A Homily given at Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church, Indianapolis, IN On the occasion of the Central Indiana Lenten Vespers Series.
Theme of the Series: “Why We Believe What We Believe”
Sunday of the Ladder (St. John Climacus)
March 22, 2015
Glory to Jesus Christ!
I’m honored to be able to speak today, to attempt to give a small offering on the theme this year, an important theme, “Why We Believe What We Believe”, and also to speak about what this particular Sunday in Lent, the Sunday of the Ladder teaches us about the theme.
But first, a story, and, maybe a pretext to where we need to start when we talk about “Why we believe what we believe”.
Most of you are aware of the recent tragic death of a young priest from Connecticut, Fr. Matthew Baker, who died in a car accident on the way home from a Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers. The news spread quickly in the Orthodox world, and, thank God, many have responded by giving alms to help his widow, Presvytera Katie, and their six children. Fr. Matthew was a friend and classmate of mine.
This past week, Presvytera Katie shared a story – she said that she was working in Fr. Matthew’s office, and, from around the corner their four year old son walked in and asked, “Did daddy rise from the dead yet?” She said she answered, as she has several times already since Fr. Matthew’s repose, “No, but he will, it may seem like a long time to us, but he will.” She went on to explain that, some might see this as simply a very sad image, or, that one might think the child’s question, and the answer is naïve, not dealing with reality, pitiable. The thing is, though, for this four year old child, the Resurrection is real – it is so real that he wakes up expecting it. ‘Maybe this is what Christ meant when He talked about coming to Him as a child’, Pres. Katie reflected.
I tell that story because this child provides a beautiful and serious example and reminder: as Christians, as Orthodox Christians, we believe what we believe because Christ is Risen! We believe what we believe because we have faith that Jesus is who He says He is! If He truly is the Son and Word of God, fully God, fully man, incarnate of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried, and risen from the dead – then everything we believe about anything else has to start and end there.
Before we think or talk about why or how we pray, why or how we venerate saints, icons, or pray for the dead, before we try to learn from the Fathers and Holy Tradition we must be firm in that first foundation – Christ is Risen! He is Who He says He is! That is what the Fathers were concerned with first and foremost – not developing a method of prayer, not even codifying a system of belief, although all of these things, the doctrines, the prayers, the practices will become fruit of this foundational belief, they were not the original goal. The Fathers were about the same thing the apostles were about – proclaiming and living, being transformed, transfigured by the central truth that Christ is Risen, that Jesus Christ is who he says He is. Knowing Him must become the most central goal of our lives. What else can compare if this is true?
It is why St. Paul tells us if it is not true, if Christ is not risen, then we are to be the most pitied, our preaching, our lives are worthless, futile. Why would this be? Why the either/or? It is because Paul experienced and expected that anyone who believed Christ is risen, and is who He says He is, would orient their entire lives towards that, not just make it a compartment, a ‘part’ of life, a box to check off, a club to be a part of. St. Paul expects that it is all or nothing. So, yes, if one spent their entire lives centered in this belief in the Risen Lord and it weren’t true, then that is painfully tragic – a total waste!
So the seriousness of this question of why we believe what we believe carries with it a certain fire – a decision – for it is then not enough for us to just proclaim with our mouths, but if we believe what we believe – then it has to change us.
From the beginning of the story of the relationship between God and his people there is a constant return to that theme of two ways: from ‘Egypt vs. The Promised Land to God vs. mammon, there is an understanding that where ones heart is, what one really believes (and belief means, what you think is real, what is all of this? what is real? what is the meaning?) will direct how one lives. Humans will live and act out of whatever that source is. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).
So considering that foundation and goal, we can turn our attention to the theme of this Sunday. Sunday of the Ladder. That foundation is extremely important when considering a work, a teaching like The Ladder. Before we get on the Ladder, we could say, we need to know what our goal is.
On the icons for this Sunday we see quite a frightening scene from the bottom of the ladder to the top. In fact, I’ve been asked before by concerned parishioners a question I’ve asked myself – where should I venerate this icon? There are people falling off the ladder, there are even demons! But in every icon of the ladder the destination is the same – the point of our veneration – the destination of the Ladder – the Risen Christ.
Most of us have experiences with ladders – perhaps some better than others. All ladders, whether a stepladder to get to the top shelf in the pantry, to an extension ladder to reach very high places, are all tools for the same purpose. I am here, I need to get there, I cannot reach there, so I need a ladder to get me there. I was afraid of ladders most of my life, but I got over my fear on a house building trip in New Orleans. I got assigned the roof work – the job I really didn’t want. But, because there were experienced people there, to stand at the top, to give good instruction, eventually I was able to go up and down the ladder throughout the day. But the most important reason I got over my fear was because the destination was worth it. I would not have climbed up and down a ladder – struggled and suffered in the heat of Louisiana in July for fun. But someone needed a house built – so the destination was worth the struggle.
There are plenty of ladders we can get on in this life, and really all of us are on a ladder whether we like it or not. There are ladders to try to better ourselves, ladders to success. With every one of those ladders we have just as many chances of falling off, of suffering. The ladder to earthly success is not an easy one either. If there were a depiction of the ladder to riches, in the cutthroat world of business and competition there would surely be bodies falling off the ladder, being pulled down by various temptations. If there were a depiction of a ladder of self-betterment – the goal being perfect physical and mental health, physical beauty, being liked and influential, reducing any suffering- we would also see bodies falling off, giving up, we would see unforeseen illness, tragedies that happen – things one can never predict. One can choose those ladders, and some may even succeed to one level or another. But the question returns to this: what is the destination? What is the point? If this is all there is – what we see, what we feel – then I guess those ladders make sense temporarily. The ladder to earthly riches leads to wealth, luxury, perhaps even temporary security and leisure, maybe even fame. But they still end in futility, really. What would be the point? In the end we all will face the grave, we all will die, and our accomplishments, our self-betterment goes with us.
Do not mistake this and think that health or doing our work well are not good things or things a Christian should not do. Our body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the work we do well in this world can be a great testimony to God. But those things should not be the destination of the ladder we are on if we believe Christ is Risen, if we believe He is who he says He is.
So returning to the icon of this Sunday we see the destination is Christ. The focus should be that. When we venerate, we do not venerate the ladder itself, or those falling off or even those climbing necessarily – certainly not the demons – but rather, the source, the destination – the Risen Lord.
The Ladder depicted in the icon is a visible depiction of the spiritual writing, the Ladder of Divine Ascent written in 7th century by the great abbot, great ascetic, great teacher St. John of Sinai – called John Climacus, or John of the Ladder. This teaching is considered such a great work of instruction that it is read in most monasteries during Lent. It is the theme of one of the Sundays of Lent. However, it is also one of those works that I have heard on many occasions is one that is best read, or in some cases I’ve heard should only be read under the guidance, in relationship with a spiritual father or guide. Why? Because its fire. It’s difficult. It can easily be misunderstood outside of context. It was written from one great abbot to another for the sake of encouragement and instruction of those who had set out on the monastic path. The instructions in it, at their heart are for everyone – monastic and non-monastic – there is only path, one ladder, really – but the danger can come when one undertakes something like this alone that the focus can become on the ladder itself, or on the struggle itself, or on the achievement the progression itself, the asceticism itself, or God forbid, on the demons or temptations themselves. God forbid any of those become a fixation for us – that is a different ladder – and a trap of the enemy to lead us either to vainglory or despair. The ladder to our Lord would never lead to that. He is the way the truth the life. His way is narrow, but his yoke is easy and his burden is light, because it is life-giving. I don’t see anywhere in the Gospels that Jesus teaches the life of the Christian will be one constantly focused on one’s progress, or worse yet, a comparison game of where one is on some spiritual improvement path. He says that His way is to take up ones cross. His way is to sacrifice for others, to learn love that knows no bounds. The ascent is the descent to humility to dying to oneself, but not just to save oneself, but rather to imitate Christ who draws all to Himself.
At the heart, really, of the Ladder of Divine Ascent is this steadfast focus on Christ, on attaining Christ like love. This is why it is embraced as a fountain of wisdom in the Church.
My patristics professor from seminary, Dr. Christopher Veniamin, guided us slowly through this text, and brought up first off that one must understand context to read the Fathers (aside: a concept often lost in our age of immediate sound byte quotes and proof texting to win an argument!) If we are to allow the Fathers to help us along the path of knowing why we believe what we believe, we have to know how to read the Fathers. To read them is to enter into a relationship. In the Ladder, it is an abbot – a spiritual father of a community is writing to another spiritual father who will then share this work. There is a relationship there. The foundation of the why we believe what we believe comes back to that. We believe the Apostles who had an experience of Christ – and we believe that the experience of the risen Christ continues, and is passed on – in relationship.
We read St. John of the Ladder in the 21st century for the same reason Abbot John of Raithu asked for some instruction, which was the whole purpose St. John Climacus wrote it. Abbot John recognized in St. John one who knew the destination – one who knew Christ and had experienced Him. This experience isn’t some gnostic ‘special knowledge’, but rather the fruit of the spirit, which we are all called to bear. Abbot John of Raithu writes: “By this letter of ours we appeal to your superlative virtue to describe for ignorant people like us what you, like Moses of old on that same mountain have seen in the vision of God.” John of Raithu does not ask for ‘special knowledge’ for his own individual ascent, but rather, he asks, on behalf of his community, how to be saved, how to become more conformed to the image of Christ. Abbot John is not asking for instruction how to become a great elder, he is not asking for how to do miracles or wonders, but rather, how to see Christ, how to know God. The thirst for that was what drove Abbot John, because he believed in the Resurrection – He believed Jesus is who He says He is – and so any other path, any other ladder was pointless. He knew his destination, and would live tirelessly to get there, for nothing else mattered in life.
Dr. Veniamin taught us that we become disturbed at works like the Ladder because we read them in a psychological context. We start asking questions: “Well, these men are doing these incredible feats of fasting, or denying themselves in extreme ways, either they are mentally ill, or this does not apply to me, or I’m hopeless” See how the focus gets wrong there? The focus starts to be on the Ladder, on the suffering, on the achievements. The antidote lies in remembering the destination, which is common to all of us, then seeing that same motivation in these examples given of extreme denial of oneself for the sake of Christ as a manifestation of persevering in the race set out before us, of refusing to be double minded, of pursuing God – God’s love – as a lover who must be with his beloved at all costs.
St. John tells us there is nothing wrong in representing desire, and fear and care and zeal and service and love for God in images borrowed from human life. When one ‘falls in love’ often one will move heaven and earth to be with that person. One will not think about food, or one’s own desires, save for the desire to be with that person. How much more should it be when one has realized God’s love, and realized the only true goal in life should be communion with God? When one is in a good, truly mature, loving marriage that is the image of Christ and His Church. One grows more and more devoted to meeting that other persons needs before one’s own. The love of parents for children – parents who will sacrifice much, in hard times will not eat so their kids are cared for. How much more should the love of God, motivate us away from simply taking care of ourselves, achieving what we want, but rather turning and seeking what pleases God?
We then learn what pleases God by learning from those whose lives were consumed with seeking Him. We learn from those who were on the correct ladder, whose lives bore the fruit of the Spirit, who persevered in their struggles. These are the ones we can learn from, but we must take care not to fail to understand their example by forgetting the goal they set out before themselves: Always and only to live in the only way that makes sense if Christ is truly risen – if He is who He says He is – and that is in total dedication to Christ. There is no other way to find true life but in Him. No other ladder will lead to anything but death. There is but one ladder that leads to Resurrection.