And one of the crowd answered Jesus, “Teacher, I brought my son to You, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked Your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And He answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to Me.” And they brought the boy to Him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when He had entered the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And He said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And He would not have any one know it; for He was teaching His disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He is killed, after three days He will rise.”
Mark 9: 17-31 (Gospel from the Fourth Sunday of Lent)
On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we celebrate the Feast of St. John Climacus. Saint John authored a book called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” a series of thirty virtues used to attain salvation and entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. The first steps speak of renunciation of the world and obedience, followed by repentance, defeating of vices, acquiring of virtue, avoiding laziness and pride, and finally finding peace. A popular icon of the ladder shows monastics ascending the ladder from earth to Christ. Along the rungs of the ladder, we see the devil and his angels trying to snatch people from the ladder through temptation and we see that many are falling, even some who are high up on the ladder, even those who are “spiritually accomplished.”
Whether we read this book or try to ascend these rungs of St. John’s Ladder, I do not believe to be critical or necessary for our salvation. What I do believe is that we must try to “ascend” towards Christ by becoming more and more committed to the Christian life. We also must know that the closer we get to Christ, the harder the devil tries to discourage us. However, the more committed we are, the “higher we climb” and the stronger our faith becomes (and it becomes stronger by necessity in order to fight off the devil, temptation and distraction), the more spiritual joy we share in.
There are three characteristics of a solid Christian life that present themselves to us in the Gospel lesson. The lesson is ostensibly about a man whose son was possessed by a demon. This man brought his son to Jesus’ disciples. They could not heal the boy. When the man pleaded with Jesus to heal his son, Jesus said to him “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” (Mark 9: 23) Then the father makes one of the most honest, compelling, and relatable statements in all of the Bible, “I believe; help my unbelief!” This statement is something that most of us can relate to. The man obviously believes “something” about Jesus, otherwise, he wouldn’t be pleading with Him to help his son. However, the man’s faith is not the strongest. He pleads with Jesus not only to help him by healing his son but to help him by strengthening his faith in Jesus’ ability to heal his son. If our life was like the ladder St. John describes, leading from earth to heaven, then the first step up the ladder would be faith, a faith that the ladder leads from earth to heaven, a faith that desires to know more and to take more steps. (Note: the first step on St. John’s ladder is “on renunciation of the world—I’m merely now comparing the Christian life to a ladder, not necessarily St. John’s ladder, and the interjecting of “faith” as a “first rung” is my example.)
After healing the boy, the disciples asked Jesus why they could not cast it out. Jesus responded to them that “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (9:29) Some of the most basic steps in our faith journey are prayer and fasting. Prayer, as we have discussed many times, is creating a relationship with Christ by which we speak with Him and by which He speaks to us. We speak to Him through words of prayer and He speaks to us through reading the Scriptures, and also through listening to thoughts that are spurned by our prayers. One cannot climb towards Christ without a prayer life, a relationship with Christ that is cultivated through daily prayer.
Fasting is more about discipline than denial. Fasting is not some form of punishment that the Church afflicts on us or that we afflict on ourselves. Rather, fasting is done in order to discipline our bodies and our minds to go without certain things, in this case foods, that we desire so that we will be able to discipline ourselves to steer away from anger, greed, ego, lust and other “passions” (meaning temptations) that steer us away from a life of Christian love and virtue.
Today’s Gospel is more than a story of the healing of a man’s son. It is a story about how each of us needs healing in order to grow, and that this healing occurs in large part through faith, prayer, and fasting.
In the height of self-control the Lord has placed you as a true unerring star illuminating all the earth and also guiding us to the light, as our professor and mentor, O Father John. (Kontakion, Sunday of St. John Climacus, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Reflect on ways to be more consistent in prayer and fasting, as well as other things you can do to bolster your faith, and thus climb higher in your relationship with Christ!