Galatians 3:23-4:5; Luke 13:10-17
When Jesus Christ was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, He saw a woman who was bent over and could not straighten up. She had been that way for eighteen years. Imagine how frustrating that chronic illness had to be, especially in a time before modern medicine and physical therapy. The Lord said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” When He laid hands on her, she was healed. When the woman stood up straight again, she glorified God.
As was often the case when the Savior healed on the Sabbath day, there were those standing around just waiting to criticize Him for working on the day of rest. He responded by noting that people do what is necessary to take care of their animals on the Sabbath. “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” He put those self-righteous hypocrites to shame and the people rejoiced.
In these weeks of the Nativity Fast, we pray, fast, give to the needy, and confess and turn away from our sins as we prepare to celebrate the wonderful news of the Incarnation of the Son of God, of our Lord’s birth at Christmas for the salvation of the world. Today’s gospel text provides a beautiful image of what Jesus Christ has done for us by uniting divinity and humanity in His own Person. These weeks of preparation give us all the opportunity to gain the spiritual clarity to see ourselves in that poor woman bent over and bound with chronic, debilitating infirmity.
We are all well acquainted with illness, pain, disability, and death. We face chronic challenges of various kinds from which we cannot deliver ourselves or our loved ones. We have diseases of soul, of personality, of behavior, and of relationship that cripple us, that keep us from acting, thinking, and speaking with the joyful freedom of the children of God. We are all bent over and crippled in profound ways in relation to the Lord, our neighbors, and even ourselves. We have all fallen short of fulfilling God’s gracious purposes for us, as has every generation since Adam and Eve stripped themselves of the divine glory.
Joachim and Anna knew all about long-term frustration and pain, for like Abraham and Sarah they were childless into their old age. God heard their prayers, however, and gave them Mary, who would in turn give birth to the Savior Who came to liberate us all from sin and death. We celebrate in the coming week the feast of St. Anna’s conception of the Theotokos, which foreshadows the coming of the Lord to loose us from the infirmities that hinder our entrance into the blessedness of the Kingdom.
The history of the Hebrews was preparatory for the coming of the Christ, the Messiah in Whom God’s promises are fulfilled and extended to all who have faith in the Savior, regardless of their ethnic or national heritage. Christ did not come to promote one nation over another or to set up an earthly kingdom of any kind, but to fulfill our original calling as those created in the image and likeness of God. He unites divinity and humanity in Himself and makes it possible for us to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity as distinct, unique persons who become radiant with the divine glory by grace. God breaks the laws of nature, at least as we know them in our world of corruption, in order to save us, enabling elderly women like Sarah and Anna to conceive and bear children and a young virgin named Mary to become the mother of His Son, Who Himself rose from the dead after three days in the tomb. He is born at Christmas to work our liberation, to break the bonds of death, and to heal the brokenness of our life in this world of corruption.
The Lord did not treat the woman in today’s reading as either an impersonal bundle of disease or an inferior person due to her sex. Instead, He revealed her true identity as a beloved person, a daughter of Abraham, by enabling her to stand up straight for the first time in years. On that particular Sabbath day, Jesus Christ treated her as a unique, cherished child of God who was not created for slavery to a wretched existence of pain, disease, and despair, but for blessing, health, and joy. She glorified God for this deliverance from bondage, for this restoration of freedom, as did those who saw the miracle.
The good news of Christmas is that the Savior is born to set us all free from captivity to the decay, corruption, and weakness that have taken root in our souls and in our world. He comes to deliver us from being defined by infirmities of any kind so that we will enter into the joyous freedom of the children of God. The New Adam comes to us through the holy obedience of His virgin mother, the New Eve, to heal every dimension of our brokenness, including the common temptation for men to view women in light of their own passions and to treat them as being somehow less in the image and likeness of God than themselves. The supremely honored position of the Theotokos in the life of the Church reminds us of the falsehood of such assumptions. As St. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Our Savior comes to loose us all from slavery to the bondage of seeing and treating anyone as less than a living icon of God. The biological distinctions of sex certainly do not determine the health of the soul.
For example, today we commemorate the Great Martyr Barbara, a young virgin who died at the hands of her pagan father for refusing to deny Christ in the early fourth century. He had originally kept her in seclusion due to her beauty, but she discerned on the basis of reason that the pagan gods were false idols. When Barbara later professed the Christian faith, her father handed her over to be tortured. Seeing her courage in suffering terrible abuse, Julianna joined her in enduring horrible treatment. They were both beheaded for refusing to deny their Lord. We also remember today John of Damascus, an administrator under Muslim rulers who composed many theological and liturgical works that remain integral to the life of the Church. His right hand, which was cut off due to his powerful defense of icons, was miraculously restored by the Theotokos. After retiring to a monastery in obedience, asceticism, and humility, he departed this life peacefully in the eighth century at the advanced age of 104.
Christ calls people of all kinds to embrace His healing of the human person. There are no limits or boundaries to the unique beauty of our souls other than those we impose by our own refusal to unite ourselves to Him in holiness. Since we all have the same fundamental calling to become like God in holiness, we become more truly ourselves whenever we turn away from slavery to sin and corruption in order to embrace more fully the new life that Christ has brought to the world.
Most people today surely do not think of the weeks before Christmas as a time of preparation for being loosed from bondage to the corrupting forces of sin and death. More commonly, we use this time of year to strengthen our addiction to the love of money, possessions, food, drink, and other worldly pleasures. Such self-centered indulgence is really nothing but bondage that threatens to leave us so weak spiritually that we will never be able to straighten ourselves up. God did not create His beloved children to find fulfillment in such things, which is why we must resist the cultural temptation to become so busy with shopping, planning, and partying this time of year that we end up ignoring the profound spiritual gravity of our Lord’s Incarnation. He is born to restore us to the full dignity of His sons and daughters, to make us personal participants in the blessing and joy of the heavenly kingdom. He comes to liberate us all from slavery to sin and death, regardless of where we stand according to earthly divisions. Let us use these weeks to prepare to enter into the great joy brought to the world by our Lord, the New Adam, Who was born of a woman, the New Eve, for our salvation.