Today’s Gospel reading (St. Mark. 9:16-30) is given to us as we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. On this Sunday we commemorate St. John Climacus, who is also known as St. John of the Ladder since he wrote one of the most famous spiritual works called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. There are some important similarities between the life-giving words of our Lord Jesus Christ that we hear today and the message of St. John Climacus.
In the Gospel reading we hear the story of a young boy who suffers with a terrible illness that is not unlike epilepsy. He suffered violent seizures. Only we learn that the illness is not simply one of the physical brain but that in fact the boy has been seized by demonic spirits. When the father of this boy asks the disciples for help, he finds that even the disciples who have been given power to heal do not have any power in this situation. So the father turns to the only one who can possibly help with this great difficulty. After the Lord Jesus heals the boy, we later find the disciples coming to Our Lord in private and asking him why they could not heal the boy. The Lord’s answer is direct and to the point. This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting. Just as not all illnesses are equal, each requires its own particular medicines, so in this case we see the Lord telling His disciples that some demons are stronger than others. We should likewise understand that not all sins or sinful habits and behaviors are equal. Some can come out with a bit of resolve and short prayers. But others require stronger medicines.
The Church as a wise mother, reminds us during these holy forty days, that what we are doing these days through fasting and extended prayers is not easy but it is the best medicine. It is the medicine that clears our path to God. How blessed we are to have received the wisdom of the Church to guide us and to help us become saints! We don’t have to guess and to take a stab in the dark or reinvent the wheel. We know what it takes to be transformed and we have a rich multitude of saints that prove that our way is tried and true because ultimately it allows us to unite with the One Who is Himself truth.
St. John Climacus writes “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly the angel who guards you will honor your patience.” We so often lose heart when we fail and stumble and fall, and make no mistake, we all stumble and fall at times. St. John encourages us to see our task as a process that requires time and patience. No great work is achieved overnight. God’s great work of molding and shaping and transforming us into holy men and women is not magic. It is not an instantaneous event. It is not simply a matter of superficial intellectual faith. It is a process that only happens through great and painful struggles that are felt deep within the heart. These struggles are energized by the grace of God.
St. John also reminds us that it is best to tackle these issues and sins as soon as possible because the longer they are left unattended, the more stubborn the wounds become. He writes “While a wound is still fresh and warm it is easy to heal, but old, neglected and festering ones are hard to cure, and require for their care much treatment, cutting, plastering and cauterization. Many from long neglect become incurable. But with God all things are possible [Matthew 19:26]” (Step 5.30, Ladder of Divine Ascent). When someone has terminal illness, everyone including the doctors gives up. But St. John tells us that even those who have “terminal” spiritual illnesses can have hope because with God all things are indeed possible.
The Church reminds us during this fourth Sunday of Lent that none of our efforts will go to waste. We aren’t fasting in order to lose weight or to keep a tradition or to look religious or to feel better about ourselves. We are fasting and praying because when these exercises are undertaken with a spirit of humility and when they are coupled together with the sacraments of the Holy Church, they will restore us, renew us and heal us completely.
No matter what you have been struggling with, no matter the number of times that you have fallen, what is required is perseverance in the ascetic disciplines that have been given to us and to add to them the heartfelt pleading of the father in today’s passage. “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” When a man or a woman learns to fall on their knees with streams of tears running down their face and a heart that is broken, they draw the grace of God to them in a special way. God is our Father and He cannot deny the pleading and requests of His children that are offered up in faith. These heartfelt pleadings are powerful for us personally, and as we’ve seen in today’s gospel they are powerful on behalf of others.
Today we acknowledge that Lent is difficult. This is not fun and games. This is a spiritual battle and the Church has armed us with powerful weapons in this war. So let us not run from fasting and prayer at this crucial moment. But let us use these tools to put our enemies to flight and let us continually remember that none of these things will benefit us unless they are all blessed by the Almighty King Christ our true God. To Him be the glory, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.