The Ladder and the young virgin.

Homily 256 – Annunciation
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 25, 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

On this Sunday we remember St. John of the Ladder – but rarely, the remembrance of him is overshadowed by the Feast of the Annunciation.

In the Orthodox Church, every significant feast – and Annunciation is surely significant – has an afterfeast. Some, like the Exaltation of the Cross in September, last for eight days.

The afterfeast of Theophany lasts 9 days. Most of the major feasts have an afterfeast lasting between 7 and 9 days.

The afterfeast of Pascha lasts for 39 days – right up until the Ascension of the Lord.

An afterfeast, like the forefeast that some feast days also have, incorporates the hymnography and themes from the feast into the services of the day.

If the only service you experience in Church is the Divine Liturgy, you may not notice anything. If you come and pray vespers, and are attentive to the calendar, you might notice significant changes in the services.

The verses at the Lord, I call at Vespers, as well as the Troparia and Kontakia for Sunday, often focus on the themes of the Feast, rather than the themes for the day.

Last evening, we had very little hymnography about St. John Climacus, St. John of the Ladder, who is commemorated the fourth Sunday of Lent.

Today, we had two epistle readings and two Gospel readings, one for the Fourth Sunday, and we repeated the readings from yesterday’s Divine Liturgy for the Annunciation.

The Church has a hierarchy of feasts. The Annunciation is one of the highest. So, St. John Climacus steps aside as we live the Feast of the Annunciation.

In a way, though, these two feasts are tied together. As are many of the feasts, because they all deal with our salvation.

The Annunciation is about the most important event in the history of humanity after the fall. The incarnation of our Lord.

And that would not have happened unless the Virgin girl named Mary would not have declared herself the handmaid – the servant – of the Lord.

The incarnation would not have occurred as it did had Mary not said, Let it be to me according to your word.

I’m not saying there would have not been an incarnation – but the incarnation required the assent of the young virgin.

So what does St. John of the Ladder – the Ladder of Divine Assent – have to do with a young virgin girl named Mary in 4 BC in Nazareth?

St. John gives us a pathway to crucifying our self-will, so that like this young virgin girl, we might also be willing to say yes to God, and trust that His desire is truly what will make us complete.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, written by St. John in the year 600 AD, the very beginning of the 7th century, is a series of 30 steps, from this world to the Kingdom of God.

It is a journey not to be undertaken lightly.

The very first step is called “renunciation of the World.” For many of us, I daresay most of us, that is the place where we struggle for the whole of our lives.

The Eighth step is the freedom from anger. I confess I’m a long way from that step, I fear.

The 14th step talks of the clamorous mistress, the stomach, and the role of fasting. The 16th step speaks to love of money. The 27th step speaks of stillness, hesychia, that peace which passes all understanding, which is the promise of our Lord.

Western Society, Americans in particular, are an impatient lot. We tend to start with the higher things and believe the rest will come with it.

By so doing, we miss the ascent. We miss the climb. The first step of the Ascent of Mt. Everest is not the summit.

Neither is the first step to our union with God the mystical science of the prayer of the heart.

Most of us are unable to answer the way the Theotokos answered the Archangel Gabriel. We need the ladder. We need to understand that the first step in our freedom is not to run away from society. From the world.

The first step in our freedom is to cause the world to become irrelevant to us. Society has no significance in our lives.

That’s where the ascent, the climbing, of the Ladder begins.

Where it ends is the assent, the agreement, of the Theotokos. I am the servant of God. Let it be as God desires.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!