Ascending with Christ
On Sundays I will try to post a reflection on a Gospel reading, particularly as it relates to the lectionary of the Orthodox Church.
Today’s Gospel Reading comes from St Mark 9:17-31. The text captures one of my favorite prayers relative to pursuing life in Christ: “I believe; help my unbelief!” The juxtaposition here of our willingness aligned with our limitations is also particularly illuminating as today the Orthodox Church observes the Sunday of St John Climacus, or St John of the Ladder.
What is important to know is that St John wrote a famous book in approximately AD600 called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” that describes our life’s journey in uniting ourselves to Christ as 30 representative rungs. Now I have not read the book, but I have seen the Ladder portrayed as a single icon. The Ladder is about uniting ourselves to Christ; and as such, it shows us the juxtaposition of our willingness and our limitations.
Some words first about what the Ladder is not. The Ladder is not a book to be read lightly. It is not a book that is meant to provide a rule by which to measure one’s spiritual progress. The Ladder is not prescriptive, but rather descriptive. Moreover, the Ladder should be read under the guidance of someone more spiritually mature than you are. The Ladder is not an academic treatise on theology, but rather it reflects the revelations of an ardent Christ-seeking monastic.
But the Ladder is easy to be misinterpreted. For one, Christ appears at the top of the Ladder. For another, demons seek to pull people off the Ladder. Some can easily look at this icon and interpret that we are on our own when it comes to our spiritual growth in Christ. But we need to consider how the Gospel might speak to us, even as we contemplate our spiritual journey.
I actually really enjoy today’s Gospel reading. Immediately before this reading, we have the story of the Transfiguration. The disciples see Jesus in all of His glory as far as they can bear it. They want to stay put on the mountain, but Christ points them towards His coming Crucifixion. And Christ points them back to the limitations of their own humanity as they return to encounter the disciples trying to heal a deaf and mute boy. By this point, the disciples have been journeying with Jesus for a while, they have had previous success, and they might think they have everything all together, independent of God’s help. Today’s Gospel reading tells us that thinking is WRONG. Indeed, Jesus chides them saying that the demon can only come out of the boy through prayer and fasting; in other words, Jesus tells them that they need His help.
And relative to the image of the Ladder, Jesus comes down to show His disciples the way forward. The father of the boy shows us how to pray through these situations: “I believe; help my unbelief.” We cannot live this life on our own. Looking again to St John’s Ladder, the uppermost rung is “Faith, hope and love.” From a solid footing on this perch, Jesus reaches down to raise us up. Jesus reaches down all the way to the bottom of the Ladder through completely renouncing the wisdom of the world as He takes up His cross. At every rung of the Ladder, we see Christ’s example and the example of others who have united themselves to Christ so they could run their race with endurance.
Glory to You O Lord, who came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, as You show us Your power to help us fight the good fight of faith, even as we cry “We believe; help our unbelief!”