The most common theme through both the Old and New Testaments is the “journey”: men and women moving to an unfamiliar place driven by their faithful obedience to God. Beginning in Genesis, we find Abram journeying from his father’s home in the Ur of the Chaldeans to a place he did not know about but trusted God to lead him. There was Jacob, on the move to avoid his brother Esau’s wrath after stealing his birthright and blessing from his father, Isaac. And the most memorable journey recorded in the Old Testament of Moses leading the Israelites on their 40-year long journey from Egyptian slavery, seeking the land promised to them by God.
The theme continues into the New Testament. Early in the Gospels we read about the journey taken by Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where our Savior is born. Guided by an angel, the Holy Family moved on to Egypt to save the life of the young Jesus from the murderous king, Herod. The primary source of the Epistles is the writings of St. Paul as he journeyed throughout the Roman Empire spreading the Gospel and establishing Christian communities along the way, eventually leading to his martyrdom in Empire’s capital city, Rome.
Over the past weeks we have been on a journey as well, following in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior as He travels to Jerusalem and to His Passion. In a couple of weeks we will celebrate His triumphant entry into Jerusalem as Christ passed through the streets to the adoration of the fickle crowd that will demand His crucifixion less than a week later. This is a journey that the authors of the Gospels ask us to take along with Jesus and His small band of followers; a trip that faith demands us to take not to experience the adulation of Jesus’ arrival into the city but rather to stand together at the foot of the cross with the few followers who refused to abandon Him in what looked like His darkest hour.
Long journeys require the travelers to be prepared for all possibilities they may encounter along the road. Think about your last vacation road trip. I am sure that there was more involved than just waking up one morning and hopping in the car. Depending on the distance and the length of stay, you may had begun your preparation months in advance. You carefully planned out the schedule and made the necessary reservations for lodging. If you were driving to your destination, you needed to map out the route and make sure your vehicle was in good running order. If you were flying, you needed to work your vacation around an airline schedule. Then there are the other necessary tasks that must be addressed when you are out of town for an extended length of time. When it’s all over you are ready to get back to work so you can relax from the stress of the annual vacation.
Now consider how much time and effort you put in for your 40-day journey to our Lord’s Pascha. The Church gives us those six weeks as a time of preparation for the great event that will unfold. But what has she given to sustain us on this journey? We are told we cannot eat meat or dairy, so our food options have been greatly reduced. We are expected to curtail our partying and other forms of entertainment. There is a significant increase in the number of services, so besides being hungry and bored, now we’re also tired! When does this 40-day journey start becoming joyful?
Something that we need to first consider is where we are placing our focus on this Lenten journey. If we look only at what we think we lost, we will miss all the things that we have gained. Like a vacation road trip: If we only focus on the fact that we are cramped in a car for hours on end with nothing to do but fight with my other passengers, it will indeed be a very long and unpleasant journey. No matter how exciting the destination may be, if we spend the journey focusing on what we don’t have rather than the things we do have, then the destination will never seem to be worth it. The same applies for our Lenten journey: Focusing on what we must “give up” only makes the time more unpleasant for everyone, and our destination (Pascha) is not as joyous as we would have hoped.
So, what do we have available that can give us the strength during Great Lent to endure and actually enjoy the journey to Pascha? The Church gives us two spiritual delicacies that provide the nourishment that we need to make Lent great: prayer and fasting. This may seem counterintuitive; how can these arduous acts take the place of entertainment and meat? How can we be fed on things that cannot fill our stomachs or keep us amused? First, we need to see these acts of piety not as a punishment but more as a privilege of being Orthodox Christians. Sounds strange? Well, think of it this way: Although fasting and prayer is available to everyone—there is no restrictions in place by civil or canonical law—we still do not see people begging to participate. In fact, if you speak to your non-Orthodox acquaintances, they are likely to think you are crazy for even participating in the prayer and fasting regime prescribed by the Church. We Orthodox Christians are the faithful few who have the guidance and encouragement to partake of the spiritual nourishment of prayer and fasting, and so we should try our best to take full advantage of the opportunity. These two practices can be viewed as our daily “Food for the Journey” to our Lord’s Resurrection on Pascha morning. But we must partake if we are to benefit.
The spiritual disciplines that we are called to practice during Great Lent are intended to help us refocus our lives by redoubling our ascetical practices. As Jesus told the disciples in today’s Gospel, the demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29). Without these two practices, it is likened to trying to run a marathon without training ahead of time. Even the most experienced runner will not attempt a long-distance race without the proper preparation. And so, it should be for us as well: whether we are fighting the demons in the world or in our own lives, we need the spiritual preparation of the Great Fast to be our training ground.
The subject of the “Spiritual Journey” is an important theme in the writings of the Church Fathers such as St. John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder. St. John was a 7th century monk living at the St. Catherine Monastery in the Sinai Desert. His book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, has become a widely read and influential text for Christians over the past 1,400 years. Intended originally as a manual for monastics, St. John’s teachings have also found a following among laypeople. St. John presents this path of spiritual perfection as an upward journey on a 30-step ladder, where each rung represents a passion to be conquered or a virtue to be obtained. And while some of the teachings may be considered too severe for most laypeople, the lessons are still just as valuable when taken in the context of our lives as Christians living outside of the monastery.
In The Ladder, St. John addresses the two requirements that Jesus pronounces as necessary for driving out demons in our Gospel lesson today. The spiritual discipline of fasting is discussed in St. John’s discussion about “Gluttony,” which is step 14 of his Ladder. This step occurs near the mid-point of our ascent and is described by St. John: “Gluttony is the hypocrisy of the stomach. Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed, and crammed, it wails about its hunger.” St. John continues to point out that unless we can master our physical appetites, we cannot progress with our spiritual ascent. Just as with the practice of abstaining from certain foods during Great Lent and other times during the year, the fasting we are called to observe goes beyond what we put in our stomachs. If we focus only on food, then we are missing out on some of the other important things that need to be moderated. St. John uses the terms “gluttonous soul” or “gluttonous spirt” to refer to the person who has no moderation in what he does or says. The moderation learned by the ascetical exercise of fasting is something that we can practice throughout the year and in all aspects of our lives.
“Prayer” is one of the advanced spiritual practices on St. John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent, coming in at step 28 of 30. St. John describes prayer as the dialogue between God and man. We can understand that you cannot have an effective dialogue with anyone unless you are able to understand their language, which is why the previous 27 steps are so important. True prayer is understood to be a conversation, where both parties are speaking and listening. It is seeking God’s will in our lives rather than telling God what we think it should be. St. John’s structure for prayer is quite simple and follows the pattern of the “Lord’s Prayer” (Our Father) that we pray at each Divine Liturgy: First, thanksgiving and gratitude; next, confession and genuine contrition of the soul; then finally our requests.
Prayer time is not wasted time; it is our opportunity to try to understand the heart of God. Therefore, Jesus tells the disciples that fasting and prayer is the only way to drive out the demons that control our lives. Fasting strengthens our bodies and our souls so that we can be better tuned in to the direction from God we receive through prayer.
Fasting and prayer become the “food” for our journey as we walk with Christ to His passion on Calvary. When we feed our souls on the spiritual food, we will not be hungry or too famished to complete the journey. On the contrary, we will be fully energized and more prepared to celebrate the Pascha of our Lord. By faithfully following the Church’s prescription, we will always be prepared for the spiritual journey. Christ’s Resurrection represents not the end of the journey, but rather the beginning. Our Christian faith calls us to continue our sojourn in this world, climbing ever higher, to reach ultimate destination: Our heavenly home.
This Homily was offered by Dcn. Michael Schlaack on the 4th Sunday of Lent.