Whenever I think of Great Lent, I make it a point to remember a meaningful conversation I had just a few years ago. I was on a pilgrimage in Greece, visiting a centuries-old church, when an old priest sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. At one point he observed that the Christians in America make Christianity look easy.
I sat in silence for a moment because I was surprised by his bold statement. “Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because you have forgotten about John,” he replied as he let out a grin.
“John who?” I responded, knowing full well that Orthodoxy has a lot of special people named John. “Are you talking about St. John the Baptist or St. John Chrysostom?” I asked.
“Neither,” the old priest replied. “I’m speaking of Saint John, the one with the ladder.”
St. John Climacus is one of the great saints of our Church. He so special that the Church remembers St. John, not once, as we do with most saints, but twice a year. His feast day is always celebrated on March 30th, but the Church also devotes the fourth Sunday of Great Lent to this majestic church father.
By Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich
1. Because our faith is light. Christ said: I am the light of the world (John 8:12). The light of the vigil lamp reminds us of that light by which Christ illumines our souls.
2. In order to remind us of the radiant character of the saint before whose icon we light the vigil lamp, for saints are called sons of light (John 12:36, Luke 16:8).
3. In order to serve as a reproach to us for our dark deeds, for our evil thoughts and desires, and in order to call us to the path of evangelical light; and so that we would more zealously try to fulfill the commandments of the Saviour: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works" (Matt. 5:16).
4. So that the vigil lamp would be our small sacrifice to God, Who gave Himself completely as a sacrifice for us, and as a small sign of our great gratitude and radiant love for Him from Whom we ask in prayer for life, and health, and salvation and everything that only boundless heavenly love can bestow.
5. So that terror would strike the evil powers who sometimes assail us even at the time of prayer and lead away our thoughts from the Creator. The evil powers love the darkness and tremble at every light, especially at that which belongs to God and to those who please Him.
6. So that this light would rouse us to selflessness. Just as the oil and wick burn in the vigil lamp, submissive to our will, so let our souls also burn with the flame of love in all our sufferings, always being submissive to God's will.
At this time we’re entering the great spiritual arena of the blessed Great Lent. Holy and Great Lent is a time of compunction, for repentance, for tears, for a change in ourselves, for a new stage in the spiritual life. Like an affectionate mother caring for her children, us Christians, the Church has designated this time of Lent as dedicated to the struggle, in order to help its children fight harder, to purify themselves, draw closer to God and to counted worthy of celebrating the great day of the radiant Resurrection.
Christians, especially monks, have always paid particular attention to this spiritual arena and have thought it especially sacred, because it is a period which envisages both spiritual and bodily struggles. There’s the struggle of fasting, the struggle of vigils, the struggle of purification and the struggle to fulfill one’s spiritual duties which are many more than at other times of the year. There’s a spiritual “defragmentation” and people pay greater attention to the voice of their conscience in order to correct what they’ve maybe neglected and to improve spiritually.
The Church assists us but with penitential hymns and services, as well as with teachings, to oil us up for the fight for the purification of our souls.
We have the penitential evening Divine Liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts. The Presanctified is extremely beneficial. Its Cherubic Hymn is full of spirituality, contemplation, angelic presence. That’s why we should come to these liturgies during Great Lent with even greater compunction. We who consume the Body and Blood of Christ must be so pure and clean, so straight in body and soul for divine grace to have its effect. For this reason, we must lead very careful lives. Both n our cells and in church we must wet our face with tears so as to wash our souls and be worthy to take communion. Of course, the devil often makes us wanting in compunction, me more than anyone. Which means we can’t have tears and we often have bad thoughts. Bad thoughts and the sinful images that accompany them must be rejected as soon as they make their appearance. And when we have wicked thoughts or our soul is cold towards one of the brethren, let’s not approach the God of lover, Who is so pure and holy.
Throughout this period, at every service in Great Lent, we say the prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, which is as follows: