March 26, 2017

The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent Before the Thirteenth Century

By John Sanidopoulos

The Orthodox Church today commemorates Saint John Climacus on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent. However, his primary feast day is celebrated on March 30th. Saint John Climacus reposed in the seventh century, and the first time we hear of his feast celebrated on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent is in a manuscript from Vatopaidi Monastery dating to the thirteenth century. It then began appearing in many manuscripts of the fourteenth century. This leaves us wondering what the primary focus of the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent was prior to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Saint Gregory Palamas (1296–1359) informs us of the following in his Twelfth Homily which was delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent: "Since it is customary on this Sunday of the fast to read about this miracle in church, let us start from the beginning and go through the whole of the Gospel passage which recounts it." The "miracle" referred to by Saint Gregory Palamas is the Healing of the Boy with a Demon from Luke 10:25-37. As it is referred to as the received liturgical custom of his day, this miracle must have been the primary focus of the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent for some time prior to the fourteenth century when this homily was delivered, and it certainly was up until the time it was eventually dedicated to Saint John Climacus (it remains until today the Gospel reading of the day). The oldest manuscripts however indicate that the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This reading was probably replaced by the Healing of the Boy with a Demon sometime between the sixth and fourteenth century. Indications of the Parable of the Good Samaritan can still be gleaned from the Matins Service for this day in the Canon to Saint John Climacus, where it speaks of "falling into the hands of thieves," and humanity traumatized by its sins is given healing by the Savior, who is in fact the Good Samaritan.

But why did the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent become dedicated to Saint John Climacus? There seems to be at least two possible reasons. First, since his feast falls on March 30th, and Canon Law forbids the celebration of saints during Great Lent on weekdays due to its penitent and solemn focus, major saint commemorations were transferred to the nearest Saturday or Sunday in order to be properly celebrated, since they have a resurrectional character. Second, Saint John Climacus authored a book titled The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which in many monasteries was and remains the primary reading material during Great Lent, especially while eating in the dining room. Given that the content of this book elucidates the goal of every monastic and Christian in general for Great Lent, a Sunday dedicated to celebrating him and his great contribution to the Church seemed most appropriate. His book perhaps better than any other is the ultimate guide to help a Christian go through the praxis (actions) of Christian life in order to attain theoria (vision of God).