33 The Paralytic - April 29, 2007

Acts 9:32-42

John 5:1-15

On Pascha night, we came to the midnight hour as to the tomb of Christ. When we came into the candle-lit Church after processing around it three times, we crossed the threshold as though we were stepping beyond the tomb and into Christ’s holy resurrection. These eight weeks of Pascha are like the blossoming of that precious rose born of the Virgin who has risen from the grave as the first-born of the dead. During these eight weeks, while the world around us goes its own way, we make our retreat into the Church as into the Upper Room with the disciples, where the risen Christ comes to us through closed doors. Sitting on the lap of his holy Mother, the Church, we take in all we see and hear in the Church; and, we contemplate what our holy Mother, the Church, is teaching us about the mystery of her Son’s rising from the dead.

We note how the resurrection of Christ coincides with that point in the year when winter turns into spring, when nature is coming back to life. Pascha reveals the movement of winter to spring as an icon of Christ’s holy resurrection. Through the iconography of her weekly liturgical cycle, the Church shows us the mysteries of Christ as the rock on which time moves. When we make our retreat into the Church, we are descending as it were beneath the movement of worldly time into Christ’s Holy Spirit as it moves over the face of the waters, bringing forth at the command of the Father’s Word a new heaven and a new earth from out of the tomb of Christ, the crucified God. Retreating into the worship of the Church, we step past the curtain of ‘ordinary’ time and we pass over into the Sixth Day of God’s creation, Great and Holy Friday. We see Christ on the Cross, finishing his creation of the world and man as he breathes out his Spirit. In the procession of the Church, we pass over to the Seventh and Last Day of creation, the Great and Holy Sabbath, when God rests from the work he accomplished on the Cross. And at every Divine Liturgy, we enter into the mystery of Christ’s holy resurrection and we pass over to the Eighth Day, the First Day of the new creation.

Liturgically, in the sacramental mysteries of the Church, we have crossed the threshold of the grave as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the River Jordan, and we have come out on the other side into the wilderness of the Church, which has been made to rejoice and to blossom like the rose in the coming of the risen Christ through the closed doors of the Church, bringing to us here in the desert of this life, in the breath of his Holy Spirit, the life of God’s Heavenly Kingdom. We partake of Christ’s body and blood as the Israelites ate the manna that came down from heaven, and we are made partakers of the divine nature. Into our mortal bodies is planted the risen body of the immortal Christ. Our flesh is incorporated into the body of Christ and we become, physically, members of his body, the Church.

In the flesh, we are still very much in the life of this world. As Christians who have been baptized into Christ and who have put on Christ as our wedding garment, we live in two realities: the reality of the fallen world and the reality of the new heaven and the new earth that is to come as though it has already come in the resurrection of Christ. The legs of our soul straddle these two realities: one foot stands on this side of the grave in this world fallen into darkness and ignorance; the other foot stands on the other side of the grave in the light and glory of Christ’s holy resurrection.

It is this spiritual image that makes all the more interesting how the Church sets before us in these eight weeks of the unfolding of Pascha the mystery of Christ’s holy resurrection and Ascension –mysteries on the other side of the grave, beyond the curtain of ordinary time – by setting before us events that happened during his life on this side of the grave. It would seem that in this way, the Church is teaching us that the glory of Christ’s resurrection is not set off from this life but that it is in this life. It permeates this life as the light of the sun permeates the air infusing it with light and warmth. Christ in his holy resurrection is there, on the other side of the grave, but he is also here, in our midst, on this side of the grave. The light of his holy resurrection shines from the tomb into the world. Its rays are the teachings, the traditions, the prayers and the worship of the Church. In holy Eucharist, the faithful partake of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness who has risen in the East, and they become rays of the crucified and risen Sun. As they walk in the light of Christ, wearing the robe of light with which they were clothed in their baptism, they extend the rays of Christ the Sun of Righteousness into every corner of the world, into their homes, their places of business, their schools, wherever they go.

This morning, the Church sets before us the story of Christ coming to the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda. In terms of history, this event took place before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But liturgically, we are reading this story on this the Fourth Sunday of Pascha; i.e., when we are in that liturgical period of Christ’s holy resurrection. By this arrangement, the Church is helping us to pass over from a literal reading of this story to a spiritual or theological reading of it. As we read it this morning in the liturgical worship of the Church, on this the Fourth Sunday of Pascha, we do not see the Savior as he was before his crucifixion; we see the risen Lord Jesus coming to the paralytic in the mystery of his holy resurrection. The paralytic is on this side of the grave, like we are. He is met by the Christ, who comes to him in his holy resurrection from the other side of the grave. In the Church, we who are on this side of the grave are met as was the paralytic every day of the week throughout the year by the Christ who comes to us in his holy resurrection from the other side of the grave. He comes to us in many ways; but all of these ways are but different manifestations of his call to us that comes from his tomb as from the font of his holy resurrection.

The call of Christ has gone out into all the world; but I think it is heard chiefly by those who take seriously the fact of our death, who are troubled by the reality of evil in the world, and who wonder about the meaning of life and the reason for our existence. And, quite frankly, I think it is difficult for those who are mesmerized by the serpent’s seductive lisp – i.e., those who are caught up in the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, fame and glory, filling their eyes and ears with worldly images, their mouths with earthly food and drink – to hear the call of Christ coming to them from the Cross in the light of his holy resurrection. They are like the paralytic, only they are paralyzed in their mind and in their soul. Not until they become aware that they have been hypnotized by the glitter of the world, that they have been trapped in the coils of the wisdom of human opinions and become paralyzed, mesmerized by the serpent’s seductions, do they begin to wake up to the deeper desire of their soul and mind to walk no longer in the paths of this life that are shrouded by death and the shadow of the tomb looming ahead but in the life of the Spirit that is overshadowed by the boundless light of the Eternal.

In the awakening of the soul, when her eyes open to desires much deeper than desire for the things of the world, if she would look up, she would see the risen Christ standing before her as he stands before the paralytic in this morning’s Gospel. He comes to each one of us clothed in the garments of the biblical story as the final chapter of our own earthly story. The biblical story wends its way from Adam’s formation out of the dust of the ground, to his expulsion from the Garden, through the checkered history of Israel and finally to the tomb of Christ; and in the tomb, it opens onto the Garden of the Eighth Day, the First Day of the New Creation. The biblical story is our story. Each one of us is like Adam; we have disobeyed God’s command and eaten the forbidden fruit of good and evil; i.e., the fruit of pleasure that is mixed with pain, of a life that is mixed with death. Each one of us is like Israel. We have played the harlot, chasing after other lovers, turning our backs on the Heavenly Bridegroom who created us in his own image and likeness. And, like the story of the bible, the particular story of each one of us wends its way from our birth to our tomb. But as we this morning, like the paralytic, open our eyes and look up, we will see the Christ standing before us in his holy resurrection.

Beside the paralytic was the pool of Bethesda. Beside us is the font of our baptism. It is like the tomb of Christ, which we know from the biblical story to be the font of resurrection, the womb of the second birth that is from above. In the waters of the baptismal font we come upon the meaning of life: it is God himself, and the reason of our existence is to partake of God as communicants of life eternal. In the baptismal font, our life opens onto the beginning of the biblical story as onto the new beginning of our own story: it is the mystery of God’s Holy Spirit ‘moving over the face of the waters,” over the darkness and the void into which we have fallen because of our sin, to recreate us, and to give us life in a second birth, to make us children of God, born from above, members of his holy Church [ekklesia]: those who have been “called out” of the darkness of death into the light of Christ’s holy resurrection on the Eighth Day, the First Day of the new creation.[1] 

The Church calls holy baptism, “holy illumination.” Illumined by the rites of holy baptism, we see that these earthly bodies of ours hold a spiritual treasure. In the darkness of this worldly life, a light is shining that the darkness cannot comprehend or extinguish. It is the light of Christ’s holy resurrection.

I think there is an especial beauty in the baptism of an infant. Like the paralytic in this morning’s Gospel, the infant cannot walk. He is wholly dependent on others, as we are wholly dependent on God for all that we are. In the person of his parents and his godparents, he is carried by the Church to the entrance of the temple, as the paralytic no doubt was carried by his friends to his place by the pool of Bethesda. The infant’s godparents say the vows of the baptismal rite on his behalf. In this, we experience the Church, the body of Christ, not as a collection of individuals, each one going his own way and doing his own thing, but as a communion of faithful made alive in the one Mind, and the one Spirit of Christ, learning to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength by practicing his commandment to take up our cross and to his tomb, putting to death by his Spirit the deeds of the body that we may live,[2] and be raised up with him in his Holy Resurrection, be clothed in his “robe of light,” and receive in Him the anointing, the chrism, of his Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who raised him up from the dead, transfiguring our life and our tomb into the font of resurrection in Christ.

In our baptism, in our being clothed with the robe of light, in our chrismation, and in holy Eucharist, we are uniting ourselves to Christ and receiving the same call he gave to the paralytic: “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” In the Church, we learn that this is the call to walk in the commandments of Christ, which are a light on the earth. As we practice the commandments of Christ, we are clothing ourselves in his robe of light; we are crossing the threshold of death and entering into his holy resurrection. This call of the Church is a command; but it is also Good News, for it is saying: You can walk. Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. In your baptism, you have been born as children of God: you are sons and daughters of light and children of the day,[3] the Eighth Day, the First Day of the New Creation. You have this treasure in the earthen vessel of your body: it is the power of Christ’s holy resurrection that is working in you to the fulfillment of the Father’s good pleasure. Therefore, walk in the light as he is in the light.[4] Set before your eyes and ears the sights and sounds of the Gospel, and fill your mind with the radiant light of Christ’s holy resurrection. Following the ascetic disciplines of the Church, lay hold of your deeper desire for the Eternal, and give it to the light of the resurrection by practicing the commandments of Christ. In the light of his holy resurrection, into which you have been raised up through your holy baptism, and by the power of his Holy Spirit who has been planted in you like a mustard seed, rise, take up your bed and walk in the way of his commandments. Unite yourself to Christ, for you have been united to Christ in your holy baptism and in the partaking of holy Eucharist, and discover your tomb made one with the tomb of Christ, transfigured into the Bridal Chamber, bearing life more fruitful than Paradise, brighter than any royal chamber, the font of our resurrection.

[1] Pt 2.9

[2] Rm 8.13

[3] I Thes 5.5

[4] Eph 5.8