Sermon: 4th Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent
St John of the Ladder

Hebrews 6:13-20
Mark 9:17-31

As we have said before, every event in the Gospels has a symbolic and spiritual interpretation in addition to the historical reality of what is related. We therefore have to see ourselves in every person that appears in the pages of the Bible, even when reading about events that are very far from our own personal life and experience.

I imagine few of us have first-hand experience with demonic possession as described in today’s Gospel reading. However, if we read the story as a description of how our the passions take hold of us, this reading becomes a mirror in which we clearly see ourselves.

This demon, as the reading says, “Wheresoever it overtaketh [the boy], it rendeth him; and he foameth and gnasheth his teeth, and is withering away…And offtimes it casteth him both into fire and into water, in order that it might destroy him”.

The passions, which we cultivate from childhood, sometimes shakes us and at other times withers us, sometimes throwing us into fire and other times into water. According to the Church Fathers, the fire are the hot passions and sins — anger, jealousy, fornication, and so on. These passions, although serious, are more visible and tangible, which means they are easier to diagnose and therefore easier to treat.

The real danger is when the demon throws us into the water, the cold passions — despondency, indifference, spiritual insensitivity.

Since we today celebrate the memory of St John of the Ladder, I wanted to share with you something he writes about these cold passions, and in particular the passion of insensitivity. I believe each one of us will be able to see ourselves in the words of the saints and, by extension, also in the person of the boy possessed by a demon in today’s Gospel.

Insensibility both in the body and in the spirit is deadened feeling, which, from long sickness and negligence, lapses into loss of feeling. Insensibility is negligence that has become habit, benumbed thought, the child of predisposition, a snare for zeal, the noose of courage, ignorance of compunction, a door to despair, the mother of forgetfulness which gives birth to loss of the fear of God. And then she becomes the daughter of her own daughter. He who has lost sensibility is a witless philosopher, a self-condemned commentator, a self-contradictory windbag, a blind man who teachers others to see. He talks about healing a wound, but does not stop irritating it. He complains of sickness, and does not stop eating what is harmful. He prays against it, and immediately goes and does it. And when he has done it, he is angry with himself; and the wretched man is not ashamed of his own words. ‘I am doing wrong’, he cries, and eagerly continues to do so. His mouth prays against the passion, and his body struggles for it. He philosophizes about death, but he behaves as if he were immortal. He groans over the separation of soul and body, but drowses along as if he were eternal. He talks of temperance and self-control, but he lives for gluttony. He reads about the judgement and begins to smile. He reads about vainglory, and is vainglorious while actually reading. He repeats what he has learnt about vigil, and drops asleep on the spot. He praises prayer, but runs from it as from the plague. He blesses obedience, but he is the first to disobey. He praises detachment, but he is not ashamed to be spiteful and to fight for a rag. When angered he becomes bitter, and he is angered again at his bitterness; and he does not feel that, after one defeat, he is suffering another. Having overeaten he repents, and a little later again gives way. He blesses silence, and praises it with a spate of words. He teaches meekness, and during the actual teaching frequently gets angry. Having woken from passion he sighs, and shaking his head, he again yields to passion. He condemns laughter, and lectures on mourning with a smile on his face. Before others he blames himself for being vainglorious, and in blaming himself is only angling for glory himself. He looks people in the face with passion, and talks about chastity. While frequenting the world, he praises those who live in stillness without realising that he shames himself. He extols almsgivers, and reviles beggars. All the time he is his own accuser, and he does not want to come to his senses — I will not say cannot. (Step 18)

At the end, the passion itself speaks and says, “When exposed I do not grieve, I go hand in hand with sham piety”. You can see just how dangerous these ‘cold’ passions are!

Seeing our reflection in this mirror, however, let us not despair at our weakness and helplessness, because we know that the boy was healed. As the Lord says, “If thou art able to believe, all things can be to the one who believeth”. So let us reply with the words of the boy’s father, and let our unceasing cry to God be: “I believe, O Lord; help Thou mine unbelief”.

Fr Kristian Akselberg