Sunday, 10 April 2016

Fourth Sunday of Great Lent - St John Climacus, Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 10th April 2016

One of the strands of the Gospel readings through Lent and into the Fifty Days after Pascha is the power of Christ faced with our limitations and not so much altering our condition as making humanity transcend it.

Here is the map of the journey we are on. Before Lent we have the Pharisee (Tenth Sunday before Pascha: Luke 18.10-14) and the Prodigal Son (Ninth Sunday: Luke 15.11-32) who cannot recognise how threadbare is their own sense of entitlement and self-sufficiency. Then we have Nathanael who cannot see anything good in the Nazarene until the Nazarene sees something good in him (Sunday of Orthodoxy, First of Great Lent: John 1.43-51). Then we have the paralysed man let down through the roof in Capernaum to be healed by Jesus, whereupon Jesus makes him stands on his feet by the power of forgiveness - a dazzling foretelling of Christ’s own descent from the Cross, His burial and resurrection and all that they will achieve (Second Sunday of Great Lent: Mark2.1-12). After Good Friday and Pascha, we will hear again of the reservations and then the faith of St Thomas (Sunday of St Thomas, First after Pascha: John 20.19-31), the astonished blindness of St Mary Magdalen upon finding in the Empty Tomb “The Young Man Sitting on the Right Clothed in White”, not recognising before her the Angel of “The Forever Young One Who is Risen and Enthroned at His Father’s Right in Glory” in the Holy Trinity (Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Second after Easter: Mark 15.43-47 & 16.1-8). Then we will hear of another paralysed person whose human impediments will be overcome at the Pool of Bethsaida by the power of faith and forgiveness, both coming from God in Christ (Sunday of the Paralytic, Third after Easter: John 5.1-15). We will hear, too, of the woman at the well in Samaria with an answer for everything, until Jesus plays back to her the truth about herself - until she sees herself as Jesus sees her, a person made for the worship and love of God (Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, Fourth after Easter: John 4.5-42). Then the man born blind will trust Jesus’ directions to bathe at the Pool of Siloam, and let Jesus touch him, so that the first thing he sees is not the physical world he is never beheld before, but the Man from God whom he falls down before and worships (Sunday of the Man Born Blind, Fifth after Easter:  John 9.1-38). This will bring us to our own encounter with the Lord at His Ascension, and then St John’s explanation (Sunday of Pentecost:  John 7.37-52,8.12) that the Christ Who came from Bethlehem, was the Light Who dispelled the darkness of humanity in Galilee, before all was perfected in the glorification that took place in Jerusalem – the Cross, the Tomb, the Rising from the dead to the new Jerusalem out of which He will pour the rivers of living water: no more pools, wells, Galilees and Jordans, but the Holy Spirit Himself.

It is for us to identify with each of these people, each of these scenes and each of these events. It is for us to place ourselves within them, and see ourselves as we are seen by Christ. We go on a journey thus from conceit and self-pity, from lack of lively faith and dynamic discipleship, from inability to perceive what is standing before us, from self-deception and wounded pride. Along the way, we are warned to look for the signals of Christ coming His Kingdom, its majesty hidden in plain sight (you might say) in the realities around us (Meatfare Saturday, Luke 21,8-9, 25-27, 33-36). We are told to be discerning about ourselves and our true dispositions, and how Christ makes himself appear in our midst – sheep or goat, King or outcast? Which is it, and who like Him are we supposed to be (Meatfare Sunday, the Eighth before Pascha:  Matthew 25.31-46)? We are told to be forgivers if we expect to be forgiven, and to pile up treasures in heaven and not here (Cheesefare Sunday, the Seventh before Pascha:  Matthew 6.14-21). The greatest treasure, we come to learn is the beam of the Cross that we will heave up onto our shoulders and lose everything else, but not that (Sunday of the Holy Cross, Third of Great Lent: Mark 8. 34-39). We will realise that like the sons of Zebedee we have nothing to say other than that, yes, we are prepared to drink the cup that Jesus drinks, and, yes, to seek for ourselves His baptism into death’s unknown (Fifth Sunday of Lent: Mark 10.32-45). We too will end with seeing Christ at the point of completing His work, realising that we are the ones who have been kept by the Lord and not been lost - learning every step of the way to keep to His word, until we see everything else fall away and what is liberated is the joy (Sunday of the Fathers, Fifth after Pascha: John 17.1-13).

The point we have reached today is the experience of the young man overwhelmed by a spirit that makes him undergo seizures, taking away his ability to speak and hear (Fourth Sunday of Great Lent: Mark 9.16-30). To the father and his family, this is the work of an unclean spirit, alien to the boy’s wellbeing and survival. We may recognise his symptoms as possible epilepsy, but this is not to explain away the story. What Jesus reveals to us in this, and in all the stories and words He uses, is that inevitably we come up against our shortcomings and our limitations, not least the aspects of our personal existence and factors surrounding our lives over which we have no control. We meet them in our sin, and our pride, in their impotence. We our thwarted by them in the limits to the capacity of our bodies, to the limits placed on our egos, our ability to get our own way, and to our never-fully satisfied passions and appetites. We are frustrated, too, by the forcefulness of others, their egos and neediness, their sin and worldliness; and we are not above returning the selfishness. We are confronted, too, by the oppression of intangible forces, whether they come from deep-rooted systems and habits of injustice in the world and how it works, or the influences of whole societies and cultures, or the powers at work in life and nature that we cannot see, still less understand.  Jesus is pointing out to His disciples that the adversity of concrete, material living is inseparable from the world of the spiritual. It is not that something wrong with our spiritual lives shows up in an effect on our physical bearings and experience, although this can sometimes be true. Jesus is telling us something much deeper than that. Soul and body are neither divided compartments in life, not operate on different planes.  He is saying that it is all of a piece – we humans are both physical and spiritual, and we must live lives both in the world and in the Kingdom of the Spirit.

Seeing that we are not the masters that we imagine ourselves to be in our own lives, let along the world where we seek to prevail, what are we do? We do not have complete freedom, so are we are to enslave ourselves to the world? We imagine ourselves to be fine and righteous, and yet cannot see we need to seek forgiveness; so do we resign ourselves to self-satisfaction or serial imperfection? We do not recognise the spiritual side of life and we trust what we can hold onto rather than what it staring us in the face, as heaven accosts us in the eyes and mouth and hands of its Only Son. So is all we have to be mournful at what we have missed out, defeated by finding out our lowly place in the scheme of things? Or do we do take the journey to come to the light, to know the power of Christ’s forgiveness at work in us, to “keep to His word” and to let all else fall away so that what stands free at last is His own joy? (John 17, Fifth Sunday after Pascha)

To act as our own master is futile as well as misleading and even dangerous. But, with all our limitations and shortcomings, to place all that we are, everything that has formed us, good and adverse, any gift or aptitude that we have, all our personality, our incomplete faith but our instinctive adoration at the service of the Master Himself, this is the breakthrough to humanity that He came to bring about. St Paul says that dying to sin we are alive to God (Romans 6.11). Jesus Himself tells us to pray that the Kingdom will come not in some next world or other, but on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6.10). So what, says Christ, if the Kingdom can come not just as a phenomenon on earth but as the joy in people, His own joy at coming to the Father? (John 17.13)

Today we recall St John Climacus, author of “The Ladder of Virtues”. In the icon portraying the spiritual path he set out, you will see the ascent of the Christ-seeking soul, step by painstaking step. Some souls you will see have deceived themselves and fall down, while others attain to the Divine. Jesus promised Nathanael that he would see that Christ is the Ladder on which the ascent to heaven is made (Sunday of Orthodoxy, John 1.51). But He also says that the angels who conduct us to God by ascending also descend. The Light that we look up for also enters down to shine into our darkness. It is not overwhelmed by sin and human shortcoming, but pierces it, transfigures it – makes it look different from how it appears, to make it look like what it truly is designed to be, patterned on the Son of Man.

For as Christ is divine and became human, so we who are human become like Him. Human and spiritual, material and filled with God because of His image within us, we live even now the resurrection. Though dead in one dimension, in reality our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossian3.3). Here the Spirit flows His living waters through our hearts (John 7.38, Sunday of Pentecost), so that what we were is washed away by what we shall become.