Three Steps to Everlasting Life

“For as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of
Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).

On the fourth Sunday of the Great Lent the Holy Church honors the memory of St. John called Climacus, which means “The Ladder.” He’s called that because of the astounding book he wrote dedicated to helping those serious about salvation to progress on the way to God’s Kingdom. He lived not far from Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. He divided his book into thirty chapters in honor of the hidden years that our Lord Jesus Christ spent on earth. Each chapter is a stage, or rung, on the ascent to Heaven. He wrote it for monks, yet thousands of lay persons have been helped and edified by applying its lessons to themselves. The themes include spiritual and physical seclusion, or at least separating ourselves from the society around us; obedience to God’s will; self-discipline; discernment, meaning evaluating everything in life and perceiving what will do us good and what is harmful; purity of life; and prayer.

In chapter 26:158 the saint refers to the story of Jonah who fell overboard from a ship and was swallowed by a great fish, usually thought to be a whale. When Jesus was being asked for some miracle or sign of His authority, our Lord told the Pharisees who asked for a sign that only the sinful and adulterous need a sign to supplement their faith. The only sign that God will provide will be for He Himself to die, to be buried and to be resurrected after three days to life everlasting.

St. John explained that it would be enough for a human being to spend three hours, or three periods of time in overcoming three different impediments to salvation. They are:

A. Ambition, or the love of glory. How sad to see this sin dominate many, even among the leaders of the Church, those ordained to set an example of humility and selflessness, who strut about seeking praise and honors. “They love the place of honor at banquets…they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:7). “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

B. Sensuality, or the love of pleasure. We Americans take for granted that we have the right to enjoy life in all ways and varieties. It’s not just envy, but loathing that many people in the world have for us. Our image is that of shameless hedonists. Many people of culture and taste see us as self-indulgent pleasure-seekers bent on wallowing in all forms of opulence and extravagance. Obviously not all Americans are like that. Certainly true Christians may never be among them.

C. Love of money. It pains me to hear of the boasting even from my fellow Orthodox of their wealth, as though that were to their spiritual credit. I realize that our nation is essentially capitalist. Money is an obsession with so many fellow citizens. For a serious Christian this is an impediment to salvation. Jesus felt pity for those who worshipped money, and He said so many times in His preaching: “I tell you it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).

This then is the challenge set before us. A struggle for our souls continues to engage us. Do we offer ourselves heart, soul, mind and body to the God who created us and claims us for Himself, or do we surrender to the devil?