Monday, May 23, 2005

The Healing of the Paralytic

(John 5:1-15) (Fourth Sunday of Pascha)

If you think about it, we have the same problem as the paralytic. He wanted to be healed; but, when the time came, and the angel had troubled the waters of the pool at Bethesda, he could not get into the water by himself; he needed help, and he had no one to help him. We are paralyzed by our sins – especially by the ones that we have to repeat each and every time we go to confession, because we continue to repeat the sins through the course of our lives. Oh, sometimes we do resist the temptations that beset us; but even when we’ve had a victorious day, we know that, sooner or later, we’re going to fall again, and sin again.

We have to recognize that we are trying to overcome these sins by our own efforts alone, with only our own strength – and that we cannot, and will not, succeed by this approach. We have to recognize our inability to be holy and pure on our own; and that we have to ask for help.

So: how do we not try to do this by our own strength? I don’t know; I’m struggling with that myself. But there are hints from the fathers for us to take into consideration.

The first is that we must pray, asking for God’s help. OK, so this is obvious. It is the foundation for our having a rule of prayer, which begins with attending as many of the services of the Church that we can fit into our schedule – and giving these services the highest priority, rather than just “making do” with the ones that are convenient. The rule of prayer continues with developing the habit of daily morning and evening prayers. We start with the ones found in the prayer book; and add our own hopes and needs and intercessions for others as well. We make a part of this rule the blessing of food before we eat; and giving thanks when we have finished; and we also ask for God’s guidance before we start an activity, and give thanks when the task is completed. Bless yourself and the vehicle you’re driving when you’re about to depart. Parents, bless your children when they go to school, or are going out with friends; and children, pray for your parents. When you learn of someone in need, stop and pray for God to bless and help them. When you hear that someone has died, stop and ask God to be merciful to them, and to grant that person a blessed repose; and do the same when you pass by a cemetery. When you hear a siren, or see a police car, fire truck, or ambulance go by, ask God to protect and deliver those in need, and to keep safe those who go to render them aid.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, father, that’s a lot of time in prayer!” Well, keep in mind that St. Paul instructs us to pray continually. These are steps we can take in that direction; and when our minds are fixed in prayer, and we remember that prayer brings us into the intimate presence of God, it is easier to resist the temptations to sin! More prayer is good, and most all of us would benefit by it.

The next thing we need to do is to fast. Prayer and fasting are the sword and shield of our spiritual warfare. Fasting teaches our flesh that it cannot have what it wants simply because it wants it. Fasting weakens the flesh and its desires, and purifies us in body, mind and spirit. Fasting shows us that we can deny ourselves; and so we can learn to fast from our sins, as well as from food; and so gain an advantage against our sinful desires and habits. If you deny a weed the food or water it needs, it weakens, and can be uprooted and removed far more easily than when it is at full strength. So, too, it is with our sins.

It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to hear that we must also give alms, and struggle against our passions. In fact, this is one of the points the fathers make about how we can achieve the victory over sins, the healing of our beings that we desire, but cannot achieve in our own strength. We see two mechanisms at work in the Gospel account today. The first, when the angel comes and troubles the waters, is akin to the Church, and the way of life we are taught to follow. If we will do these things, we will be healed; and it isn’t just the first person in who is helped. Each one of us can and will be transformed to the extent that we embrace the way of life that has been the way of the saints.

Of course, the paralytic was not healed in that way: he was healed by our Lord Jesus Christ. But note that he was present at the pool at Bethesda; it is there that the Lord found him, and delivered him; and afterward, he was found in the Temple, giving thanks to God. It was there, by the way, that he was also warned not to return to his sinful ways, lest something worse should come upon him than the paralysis from which he had been delivered. He did not come seeking out our Lord; he was following the way that had been given, and was found there and helped by the Lord. In the same way, we may also be found and delivered by the Lord; and we make ourselves available to Him by following the Orthodox way of life.

Finally, we must not be discouraged, we must not give up, just because we don’t see anything changing. Remember that the paralytic had waited, without becoming bitter, and without losing hope, for thirty-eight years! St. John Chrysostom notes that we, having persisted in prayer for all of ten days, and not having received what we had asked for, are too slothful afterwards to have enough zeal to continue in prayer. So, even as we continue to struggle to do all that we can with the strength that we have, we should also pray without ceasing for the strength and help we cannot do by ourselves; that our Lord Jesus Christ will strengthen us with His strength, and win in and through us the victory that we cannot attain by ourselves. Let us offer this prayer as we offer ourselves, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Christ is risen!

We are Meant to Be Like Them

(Mark 15:43-16:8) (Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women)

The myrrh-bearing women came to the tomb, bearing fragrant spices with which to care for the body of their Lord. This was an act of obedience, being performed according to the traditions of the Jews, to keep His body from corruption, and from the odor associated with that condition. The myrrh they brought would absorb the moisture of the body that would otherwise promote the decay of the flesh; and the myrrh, together with other herbs and spices, would give the body a sweet, rather than a foul, fragrance. So they came, out of a sense of duty; out of a sense of devotion; they came because of their love for the Lord. And so they were among the first to learn the good news from the angel: He is not here; Christ is risen from the dead.

Why do we celebrate the myrrh-bearing women? As is so often the case, the Church gives us this example for our instruction, for we are meant to be like them.

Consider that they are going to the tomb at the start of the day. We, too, should start our day with our attention focused upon the Lord, and of how we might offer service and devotion to Him. As they came bearing spices, we should also seek to bring to Him spiritual perfume: with humility, and meekness, and the love of peace that leads us to be of help and service to others. We should come to anoint His Body with the spiritual oils of love and mercy, of prayer and fasting, and of giving to meet the needs of others. In this, let us remember that His Body is the Church – our brothers and sisters in Christ; and even those who hate us, and are our enemies.

As they journeyed to the tomb, they wondered, who would roll away the stone from the sepulcher, so that they could enter to perform this service for His Body? When they arrived, they found the stone rolled away. For us, it is as if our hearts, too, were sealed with a great stone, which we, by ourselves, are unable to roll away. Our sins, and our ignorance, our indifference to the commands of our Lord, and to the needs of others, and the deadening of our conscience by our repeated sinful habits, make it seem as if Christ in our hearts is also dead and buried; and who shall roll away the stone for us? Do we even have such a desire, to have the stone rolled away, so that we might be with the Lord, living in our hearts? If we will but come to the tomb, desiring to see Him, repenting of our sins, praying that God will transform us and help us to struggle against our sins, will not the angel who guards us roll away the stone, and let us behold the living Lord within us?

Brothers and sisters: Let us strive to be like the myrrh-bearing women. Let us arise each day with a desire to draw near to our Lord, and render to Him the duty required of us as an act of love and devotion for Him. Let us love and care for each other; let us pray, and fast, and give alms, and struggle, that we might be a sweet fragrance before God and man. Let us do our part to labor with God to transform our hearts, stony with sin, to be rolled away, that we might bear the living heart of Christ, filled with love for God and man, and so show forth Him Who has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death for all the world to see.

Christ is risen!