|13 - HEALING A WOMAN ON THE SABBATH, Nov 27, 2022|
A rubric of biblical interpretation in early Syriac Christianity takes any woman who is not named in the Gospels as Eve; and Eve, in the imagery of the Church’s prayers, represents the soul or the ‘hidden man of the heart.’ The woman in this morning’s Gospel, it says, was bound with a spirit of infirmity or weakness and could not raise herself up at all. Theologically, then, we understand that our soul, the hidden man of our heart, is bound with a spirit of infirmity. Just as it was physically impossible for this woman to raise herself up, so is it impossible for us to raise up our soul.
Now, this woman’s infirmity was a concrete, physical thing. It was not an idea, a thought, or a feeling that could be set right by changing her religious or philosophical beliefs. It was not even a moral deed that could be ‘set right’ by changing her behavior. Regardless of how she behaved, or how she thought, or how she felt, she was still bent down and absolutely unable to stand up straight.
It is certainly true that what we think and how we behave affects our life and our inner disposition, whether we are at peace with ourselves or distressed. But there is a reality beneath all that, a reality that is itself in no way affected or changed or set right by what we think or how we behave. It is the reality of death.
I don’t see death as just something that will happen to us sometime down the road. Death presses down on us in the trials and afflictions of life even now. It is manifest in the carnality that weighs down on us with the heavy weight of sloth and indifference toward any effort to purify our senses through prayer and fasting, the ease with which we forget God. It is manifest in the dark moods that want to enshroud us in thick, dark clouds of hopelessness and meaninglessness. It is the hand of death that reaches out to grip us in a cold, iron vise of guilt and shame that only gets tighter the more we try to shake it by suppressing it or denying it or dismissing it, trying to pretend it isn’t there or that it doesn’t matter. It is the shadow of death that makes us believe we are worthless, despicable, loathsome, without hope, without help, alone and forsaken. It is the specter of death that afflicts us with anxiety and fear; death is in the broken relationships that can inject our inward parts with such anguish that we can become physically, emotionally, and mentally sick.
What we believe and what we think does indeed affect the quality of our life and how we engage the reality of death that fills and darkens our life. But my point is that we are bound by death regardless of what we believe or what we think, or how we behave. The infirmity of our soul is our being absolutely unable to make ourselves live so that we don’t die. No thought, no school of religious belief or philosophical ideas, not even a moral life can raise us up from our being stooped down to the ground, from our returning to the dust of death.
The infirmity of death that has infected us body and soul like leprosy or cancer, is as concrete as was this woman’s physical infirmity. It is not an idea or a thought we can argue or think ourselves out of; it is not a feeling or a mood we can shake. It is not even a behavior, that, as I said, can be somehow cured or set right by changing how we behave. For regardless of what we say, think or do, we are bound by the infirmity of death, absolutely unable to raise ourselves from the dust of death without returning to the dust of death.
Saying this, my attention is drawn to what it says: this woman was bound by a spirit of infirmity. Death is the final physical infirmity. It is final; it is absolute. We cannot argue or think ourselves out of death. But at its root, death, finally, is not physical. It is spiritual. That means that the root of our physical life is not our body but our spirit, our physical life and our physical death are rooted in our heart: not our heart as very strong feelings or emotions, but our heart as our true self and what we in our ‘spirit’, in our ‘heart,’ live for, what we deny ourselves for, what we readily lose ourselves for.
With this, I think, we may be stumbling upon the theological meaning of the fact that the healing in our Gospel this morning takes place on the Sabbath in a synagogue. The Sabbath is the mystery of the LORD’s Tomb in which He finishes His creation and raises Adam from the dust of the ground and places him in the Garden (Gen 2.7-8) with the commandment that would test his obedience, that would test the love of his heart. And the synagogue is where the Law and the prophets were read and studied, the Law and the prophets that bear witness to Jesus as the Heavenly pattern (Ex 25.9&40), the ‘Icon’ (Heb 10.1) of which the law and the temple with all its ordinances and sacrifices and ablutions and appointments were but the copy and the shadow (Heb 8.5). The synagogue, then, is where Israel was being prepared to receive Jesus, the incarnate God who gave the Law to Moses (Ex 24.12), Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah who was to come and by the power of the Holy Spirit raise Israel from death to life, open her graves and lead her out into the Land of her inheritance, the Land of Resurrection in the Kingdom of Heaven (e.g., Eze 37.1-12).
In these terms, our Gospel this morning tells us that there is only one way to be delivered from the spirit of infirmity that has bound us our whole life long (Heb 2.15); it is to be possessed by the Spirit of Christ. And we can be possessed of the Holy Spirit because God has come in the flesh; He is present to us not as a message but as God Himself: and He is present to us not outside of us, not in some religious idea or philosophical theory, but in our heart where we are dead in our sins and trespasses.
Is it coincidence, then, that the Orthodox Faith defines prayer as descending with the mind into the heart? That is, to pray in the way of the Church is to descend beneath all ideas, all images, all theories into our spirit where we are crying out from the depths of our heart for the LORD who alone can raise us from our infirmity and make us stand up straight to glorify God possessed now in body and soul by the Holy Spirit of Life and Light.
In the Church, we receive this Christ Jesus and His Heavenly Spirit as our food and drink. We receive it as a concrete, physical thing, not as an idea or a feeling. Every idea or feeling in the Church directs us to the sacramental mysteries of the Church where we descend into the deep, beyond all thoughts, beyond all feelings and come into the immediate, personal presence of the Son of God and in His Heavenly Spirit who is Light that shines in our darkness and that our darkness cannot extinguish.
Raising our minds on high, let us go in spirit to Bethlehem, the Church calls out to us on the Forefeast of Christmas, ‘and with the eyes of our soul, let us look upon the Virgin as She hastens to the cave to give birth to our God, the LORD of all.’ (FM 201) Obviously, we are not going to the visible Cave of Bethlehem, for we are going in spirit and looking not with our bodily eyes but with the eyes of our soul. We are going to the invisible mystery of the Cave; it is the visible form of our invisible heart. And we go to the mystery of the Cave in the prayer of the Church’s liturgical worship, not in our own prayers for we are not Christ. Guided by the Church’s worship, we descend in prayer with our mind into our heart, and we are led into the Cave as we participate in the liturgical worship of the Church. For in the prayers of the Church’s worship, Christ is in our midst and the Heavenly Spirit we receive from Christ in the sacraments and in the prayers of the Church is as present as He was in the synagogue; and our deliverance in the Spirit of Christ from the spirit of our infirmity is every bit as concrete and real as was this woman’s deliverance from the spirit of her infirmity. We cannot deliver ourselves from the infirmity of our death on our own strength or by our own understanding. Our work, then, is to pray in the way of the Church, which is both communal and private, and it is rooted in the liturgical and sacramental mysteries of the Church’s worship, which is rooted in the concrete, real event of Christ’s death and resurrection. To pray in the way of the Church is how we give our spirit, our heart to the Spirit of Christ and no more to the spirit of this age. This is how we get beneath the ideas that cannot save us and into the Cave of Bethlehem as into the LORD’s Tomb and into the presence of the God in our heart who comes to us a little Child to raise us up in His resurrection that we may glorify God. Amen!