Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Feast of St John Climacus

In the Byzantine liturgy, each of the Sundays of Lent has a special commemoration attached to it. The first Sunday is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, because it commemorates the defeat of iconoclasm and the restoration of the orthodox belief in the use of icons; many churches have a procession in which the clergy and faithful carry the icons, as seen in this video from the Sacred Patriarchal Monastery of St Irene Chrysovalantou, in Astoria, New York.

The Third Sunday of Lent is called the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross; in place of the Trisagion are sung the words “We venerate Thy Cross, O Lord, and we glorify Thy holy Resurrection.” A cross is placed in the middle of the church, and “We venerate Thy Cross” is sung again three times, as all prostrate themselves before it, and then come forth to kiss it. The traditional Church Slavonic melody is in my opinion one of the most beautiful pieces in the repertoire.

The Fourth Sunday is dedicated to St John of the Ladder, whose Greek title (“tēs klimakos - of the Ladder”) is often improperly Anglicized as “Climacus”; he also has his own feast day on the calendar, March 30, which falls on or near that Sunday when Easter is later. (Three years ago, on the Gregorian calendar, his feast day was on Saturday, and followed immediately by the Sunday dedicated to him.) The title refers to his popular and extremely influential spiritual treatise, the Ladder of Paradise, still commonly read, and especially in Lent, among Eastern Christians. The treatise is also known as the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and outlines thirty steps by which, through the acquisition and exercise of the various virtues, one may seek to ascend to attain to salvation. The icon of his feast shows him indicating the ladder by which a group of monks ascend to Heaven; with an important touch of realism, all versions of this icon show some of the monks being pulled off the ladder by devils with grappling hooks, and falling into the mouth of hell on the lower right.

Very little is known about St John’s origins and life, and even the exact period in which he lived has been the subject of academic debate. A letter of Pope St Gregory the Great in the year 600 is addressed to one John, the “abbot of Mount Sinai”; John Climacus certainly held this office at one time, and he is traditionally said to be the recipient of letter, and to have died at around the age of 75 a few years later. Others place his life at a later period, from roughly 580-650.

The Troparion: With the streams of thy tears thou didst till the barren desert, and with sighs from the depths of thy soul, thou didst render thy labors fruitful a hundredfold, and became a shining light for the world, resplendent with miracles. O John, our holy father, entreat Christ our God that our souls be saved.
The Kontakion: The Lord truly set you on the heights of abstinence, to be a guiding star, showing the way to the universe, o our Father and Teacher John.

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