|14 - The Crippled Woman, Nov 29, 2009|
Reading this morning’s Gospel from the Greek yields an especially important lesson for Orthodox Christians, I think. You could argue that when Jesus laid His hands on the woman, she became “Orthodox” because it says in the Greek that she stood straight up, an-ortho, and then she glorified God, doxa. Our Gospel this morning is showing us that the power of religion is this power to heal us in soul and body, so that “standing straight” up to “glorify God” in heartfelt joy and Eucharistic gratitude is what the Orthodox Christian Faith is all about.
It’s quite remarkable that the ruler of the synagogue would be so married to the letter of the Law that he would be unmoved to see this woman who had been bent over for 18 years released from her infirmity and made to stand straight up, and that he would be untouched by her joy and gratitude when she glorified God. Why was he so irritated about Christ breaking the Law by healing the woman on the Sabbath that he was insensitive to the deeper mystery of her healing?
I think the ruler of the synagogue illustrates how easy it is to get hung up on the form of religion and completely miss its power. We need to appreciate how easy it was for the ruler of the synagogue to fall into this trap so that we don’t fall into it. The Psalmist praises the OT Law of God because it makes the man who delights in it like a tree planted by streams of living water; i.e. it makes him like someone who stands “straight” up in the Holy Spirit. And the Psalmist says that his lips overflow in song when the Lord teaches him His Law; i.e. he takes up doxa, glorifying God. The Law of God, that is to say, which includes the ordinance of keeping the Sabbath, makes the Psalmist to be Orthodox; it heals him in soul and body, making him so he can stand straight up and glorify God in heartfelt joy and thanksgiving.
So how could the ruler of the synagogue, versed as he was in the Law of God that is clearly all about the healing of soul and body, not be alive to the wonderful divine irony of the Savior breaking the form of the Law and so fulfilling the power of the Law by healing this crippled woman on the Sabbath?
I submit that the answer is to be found in the Lord’s complaint to the prophet, Isaiah: “This people draws near to me with their mouth and honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” We lose sight of the power of religion as did the ruler of the synagogue when our heart is not in it because in our secret heart – in our free time or when no one is looking – we are living the life of the world whose power is centered in the belly, in the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. We are not living the life of religion whose power is centered in the heart, in lowliness and gentleness, in longsuffering, in bearing with one another in love in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Our Gospel this morning shows us that true religion is orthodox: that is to say, it’s about healing us in soul and body so that we can stand straight up and glorify God in heartfelt joy and Eucharistic gratitude. This isn’t to say that true religion has no form. Lord knows, the Orthodox Christian Faith, what we confess to be the true faith, religion pure and undefiled, is full of forms. It is to say, rather, that the form is not the power of true, Orthodox religion. We take up the forms of ascetic disciplines, for example, not because Orthodox religion is about prayer and fasting and alms-giving, but because prayer, fasting and alms-giving are forms by which we are made ready to receive religion’s power. The forms of true religion bring us, you could say, to the synagogue with the crippled woman to stand before Christ the Savior, the Great Physician so that He can place His hands on us and heal us in soul and body.
When we practice the religious forms of the Church with attention and not just in a perfunctory manner, they become like a hoe and a rake that break up the ground of our hearts to make them soft and plow-able, ready to receive the seed of the rose and bring it to full blossom. Imagine how boring and tedious gardening would be if it were about hoes and rakes, and not about the rose sprouting from the ground you were working. And yet, you can’t bring forth the rose from the ground of your heart without hoes and rakes. In the same way, Orthodox religion isn’t about prayer and fasting and alms-giving; it’s about bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit, the fruits of love, joy and peace, the fruits that blossom from our soul as we are healed in soul and body in the Spirit of Christ Our Lord and Savior; and yet, we can’t bring forth the fruits of the Spirit without the hoes and rakes of prayer and fasting and alms-giving.
Orthodox religion teaches us that the purpose of the OT Law, and indeed, the purpose of the world’s very creation, was Christmas, the coming of God the Word in the flesh to dwell among us in order to make us partakers of His own divine nature, communicants of His own Life Eternal in the grace of His Holy Spirit. The world was created for Christmas Day when the Blessed Virgin would bring forth Christ God in the cave as a most precious rose. This is the mystery hidden from before the ages. Christ blossoms from the Blessed Virgin like a rose and He fills the world with the sweet fragrance of His Holy Spirit. In that fragrance, He heals the world in soul and body; He makes His creation alive and whole, standing straight again and glorifying God in Eucharistic joy and thanksgiving.
The religious forms of the Church are not sterile; they are spiritual. They are filled with religious power because the Church is the body of Christ. So we can take up these forms in the spirit of repentance and so place ourselves under the hand of Christ and make ourselves ready to receive the healing power of His Holy Spirit. It’s when we are standing straight and glorifying God in Eucharistic joy and gratitude that we are now Orthodox. Until then, we are simply striving to become Orthodox; we are doing spiritual gardening getting the ground of our soul ready for that most precious rose Christ our God to blossom from the Blessed Virgin Theotokos in the cave of our heart.
We take up these ascetic forms, then, like spiritual gardeners, understanding very well that these forms are not what the Orthodox Christian Faith is all about, but because we know that this is how we get to what the Orthodox Christian Faith is all about. This is how we put ourselves on the road with the crippled woman to the synagogue where Christ is teaching and healing, or on the road to the cave of Bethlehem with the shepherds and the wise men to make our way to Christ on Christmas Day, to fall down before Him in worship, ready to receive the healing of His Heavenly Spirit in the joy and thanksgiving of the Church’s Holy Eucharist, to stand straight up again and, like the crippled woman in this morning’s Gospel, to glorify God in the joy of Christ’s Nativity and in the power of His Holy Resurrection. Amen.