Sunday of the Paralytic
Today’s Gospel reading speaks to us about the spiritual paralysis that our Lord came to save us from, something which is expressed through the story of the healing of the paralytic at Bethesda.
The pool at Bethesda was used by the Jews for ritual purification, a type of baptism, and it was called “sheep pool” because was situated right by the “Sheep gate” through which the Jews would bring the sheep to be sacrificed in the Temple. The pool also had five porches, and these symbolise the five books of Moses in the Old Testament, which contain the Law. In other words, the sheep pool at Bethesda symbolises the whole religion of the Old Testament: the law, the rituals, and the sacrifices.
As St Paul tells us in his epistles, the Law of Moses, with its sacrifices and rituals, was insufficient. The Law taught us what things are sinful, and how sin leads us to death, but it doesn’t free us from sin. The sacrifices and rituals likewise express our need for spiritual purification, for forgiveness and reconciliation, but they could provide neither purification nor forgiveness and reconciliation. The Law wasn’t something evil (the Law was from God), but it was incomplete.
This is why all these people had come to the pool — “a great multitude of the infirm, blind, lame, withered”. The pool made manifest their illness, but they weren’t healed by the pool. Healing only took place when an angel came down from heaven and troubled the waters. But for the paralytic, even the presence of the angel wasn’t enough, because as he says, “I have no man”, no one to help me get into the pool. In the same way, when the human race lay paralysed by the fall, by sin and death, we likewise “had no man”.
As St Paul says, “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). For this reason, the Word of God united himself to our human nature, so that God as man could heal us from our spiritual paralysis, so that “the grace of God and the gift of grace which is of the one Man, Jesus Christ, could abound to the many” (v. 15).
And so we can perhaps say that God in the Old Testament diagnosed our spiritual sickness, but the actual cure for this sickness comes only in the New Testament, through the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the healer of our souls and bodies.
And our participation in the Lord’s incarnation takes place within a specific context, which is the Church, the Body of Christ. When the angel would “come down from time to time into the pool and trouble the water”, this symbolised our Christian baptism, in which the Holy Spirit descends into the waters and joins us to Christ as members of His Body. We also read that “after the troubling of the water, the one who first entered became well”. Only one, and only the first, something which, according to the Fathers of the Church, represents the unity and uniqueness of the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Orthodox Church — the first and original Church — and the one and only baptism of this one Church for the forgiveness of sins.
We also notice something else. The paralytic had been in that condition for 38 years. In the Bible, as you all know, the number forty signifies the fulfilment, the completion, of a particular period or era. Noah waited forty days in the ark after the Flood, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years before they entered the Promised Land, David was king of Israel for forty years, our Lord fasted for forty days in the desert before he began to preach, and after His Resurrection He remained on earth for forty days before ascending into heaven, etc. According to the Fathers of the Church, the number 38 here signifies that two things were missing before the period of paralysis could come to an end, and a new way of life could come about: 1. “Take up thy bed…” 2. “And be walking”.
We have to remember that the spiritual life is something positive and active, not something negative. Salvation does not simply mean to escape hell, but it means to reach paradise; it’s not enough to avoid the destruction of humanity, but to reach to the deification (theosis) of humanity. When the Lord heals us from our paralysis, He does this so that we can walk, so that we can make progress, so that we can be sanctified. This healing is the beginning, not the end. And this spiritual progress can only take place when we take up our bed; in other words, our neighbour. Others had brought the paralytic to the pool, and now the Lord is telling him to use his newfound strength to lift up and support those who had once supported him. In essence, the two commandments Christ gives to the former paralytic are the two great commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God…and love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12:30-31).
First of all, however, we must ask ourselves that fundamental question the Lord poses to the paralytic: “Dost thou wish to become well?”
Fr Kristian Akselberg