This morning there was a little bit of confusion by the choir because they were expecting the Doxalogical hymn of Pascha, which ends with ‘Christ is Risen.’ This is a very reasonable expectation because we are still celebrating Pascha and will be until Ascension. This is the reason why we see all the bay leaves and all the flowers. They are out because we are still celebrating. The tomb has been opened.
We throw the flowers and the bay leaves all over the place because St. John tells us that Christ was buried in a garden tomb (John 19:41). We imagine the power of God and the energies present when Christ is risen from the dead bursting forth with power, glory, fragrance and wonder from the tomb. This is why we see the priest throwing the bay leaves and flowers on Holy Saturday crying out Arise O Lord! And we still have the kouvouklion out. It represents the tomb and note that we place in it the icon of the Myrrh-Bearing Women at the Empty Tomb. So, this stays out for 40 days.
Yet, today is the first Gospel Reading we hear on a Sunday after Pascha that isn’t directly related to the Resurrection. On Thomas Sunday, right after Pascha, we see Thomas encounter the Risen Christ and place his hands in the mark of the nails and in His side. Last week we read about the Myrrh-Bearing Women discovering the empty tomb. In contrast, today we read about the Paralytic next to the Sheep Pool. This is before Christ went to Golgotha and was crucified — before we know Him as the Risen Christ.
The reason for this is that in the life of the Church we are in periods of expectation and periods of celebration. Great Lent is an example of one long act of anticipation. We anticipate Pascha and saying to the world, “Christ is Risen!” Then, after Pascha, for 40 days we continue to say it: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he has trampled death and to those in the tomb He has granted life!” We sing this over and over and over again. At the same time, however, we begin to anticipate Pentecost.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see hints that the Church is beginning to turn its attention towards Pentecost. The Sheep Pool, Bethesda, had a liturgical significance to the life of the Jews. The Gospel according to John speaks of the festival of tents, which the Church equates with Pentecost. There was a liturgical act that the Jews used to do during this festival. The priests would take a big, golden pitcher to the Sheep Pool to take water from the pool to use as a liquid sacrifice at the altar. Thus, the Church is using the story of the Paralytic, which happens next to the Sheep Pool, to pique our interest and get us to start anticipating Pentecost.
On top of this we hear about the descent of the Angel of the Lord upon the waters, which reminds us of both the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the waters at our own baptism. We are reminded of the glorious miracles through the presence of the Holy Spirit that made it possible for the Holy Apostles to go forth and accomplish, against all odds, the great commission to baptize all the nations in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Given this context, I’d like to read you today’s Kontakion, read during Orthros this morning:
I have sinned in every way, I have improperly acted; therefore with paralysis my soul is woefully stricken. Raise it up, O Lord, through Your own divine attention, even as of old You raised up the paralytic, so that saved I may cry, Glory to Your dominion, O my compassionate Christ.
The Church is making the story of the Paralytic into a metaphor. It reminds us of the reality of the fallen world. Though each and every one of us may be a faithful Orthodox Christian, though we make time in our lives to come to church on a Sunday morning, though we make time for Him in our daily lives, each of us — including and especially myself — sins. This reality of sin is like a paralysis and if left untended, it will paralyze our whole life. The cure for this paralysis, according to this morning’s Gospel reading, is coming into the presence of Jesus Christ. By a word, He heals the paralytic, “Pick up your pallet and walk” (John 5:8).
Our cure is the same. Come into the presence of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ and the paralysis of our sin is healed. It is washed away. The most obvious way that we come into the presence of Christ is what we do every Sunday. Christ is on the Table. His Body and Blood are right there. We are given the great blessing to partake of them. He is with us.
The challenge for all of us is to take this moment, this liturgy — this work of the people — and apply it out in the world. We must make choices on a daily basis to be in the presence of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. This is made possible out in the world by the descent of the Holy Spirit.
We are the Temples of God. The Holy Spirit is with us always. As we say at the beginning of many of our services:
O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who are everywhere and fill all things, the treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and dwell within us and cleanse us from every blemish and save our souls, O Good One.
We participate in the Holy Spirit with the life of the Church. We do this when we choose prayer over turning on the TV or the computer to catch up on the morning news — something I struggle with. We do this when we choose to be at church during the week — whether to do work around the church (such as maintenance) or to attend Bible Study, Chant Class or a service — instead of playing golf, catching up on work, watching a movie, etc. These are choices we are given on a daily basis. So we need to make the choice to make the time to be with our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Make the choice to pray. Make the choice to spend time with Scripture — to learn about our Savior.
During Orthros this morning, we read about Cleopas and Luke on the Road to Emmaus. Our Risen Lord opens up the Scripture for them, about how all of them speak about Him. He wasn’t taking about the Four Gospel accounts or the Epistles (they didn’t exist yet!), He was speaking about the Old Testament. As Christ tells us, the OT is replete with information about who Jesus Christ is. We need to make the choice to look for Him there. Make the choice to be with Him, to get to know Him and understand who He is.
When we make the choice to be with someone who needs our help, who needs our presence — “For two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20). Thus we make the choice to visit people in the hospital and those in need in order to bring Christ with us where ever we go. We make the choice to be with Christ through other people — the people we see on a daily basis.
Make the choice to live that life where we get out of the way — we must decrease so that Christ can increase within us, as St. John the Baptist says (see John 3:30). When we make these choices to live and walk with with Christ all the time, when we allow the Holy Spirit to flow through us unabated by our own fallenness we will see miracles happen.
This past week, I was talking to a friend of mine, who happens to be a pastor. He was struggling with the idea of miracles. He says to me, I read the Scripture and about all these miracles — where have they all gone? I told him about what they tell you on Mt. Athos. You will see miracles on Mt. Athos every day, but don’t make a bid deal out of it, because it’s normal. When you are with God, when you walk with Christ every where you go the miraculous is normal. The miraculous is the way the world should be. A world without miracles is abnormal — it is not what God intended for His creation. When we make the choice to walk with God, our hearts are softened, our eyes are opened, our ears will open and we will see and hear miracles every where we go.
So, let us cry out to our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, heal me of the paralysis of my own sin. Be with me. Walk with me. Allow me to see and hear Your work in Your world through me.
Christ is risen from the dead, by death He has trampled death and to those in the tombs, He has granted life.