Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent: St John of the Ladder

Mark 9:17-31 (§40); Matthew 4:25-5:12 (§10)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear father, brothers & sisters!

So, after this last week of the Precious and Life-giving Cross at the Mid-point of our Lenten Fast, we now come over the brow of the hill and onto this Fourth Sunday where we hear the Gospel reading on the healing of the boy afflicted by the deaf and dumb spirit. The commemoration of this Fourth Sunday is for St John Climacus, the Seventh century Abbot of St Catherine’s Monastery of Mount Sinai and the author of the Lenten classic, the Ladder of Divine Ascent. To help us interpret today’s Gospel let us turn to another John, St John of Kronstadt who wrote a short homily on this Gospel and then let us turn back to think about the significance of this metaphor of the ladder in our spiritual life.

Before we hear St John’s interpretation, it may be useful to set this reading in its wider context and also explore how our reading today follows on from our reading from last week which was also from St Mark’s Gospel. Last week – on the central Sunday of the Fast – we were in chapter 8, itself the very centre of that short, 16 chapter Gospel, where we were with the disciples at Caesarea Phillipi where Christ asked His disciples who He was and confirmed that not only He, but that all His disciples, should take up their cross and follow Him. This week we are just a little further on in that Gospel in chapter 9. Between these two Gospel readings however, a very significant event occurred which was alluded to at the end of our reading last week when the Lord spoke of coming ‘in the glory of His Father’ (8: 38). At the start of the ninth chapter – and just six days later – three of the disciples were to see this Glory when they ascended with our Lord up Mount Tabor and saw Him Transfigure before them in the dazzling Radiance of the Divine Light which, as we learned two weeks ago, St Gregory of Palamas defined and defended as an authentic revelation of God Himself through His Divine Energies. Our Gospel reading today thus starts immediately after the Transfiguration, after our Lord together with Peter, James and John had ascended Mt Tabor and were now descending back down to where the other disciples were gathered. And it is there that our Gospel starts –

And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not.

Although to our modern ears this sounds very much like the description of an epileptic seizure, it is important to understand that what lies behind this child’s terrible symptoms and significant sensory and communicative disabilities is not simply some kind of neurological disorder, but a case of demonic possession. St John, preaching to his modern flock in 20th century Kronstadt is thus very clear that the ‘Evil spirit … was the reason the child was deaf and dumb’ and that the way the spirit torturously convulses the child is proof of ‘how evil the spirit was who tormented the child’.

He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me.

This is one of those fairly rare moments in the Gospel when our ineffably patient and long-suffering Lord speaks to us with candour about not simply this father’s lack of faith, but also the faithlessness of the entire generation which surrounded Him. We must remember that as God, our Lord was not simply aware of the faithlessness, the worldliness and ungodliness of the individuals whom he directly physically encountered, He also knew intimately the spiritual health, or should I say, the spiritual sickness and malady of everyone in the whole world. Nor was His knowledge limited to all those alive at the time of his short life in 1st century Palestine, but also to all the generations that had existed before and after right up until and beyond our own time. In the second part of his sermon, St John turns this verse back on to his contemporary flock in Kronstadt amongst whom were the communists and regicides who would go on to kill the anointed Tsar and his innocent family, as well as the atheists and ikonoclasts who would kill bishops, monks, priests and righteous lay people, who would destroy churches, trample on ikons and burn relics of the saints. As St John preaches with such prescience as if foreseeing the terrible events which would come to pass only a few years later –

The meek faith of the Gospel does not preach murder, regicide, placing mines, and causing explosions …  What then awaits our nihilists, what will be the judgment of God? … For who are our nihilists and terrorists? Baptized people, Christians, committing such acts of violence, such murders and suicides, such satanic villainy!

Which also leads us also to speculate what would St John say about the faithlessness of our own generation? What would our Lord have to say about our generation? What would He have to say about us, our worldliness, our laxity.

And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming.

We can see here that there is a cosmic and elemental opposition between the demonic powers and our Lord, that the moment that the demons see that they have come into the presence of God, they revolt and try to escape. The reaction is instant and dramatic.

And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child.

St John makes it clear that the Lord does not ask the question in ignorance since, as St John says, ‘as God He knows all’ this is simply for our benefit, that we might appreciate the strength of this demonic affliction that this poor child was subject to.

And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.

The poor father was at the end of his tether, at his wits end, at the very end of his reserves of hope. He clearly has little understanding, little insight into who exactly it was He was talking to, and thus lodges this loose appeal to the Omnipotent God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth and asks ‘IF’ He was maybe someone who might be able to help.

Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.

Again, we see in this reply our Lord’s humility and patience. Rather than criticizing or reprimanding this poor man, Christ turns the situation round and asks the father not to just passively expect a miracle to happen or come along, without this making any moral or spiritual demand on him. Of course, we all want God or a saint to come and instantly zap things better, especially if this means that we don’t need to change, that we don’t need to repent, that all the work will magically be done for us. Rather, as we see in so many of the miracle stories there is a synergy between the one who asks for healing and the Lord who grants healing. In the majority of his healing miracles, our Lord looks for faith in Him, and where He sees this, He then grants healing. This of course makes a demand upon the father himself – If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.

And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

It’s here that something changes. A spark of faith is ignited. The man doesn’t reference Christ as an anonymous and impersonal ‘you’, but as the ‘Lord’ – ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’.There is something so human, so earthy and relatable in this heartfelt cry of this desperate man that we can all share. And it is when our Saviour sees this flicker of faith, this recognition of the need for some activity and movement on his part that He acts. As St John says –

Do you see what power the Lord attributes to faith and to the one who believes? … The one who believes is able to cast out demons and to heal all kinds of diseases. And how powerless and miserable is the unbeliever! He cannot even control himself, and cannot overcome his own sins, but as a slave he serves them and is tormented by them.

When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose.

Again, in this scene of Christ lifting up the seemingly dead boy up by the hand, we can see something of an anticipation on when our Lord will descend into Hades and lift up the hands of Adam and Eve out of the bonds of death and into Eternal Life.

And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him out?

The disciples had clearly been shaken by the fact that they were unable to work this miracle. A few chapters earlier in the Gospel, in chapter 6, we learn that Jesus had given all of the disciples, ‘power over unclean spirits’ and we know that their early missionary and pastoral travels were successful, so ‘they cast out many devils and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them’ (Mk 6:13). However, as the father loudly and publicly exclaims the disciples when asked by him to cast this spirit out and heal his son were completely unable to do so.

And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.

Again, our Lord’s emphasis is not to locate the problem in our spiritual life outside of ourselves. It was not that the disciples hadn’t been given enough power, enough grace to work this miracle. Rather, if there was any lack on the part of the disciples, it was their own lack of prayer and fasting. In his homily St John says –

Such is the evangelical basis for fasting. How could those who call themselves followers of the Gospel have expelled fasting from our common life, as if it was unnecessary!

If the disregard for prayer and fasting was of concern in St John’s day, how much is it in our own where we are surrounded by people and even Christians who claim that prayer and fasting are in no ways necessary in the spiritual life. In the midst of the Fast, where maybe some of us, or even many of us our struggling with fasting and with praying, this Word of the Lord, this affirmation of the necessity of prayer and fasting is so helpful and so needful.

And they departed thence, and passed through Galilee; and he would not that any man should know it. For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day.

Our Gospel then ends with this repetition of the prophesy that has haunted so many of our Gospel readings these past few weeks, that the Lord Who has shone in Glory on Mt Tabor will soon be hunted, arrested, tortured and crucified, but will then rise again.

As St John of Kronstadt ends his homily –

Fasting and prayer observed with zeal, with humility, with faith and love, are powerful weapons against the devil and against all of the passions that war within us.

My dear father, brothers and sisters, turning to this Ikon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, let us remember that we are always on this ladder, not just in Great Lent, not just when we are being spiritual, but every single day, at every single moment. And it is our prayer and fasting, however simple, however inadequate which will draw us up and onwards on this ladder and will keep the demons from dragging us down. Let us remember that the spiritual life doesn’t depend on whether we happen to get zapped by God, but will depend upon the effort and the sacrifice we are willing to make for God. May we too find that with that heartfelt and repentant cry of the father we might find the hand of the Lord lifting us up out of despair and into newness of Life with Him.