This fourth Sunday of Lent is devoted to the memory of Saint John of the Ladder. John of the Ladder was a great hermit, a great monk of Sinai monastery. He was abbot of the famous St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. He was approached by monastics to write a book of instruction. As a result of his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, he became known as John “of the Ladder.” In this work he described the steps of man ascending to God, the degrees of spiritual perfection.
The book begins with the words: “God is life and salvation for all whom is given free will as a gift”. In other words, God is life and salvation for everyone since we are all born with the gift of free will.
In the Old Testament Moses led the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery and they traveled for forty years in search of the Promised Land which God had promised to deliver into their hands. During that long journey God spoke to Moses on numerous occasions. On one occasion, while on Mount Sinai, God spoke to Moses and gave him a set of commandments which he was to relay to His chosen people, which we know today as the ten commandments. Besides the basic ten commandments there were other rules and regulations which applied to God’s people. These commandments were far-reaching. Besides rule regarding morality there were specific laws dealing with things like land ownership. If, for instance, you passed away and had no sons who would inherit your land.
Anyway, in the last book of Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is on his death bed and he is going over all the commandments of God which the people are called to follow. And he says the following:
“I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore chose life, that both you and your seed may live and love the Lord your God, obey His voice, and cling to Him. For this is your life and the length of your days…” (Deut. 30:19-20).
Our faith is based on this very choice. The Saint we commemorate today and, more specifically, the book he wrote, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, points out this very choice we are all given to make. We are the ones who choose where we are going. Are we ascending to God or descending further from Him?
If we wish to go down that ladder we needn’t make any effort at at all. If, however, we wish to ascend the ladder, to be closer to God then we need to make constant efforts. In the gospel this morning, for instance, a father brings his son to Jesus so that the Lord could heal him. The father didn’t want to bother Jesus so he first takes him to the disciples for them to help but since they were unable to do so he ends up asking Jesus and He heals the man’s son. Afterward the Disciples ask why they were unable to do this the Lord replies and says, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.”
This “kind” that goes out only through prayer and fasting refers to the “spirit” that Jesus cast out of the young man. It’s interesting to note that there is no title given to this spirit; it’s not referred to as the ‘devil’ or ‘demon’. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t refer to some out-of-body spirit but the spirit of this world which is, in essence, the enemy of Christ. This is the spirit, like a virus, is passed on from one generation to the other and is the same which throws our youth about like the child with the spirit we heard in the gospel. It throws them to the ground and into the fire to be burnt and into the water to be drowned, whether that be through alcohol, drugs, or any addiction, anything to distort the image and likeness of God within them.
And this spirit of this world has been here for a long, long time. It goes back to Adam and Eve. What’s more it’s been firmly established that this spirit cannot come out by anything else except, as our Lord instructed Moses in the Law, as He instructed His disciples and as He instructs us through the reading of Holy Scripture – it can only go out through prayer and fasting.
And so it is no coincidence that St. John begins begins his book, The Latter of Divine Ascent, with the first two chapters dealing with this very thing: on the renunciation of the world and detachment. Today we honor St John of the Ladder as a great Saint of our church for he reminds us just how difficult it is to climb that ladder to our salvation. It is quite simply impossible to do on our own without God’s help, without the spiritual weapons of prayer and fasting.
May God grant us the fullness of faith, peace and joy on our climb to heaven. Amen.