Sunday of the Paralytic, 10 May 2020

Christ is risen! Χριστὸς ανέστη! Христос воскресе! Hristos a înviat!

The Church regards the Gospel of John as pre-eminently the ‘Paschal’ Gospel, which is why we read it through the 50 days of Pentecost, alongside the Acts of the Apostles, which is similarly seen in ‘paschal’ terms. By calling both of them ‘paschal’, I mean that these two books of the New Testament are seen as unfolding, in an unparalleled way, the mystery of Pascha, the mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection: the mystery, that is, the meaning, and also the consequences—what follows on from Christ’s Death and Resurrection: or, we could just say, the mystery of the Cross, the Cross on which the Lord confronted and overcame death, the Cross on which, as St John keeps on telling us, Christ was raised up and glorified. At one point he has Jesus telling his disciples, ‘And I, if I am raised up from the earth, I shall draw all to myself’, on which the Evangelist comments, ‘And he said this, signifying by what death he was about to die’ (John 12: 32–3). There is a motto, attached to the Western monastic order of Carthusians, which goes: Stat crux, dum volvitur mundus—‘the Cross stands, while the world is turning’. The world is turning, not just astronomically—on its axis, around the sun—but more deeply, the world is a place of ceaseless change, and at the centre of all this change, not removed from it, there is the Cross of Christ, standing, still—‘at the still centre of the turning world’. What is meant by that, what is meant by Christ being lifted up on the Cross, not just as an event in history, but as something always true—lifted up, drawing all to himself, one to whom we can always look; ‘they shall look on him whom they pierced’, ‘another’ scripture John the Evangelist sees fulfilled on the Cross.

And so, during the time of Pascha, we look to the Cross, we look to it as a source of life, a life that has vanquished death. And to help us do that, the Church has chosen three central episodes from the Fourth Gospel for this and the next two Sundays: today the account of the Paralytic, next Sunday the account of the Samaritan woman, and the Sunday after that, the account of the man born blind. In each case we have an encounter between Christ and someone in desperate need (recognized or not), an encounter which leads to transformation, from death to life. The account of the Paralytic is seen as summing up one central aspect of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his ministry of healing. Whereas in the other Gospels, there are many accounts of healing retold throughout the Gospels, in John’s Gospel there are only a few, and they seem to be singled out: after the miracle of the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, the Evangelist remarks that ‘this beginning of the signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and he manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him’ (John 2: 11), and then, after the healing of the royal official’s son in chapter 4, the Evangelist comments, ‘And this was the second sign that Jesus did…’ (John 4: 54). The Evangelist gives up numbering the miracles after that, but the ‘beginning of signs’ and the ‘second sign’ draw attention to them, and to the signs that follow. Our Gospel today tells of the ‘third’ sign. But note that: in the other Gospels the miracles are called δύναμεις, ‘[works of] power’; in St John’s Gospel they are called σημεῖα, signs. For the other Gospels, they are primarily acts of power; for John, they are signs, that mean something, they point to something, they manifest the glory of Jesus, a glory that shines forth from the one lifted up on the Cross. So John’s accounts of Jesus’ signs are, for the most part, accompanied by discourses or discussions in which Jesus explains the significance of what he has done: after the healing of the paralytic, the meaning of his healing on the Sabbath (the rest of John 5; we just read as the Gospel the account of the miracle); the meaning of his feeding of the 5,000 (John 6); the meaning of the healing of the man born blind (John 9); and then the Raising of Lazarus (John 11), the meaning of which is unfolded in the rest of the Gospel.

The Church takes the healing of the Paralytic as a kind of emblem of Jesus’ healing as such. As we sang at vespers yesterday evening, introducing the feast:

You came with compassion, Christ, who moulded human kind with the most pure palm of your hand, to heal those who were sick. You raised up with your word the paralytic by the pool at the Sheep-Gate; you healed the ailment of the woman with the issue of blood; you had mercy on the possessed child of the Canaanite woman; and you did not pass over the request of the Centurion. Therefore we cry out, almighty Lord, glory to You.

The one who came to heal and restore—Christ—is the one who moulded human kind from the dust of the earth in the beginning and breathed into him the breath of life (cf. Gen. 2: 7, where God creates the human in an intimate way, moulding, modelling him, not just by a command). Christ is, in short, the creator, come to restore his fallen creation—‘to raise up Adam who had fallen’, as we often sing. If you will bear with me, there is something else worth comment in that troparion: Christ is said to have moulded humanity τῇ παλάμῃ τῂ ἀχράντῳ—‘with the most pure palm of his hand’. If you look up παλάμη in a dictionary, you will find that it mostly has a negative meaning of slapping, working violence, acting with cunning, but the palm of God’s—Christ’s—hand is ‘most pure’, rejecting all those negative associations.

The next troparion at vespers begins: ‘The paralytic, being an unburied corpse, seeing you cried out: Have mercy on me, Lord, for my bed has become for me a tomb’. Re-creation, or bringing the dead back to life: they are, in a way, the same: as we meditate on the risen Christ, we are contemplating one who is the creator, one to whom everything that exists owes its being, its existence. There is nothing that can challenge that power.

The doxastikon of Vespers revolves round the most chilling words in the account of the paralytic, as the Lord asks him if he wants to be healed: Lord, I have no one—Κύριε, ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἔχω—I have no man, no person. I am on my own; I shall never reach the pool first, after the angel has disturbed it. It must be a terrible thing to have to say: I have no one. I am on my own; I am isolated, a little island. The advice we are all following during this coronavirus crisis is mostly about isolation, cutting ourselves off from others, preventing the spread of this mysterious infection. But we must not allow ourselves to fall into a way of thinking that this is what we, as humans, are meant to be: little islands, little monads, self-sufficient and cut off from each other. If we allow ourselves to think that, even worse if we welcome that, then we are denying what we most fundamentally are—all bound up with one another, as part of a single humanity, and even more intimately as parts of the one body of Christ. So many of the ways in which this is brought home to us are being denied us; but this is a temporary remedy—we must not allow ourselves to think otherwise. ‘Lord, I have no one’—the cry of an ‘unburied corpse’. We must not let ourselves acquiesce in that. There are maybe people we know who are tempted to think that that sums up where they are. If we cannot visit, there are other ways of making contact—phone calls, for instance. And most fundamentally, there is prayer. When we think of ourselves as members of Christ’s body, then, as I have suggested before, we should think of prayer for one another, prayer in which we share in the Lord’s prayer for his church, as the sinews of that body, not the shrivelled-up sinews of a corpse, but the living sinews of a body, of the Body of Christ, whose members we are. Amen.

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