when we are married and have children. For the essential quality of purity of heart can be reached by the path of Klimakos or by the more accepting path of Isaiah the Solitary. We can regard dispassionate faith, then, as purity of heart, which opens the heart to God and to other people in a spiritual way. Apatheia is the pre-condition for agape.
‘Let the name of Jesus adhere to your breath, and then you will know the blessings of stillness.’
For us, over-active and distracted, stillness comes rarely. When we attend church, we can be still and concentrate on the public work of prayer. We may not have other times for stillness. Imagine John Klimakos as climbing into his cave in the wilderness, up a rope ladder or a simple wooden ladder. One false step can lead to death. But a secure ascent leads to safety. To climb the spiritual ladder of prayer in Great Lent can lead us to faith like that of the disciples after they had seen the Risen Lord; but to fall from that ladder of prayer can cause us deep misery and expose us to all the temptations of sin.
Klimakos wrote for monks; we are not monks. Klimakos emphasizes hesychia – solitary inner prayer, not prayer in church.
‘Let the memory of Jesus stick to your breathing, and you will know how useful it is to be alone.’
means that by considering Jesus who teaches and heals and preaches and reaches
out to discarded, hopeless people, we may see with the eye of faith our
salvation; even when we live in the agora of daily life. We can pray when
walking to post a letter or when we fill the tank with petrol:
‘O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’
Prayer does not have to be many words; it can be one word – Jesus. Not logismoi,
The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that God confirmed his original promise with an oath, to make us more confident in hope. The two ‘inalterable things’ are God’s purpose and his oath. The hope of salvation is personified as a high priest ‘reaching right through beyond the veil, where Jesus has entered before us and on our behalf.’ His right of access is our right of access. We can realize this access as a present fact by faith; and we can hope for this access as our future right. Jesus is ‘a high priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever.’ Melchizedek is the king of Salem and priest of God Most High (Gen. 14: 18) – part of the traditions of the Jewish people from 19th century B.C. Melchizedek represents the unity of the priest and the Messiah: the one who makes a sacrifice for the sins of the people and the one who liberates the people and leads them to a new life under the law of God. This is the image of Jesus. This is what Jesus will do for us. This is what we shall see in the services of Great Week.
The gospel comes after Jesus has been transfigured in the eyes of Peter and James and John (Mark 9: 2-8). We are told that
‘The moment they saw him the whole crowd were struck with amazement and ran to greet him.’
Jesus’ arrival was not expected. Perhaps also Jesus still looked different from other people, different from what he had looked before to anyone who knew him face to face, as a result of his transfiguration. The story of healing the epileptic demoniac is about the need for faith. The first half of the story is meant to teach us to have faith in Jesus; and the second half is meant to teach us that when we do have faith, what God can do for us is unlimited. “‘[If] you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.’” cries the father of the epileptic “‘If you can?’ retorted Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for anyone who has faith.’ Immediately the father of the boy cried out, ‘I do have faith. Help the little faith I have!’ Then we are told that Jesus exorcizes the spirit in the epileptic; and he later explains to the disciples that
‘This is the kind [of evil spirit] that can only be driven out by prayer.’
Prayer is always necessary.
Every step up the ladder of prayer brings us closer to the light of God. What we see with the eye of faith is what we are ready to see. The healing of our life comes when we have faith that it is possible.
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.
Sunday, 6 April 2003.
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