Sunday of St. John Climacus (2021)
Heb 6:13-20/Mark 9:17-31
Being the Sunday on which we remember Saint John Climacus, it seemed good for us to spend a little time, not on ‘who’ he is, but rather on what he has left for us and the Church as his legacy, his gift to us for our spiritual growth in Christ.
His great work, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, is read in every Orthodox monastery each year during the Great Fast. For those who have not visited a monastery, when meals are served, the abbot or abbess of the monastery will select a monk or nun from the group who stands and reads spiritually beneficial material while the group sits quietly and eats. It is during this time that “The Ladder” would be read.
I brought an icon which is used on this day. It depicts a group of monks all trying to climb from earth to heaven, with Christ at the top, reaching out to accept those who complete the climb, angels who are encouraging those on the ladder during their ascent, demons flying about with arrows and hooks pulling the monks from the ladder, and typically there is a dragon with wide open jaws at the bottom swallowing those who fall. It is simultaneously an awe inspiring and fearful image to contemplate, for it shows what we endure in our lives as we also attempt to rise to that level to which our Lord calls us.
Although we are given this image of a ladder, and to us that means moving from one level to another after some struggle to climb, in fact the Ladder of Saint John is more a set of parallel rungs. It’s not so much that you ever completely rise above one of the elements of the ladder. Rather, we are continually trying to perfect our spirits in all of these areas.
The “rungs” of the Ladder are comprised of virtues we need to labor to acquire, of faults we need to labor to purge, and of characteristics we need to labor to adopt. There are thirty such elements to the ladder. Let’s take a look at them.
begins with three ‘rungs’ which are designed to force us to break our
connection with the world. Specifically,
they are “Renunciation,” “Detachment,” and “Exile”. Renunciation does not indicate us rejecting
the gift of life God has given us.
Rather, it means renouncing the world’s control over us. One typical encouragement from
After breaking with the world, the next set of concerns moves to practicing the virtues. This includes a group of “fundamental virtues” – and bring us to the rungs, “Obedience,” “Penitence,” “Remembrance of Death,” and “Mourning” or sorrow.
“Obedience” is easy to understand. But
highlighting these fundamental virtues,
From these passions, Saint John moves to those which are tied to us physically, “Gluttony,” “Lust”, “Avarice,” and “Poverty,” before he returns to the non-physical passions of “Insensitivity,” “Fear,” “Vainglory (or vanity),” and “Pride.”
defined ways to overcome the passions,
of these “rungs” which lead to union with God.
And we’ve only offered
the point? The point for us is that
achieving our goal of becoming truly a disciple of Christ, of living up to the
name Christian, of truly being His servant is not something that happens
instantaneously and mystically when we receive baptism. Baptism and Chrismation are an “entry point”
into a life of effort, a life of struggle.
In Matthew 11, Jesus is rebuking the crowds following Him, asking them
what they thought they were going to
This does not give the picture of a people who are gifted salvation, but rather a people who are active participants in their own salvation. And if we are to labor and struggle to attain the goal of entry to heaven, we need a plan. One who builds a house and who starts by purchasing a hammer has made a start, but unless there is a plan, showing how to cut the wood, how big to make the openings for doors, where to lay the bricks of the foundation, how to secure the roof, the house so built is doomed to fall.
Saint John Climacus gives to us such a plan for our efforts to take the kingdom by force. His words are often very difficult as well, offering encouragement that the world would interpret as offensive. It is not “the only” plan to open the kingdom to us. But it remains a wonderful encouragement to all who read his words to make that plan for ourselves, and to labor to follow the plan. And it remains a yearly encouragement for us to exert the spiritual labor and effort we expend together here in the Great Fast. Remember the words we offered here on the Sunday of Forgiveness. We are in this Fast together. Our best and most important goal is to be an encouragement to one another, carrying us as a group, as a ‘family’ to the end of the Fast, so that we together may witness the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.
Through the prayers of Saint John Climacus, may our Lord grant to us jointly the hearts to exert such effort, and to have hearts which desire entry to His kingdom above all else!