THE SCRIPTURES READ on the remaining Sundays in the Paschal season present us with some of life’s most debilitating hardships: blindness, isolation, and, today, paralysis. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles read today we hear about the healing of a man named Aeneas in Lydda (Lod), some 23 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Aeneas, we are told, “had been bedridden eight years and was paralyzed” (Acts 9:33).
In the Gospel reading which follows, we hear about another man “who had an infirmity thirty-eight years” (John 5:5) and who was healed by the Lord Jesus, at the Pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha) outside Jerusalem, where the infirm gathered hoping for healing. This pool was used to clean the animals destined for sacrifice before they would be brought into the temple.
It is not clear why the sick gathered there. There was no explicit mention of miracles at this pool in Jewish sources of the day such as Josephus or Philo. The pool itself, buried in the destruction of Jerusalem, was unknown until archeologists uncovered it in the nineteenth century. This led some to suggest that the passage was not historical at all. Rather it was meant to teach that the “angel in the water” foreshadowed the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in baptism, which heals us of sin (see Tertullian, On Baptism, chapter 5).
Others have noted that there were healing springs and pools in the ancient pagan world as well. Cures at those pools followed specific patterns like the one John records here: the first one entering the pool after the water was “stirred” would be healed. John affirms that Christ’s word alone, without any ritual or procedure, was enough to heal. Like the paralytic who had to stop relying on the pool for salvation and turn instead to Christ, so Israel had to stop relying upon the Law to save them, and turn to Christ instead.
What Does It Mean to be Paralyzed?
In the Early Church commentators did not often speculate on the pool or even the nature of the man’s illness. It was more common to compare the physical infirmity of the paralyzed man to the spiritual paralysis which afflicts Christians, either occasionally or in a regular way. It was often noted how, in the lives of each one of us, there will be spiritual paralysis: moments of weakness or failure, which can last for many years, as with the paralytic at the sheep pool.
In “spiritual paralysis,” the energies of our soul, of our mind, of our heart, of our will, of our body itself are fettered, fettered by the fact that we have no courage and we have no power within us to move and to act to the full of our longings. We stand, year after year on the very edge, on the bank of the pool that could give us life without being able to enter it.
Christian Life as Synergy,
In one of the last New Testament books to reach its final form, the Second Epistle of St Peter, we see the Christ spiritual life addressed. Spiritual life, we read, comes “… through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by whom have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3. 4). The way to theosis, being partakers of the divine nature, comes because of Christ, God become incarnate so that we might become divinized.
We, however, need to embrace this gift, lest it whither away and we become blind or paralyzed. We do this, the epistle continues, by practicing virtue, self-control, godliness, perseverance, brotherly kindness and love. “For if these things are yours and abound,
you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:3-9). Fruitful Christian life, then, requires that we do our part to make our own the gift of divine life we have received.
We can become shortsighted or even blind to the gift of our baptism, remaining barren and unfruitful – in other words, paralyzed – without being committed to growing in virtue, knowledge, self-control and the rest. We may see this happen in the lives of some Christians who do not consider their baptism seriously, who rarely look to the Gospel, receive the Eucharist or even attend the Liturgy. They are blind to the gift of Christ and therefore paralyzed in the spiritual life. We see it in ourselves, when we cannot focus on the words we read or even the prayers we are saying, distracted by the concerns of daily life.
Paralysis and the Passions
As more philosophically-minded Greeks accepted Christ, they identified the signs of spiritual paralysis in terms of the classical passions: gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, pride and vainglory. A person who is focused on personal comforts (through food and drink, sex or material possessions) will find it difficult if not impossible to center on the spiritual life. If they attend church at all, they find their mind wandering back to the object of their passion.
A story is told about St Basil, the revered Fool for Christ, who confronted Tsar Ivan the Terrible one day because he was not at the Liturgy. Ivan protested that he was indeed in church for the service., Basil replied that the emperor’s body was in church, but his mind was on the Vorobiev hills (where he was having a palace built). When Basil died in 1557, the Tsar acted as one of his pallbearers.
It would be even harder for people ruled by their pride or vanity to look beyond themselves to God or others. Their piety dries up “like baked clay” (Psalms 21:16), withered like a plant with too much sun and no water. This is why combatting the passions has been seen as fundamental to a committed Christian life since the dawn of monasticism in the third century.
In his Homily 37 on the Gospel of John, St John Chrysostom discusses the spiritual medicines necessary to combat the passions and other distractions from the Christian life: “The divine oracles [the Scriptures] are a treasury of all manner of medicines, so that whether it be needful to quench pride, to lull desire to sleep, to tread underfoot the
love of money, to despise pain, to inspire confidence, to gain patience, from them one may find abundant resource.” The Scriptures held the medicine; the illnesses were the passions
The Church as Healer
While the Scriptures portray the incarnate Christ as Healer of the man at Bethesda, it depicts the Body of Christ, the Church, as the source of Aeneas’ recovery. The Church is meant to be a therapeutic community in which Christ continues His healing work in our midst.
“Yesterday you were flung on a bed, exhausted and paralyzed, and you had no one to put you into the pool when the water should be troubled. Today you have Him, who is in one Person God and Man. You were raised up from your bed, and even carried your bed, publicly acknowledging the benefit. Do not again be thrown on your bed by sinning, in the evil of a body paralyzed by its pleasures. As you now are, so walk, mindful of the command, ‘See, you have been made well.
Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you’ (John 5:14), if you prove yourself bad after the blessing you have received. You have heard the loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out’.”
(St Gregory the Theologian, Oration on Holy Baptism, XL, 33)