194. Fourth Sunday of Pascha: The Paralytic

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

Yes, but fifty five years years ago last February I was not.

I was paralyzed. Not physically, but emotionally and mentally. On January 26 I had flown home to Ohio from seminary in New York. My father had died. I loved him so dearly, and I took it hard. Then I had spent two weeks with my mother helping her straighten up affairs, and getting things ready for her to move. I spent one day tearing down the super model railroad layout that we (well, he) had built. It tore my heart out. I cried all day. Then I had to get back to finish my last year of seminary. As the train pulled out, I remember so vividly looking out the window at my mother standing alone in the dark on the platform. She was truly alone since I was their only child, and…  sorry, I’m tearing up again. 

So I got back to seminary ‘way behind in my studies. I had to get at them – I had only a couple of months left. And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t think, couldn’t write – “paralyzed”. This went on for three weeks. Prayer wasn’t helping. Twice-daily worship wasn’t helping. Receiving Communion wasn’t helping. I felt my faith was doing me no good at all. 

One Saturday afternoon I took an aimless walk and found myself in Times Square. A movie theater was showing “Mary Poppins”. I don’t know why, but I bought a ticket and walked in. When I walked out of the theater two hours later, I was healed. Not completely – that won’t come till I see my dad again. But I was risen again. I got to work and had my best grades ever! But I also felt so disappointed that it wasn’t my “religion” that had healed me. It was Mary Poppins! Why hadn’t Jesus done it?

It took me a long time to understand. We’ll come back to that in a minute. 

Arise!

Readings: Acts 9:32-42, John 5:1-15

In the reading from Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Peter is fleeing Jerusalem and is now at Lydda. Christian communities had so quickly been established in the region. He finds Aeneas who has been bedridden, paralyzed for eight years. Peter says to him “Jesus Christ heals you. Rise!” and he does. Next in the town of Joppa (now incorporated into Tel Aviv) on the coast, he comes upon a “wake”: Tabitha, a good charitable Christian woman, has died and been laid out. Peter went to her and said “Tabitha, Arise!” and she does.

The passage from John’s Gospel takes place back in the middle of Christ’s ministry. Jesus is in Jerusalem and comes to the Pool at the Sheep Gate (in Hebrew “Bethesda” which is why there are hospitals called “Bethesda”) where there is a Paralytic, a man paralyzed for 38 years – imagine, since 1982! He says to the Paralytic man, “Arise! take up your bed and walk” and he does.

Below: the ruins of the Sheep Gate Pool, recent uncovered.

I think you have by now perceived this Sunday’s theme – and fitting it is for this season when “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…”  

Arise! in another way 

Both John and the Church Fathers saw double meanings, sometimes triple meanings, in Scriptural passages – things which many Christians in our literal-minded age don’t find it easy to see and appreciate at first. 

There are the obvious literal meanings, of course: Here Peter raised up a man who was bodily paralyzed, and Tabitha from physical death. Jesus healed a man who couldn’t walk. And Christ rose bodily from the tomb.

But John is also going here for a deeper meaning. There are other kinds of paralysis, and likewise other kinds of risings. When Saint Paul wrote: “You have been raised with Christ, so set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” Colossians 3:1, he spoke of an inner, spiritual, moral, mental rising from inner, spiritual, moral, mental paralysis.

Often we are spiritually immobilized. In my own life (I don’t mean to turn this Post into a version of the old “True Confessions” magazine, but who knows me better than me?) I have been spiritually paralyzed more than once, by circumstances,  by pride,  by I-don’t-know-what? or more likely by I do know Whom… and you know the “Whom” I’m talking about. I knew I needed to pray but I didn’t do it, or to forgive, or to apologize, or to go to Confession, or to just get to work – well, I’m sure you know this list yourself – and I could not get myself moving. Paralyzed, unable to rise.

Father Alexander Schmemann wrote somewhere that the scene around the Pool in this Gospel is also  a picture of the whole paralyzed modern world. There is healing for the world “over there”, and everybody knows it, but somehow we can’t get ourselves over there and be healed.

For example, the U.S. government. Oh, let’s not go there.

Or take the Middle East. No, that would take too long. 

Oh, מרנאת , Μαράνα θα and save us.

“Do you want to be healed?”

Jesus asked the Paralytic this absolutely necessary question – for some people do not want to be made well. Their life consists of being sick. I was told about a man who was cured of a long-time debilitating disease, and the rest of his life was a disaster. The only way he knew to live was by playing on his illness. No… … I said we wouldn’t talk about the U.S. government or the Middle East…

Moving on:

The Paralytic answered: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the water”, no one to get me there in time. It was believed that when an angel disturbed the water, the first one to get there would be healed. Modern hydrologists, by the way, say there might have been another cause for the disturbance of the water. If so, no problem. God can heal through angels or through hydrology or through angels using hydrology or… it’s all the same to Him. He made it all.

All of us also are so often are stuck in our spiritual immobilization. We know what we need to do, but we’re paralyzed. So John is writing about us in today’s Gospel. That’s what he saw in this story. And this is why the Fathers chose it for a Sunday Gospel reading.

And so, if we really want to be healed, really want to get off our (um, this is a tasteful Blog so I won’t say it), really want our life to change… 

Who raises us up?

The answer, of course, is Christ our God. I think all of us here know that. As He did for the Paralytic, so He can do for us. Jesus simply said to the man Rise! and he did. Likewise in the Epistle, Peter had only to say the word: Arise! and by the power of Jesus Christ they did. 

In commentaries I have read that the Pool is an image of Christian Baptism. of how the beginning of our life in Christ, of our rising with Christ into new life, is through the waters of Holy Baptism.

Wrong! Not so! Note carefully: Jesus did not take the man to the Pool. He simply spoke the word Arise! The Pool is an image of the fact that the work of Christ our God is not limited to Baptism or to the Church. Baptism is the normal beginning, certainly. But Jesus Christ can get people up and moving any way He wants to.

This the point of that whole middle section in the Gospel story, where the Pharisees get all in a tizzy: Cut it out! It’s illegal to heal on the Sabbath! Hey, fellah! Put your bed down! You can’t carry that on the Sabbath. (I paraphrase.) The Law said that no one should work on the Sabbath, the day of rest. (Good law. People need to take a break. I wish we had something like that.) However, Christ was not a physician practicing His trade. He argued in another such case: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:11-12

But most important was what He said when His disciples were caught picking wheat to eat on the Sabbath, thereby “practicing agriculture!”  He pointed out that when David and his men were hungry, they had done worse than that; they had “raided” the Bread in the tabernacle. And then He added something shocking: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. Look, it’s My Law! Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ was the One who gave the Old Testament Law. It was His to keep the Law, His to ignore. Jesus Christ is not bound by the Law or by any law, whether churchly or secular or the so-called “laws of nature”. He can work any way He wants, because all things are His.

Mary Poppins, again

Christ can even work through a Disney musical. It took me a ridiculously long time to see this clearly – I think really not till I became Orthodox and realized something I had known before but had not fully grasped: that as God Christ is present in all places. There is nowhere He is not. He was in that theater with me. It was He who raised me up again through that charming story and the music and dancing. When I came out of the theater, my soul was alive again  – certainly not healed completely of my father’s death; it won’t be till I see him again. But I was up and moving again.

Of course, it was He who did it. Who else could it have been? There is no one else. For it is He and He alone who makes all things rise. His is the Power that makes the sun rise every morning. His is the Power that makes plants rise up out of the ground every spring. His is the Power by whom every physician raises up the sick. When the Priest consecrates the Eucharist, Christ has already been in that Holy Bread long before – by His Power causing the wheat and the grapes to grow, and finally causing the yeast to rise. His is the Power that minute by minute causes each of us rise up out of nothingness and live and breathe and be. His is the Power that could not be held down by death. His is the Power that can raise us up from whatever is holding us down and get us moving so we can truly live and have abundant life. His is the Power that will raise us up at the Resurrection on the Last Day. And He can do it any way He wants to. Because it’s all His.

How can I be raised up?

I’m thinking now that the spiritual foundation I had received in seminary was my preparation for Mary Poppins. Twice daily worship, daily Eucharist and traditional Christian teaching (the Episcopal Church was like that in those days) had given me a solid, even if still shallow, grounding in the Faith. I think maybe that opened me up to Him that time He came to me in that peculiar hidden way. I was ready. I just didn’t realize it was Him. Not yet.

Do you want to “set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth”? Colossians 3:2  If truly you do, here’s my advice. Prepare a pathway for Him. Start with the ways Christ has given us. Call on Him. Pray to Him. Worship at the Divine Liturgy. Receive the Holy Eucharist. Go to Confession. Receive the Sacraments.

And read the Scriptures daily. I still have an awful feeling that many Orthodox do not do this. Folks, it’s so easy. After sixty five years of reading the Gospel almost daily, I find what Christ said and did still gets my imagination going, my mind moving. It is wonderfully “up-lifting”. Do you really want Christ to lift you up? Then let Him get at you.

And if He has not yet raised you up (though if you look back, I’d guess you’ll see that He already has, many times, often secretly – wait by the Pool. He will come.

But you may not recognize Him at first. As follows:

 “Who was it that healed you?”

This Gospel story is so wonderfully put together! There is a final episode:

Jesus leaves the former Paralytic, and then the Pharisees “come at” him: Who healed you? Tell us who He is. Tell us about Him. (Again, they only wanted to catch Him.) The Paralytic didn’t know. The point: People can be raised up and healed without knowing it was Christ who did it. In fact, most people are healed without knowing it was Him. It happens all over the world every day to millions of non-believers. And even to believers. As I say, it happened to a seminarian fifty five years ago as I watched Mary Poppins.

“Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you’.” (That line could lead to a whole new discussion about the cause of sin. No time now.) The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.” So now he knew.  

And now so do I. Thank you, Mary Poppins, for being His channel. Thank you, dear Lord Jesus Christ, for raising me up through that movie. And now every time I watch Mary Poppins, I thank Him again.  

The next two weeks: two more stories that take us deeper – The Samaritan Woman and The Man Born Blind 

One comment:

  1. Dear Father Bill,

    Your personal story of faith, pain and grief and the remarkable tribute to Christ’s mysterious healing to all generations is a balm to read. Thank you for the reminder of the importance of daily scripture reading, prayer and, when possible, twice daily worship with eucharistic celebration. I don’t wonder so much about the ultimate plan anymore but, I am no less enthused in my prayerful pleas to God for guidance to lead me out of my desert or through my encountered mountains. The relief or healing I have ultimately received has been remarkable. Thank you, Jesus, for finding the way to meet my daily needs in a way that I understand. I do wonder if we are asked to ‘arise and go’ only after we sincerely have opened ourselves entirely to God’s constant and kind countenance. Thus, now I better understand that a Times Square Theater can be a Bethesda too.

    As a side, I recall being introduced to your mother after worship service in the early 1970’s in Wisconsin. I was a young lad still in my single digit years of this life. I recall her to be gregarious and sincere as she shook my hand and thanked me for my welcome. A great memory. Years later, I recall listening in to a conversation you were having after service. You were speaking about you mother’s funeral. You recalled your trepidation of how you were going to deliver the homily. I was awed by your account. You essentially that said you felt a great presence of the Holy Spirit during that moment. The words came easily for you. The comfort and confidence you drew from that is a tribute to God’s love and grace. I have drawn upon your marvelous testifying for my own life of doubts and fears.

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