Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!
from “Orthodox Christian Chants” site
Before we begin: Please continue to give to Ukraine relief. As long as Russia’s barbaric war on Ukraine continues, the needs are almost endless. I again recommend supporting International Orthodox Christian Charities: iocc.org/ukraine22 They have surpassed their original $1 million goal and are now going for $3 million.
Mary Poppins and the Paralytic
I know I told you this story a couple or three years ago, but I’m going to tell it again, because Mary Poppins was so important to me mentally and emotionally – and because she taught me a significant point about the implications of Orthodox theology.
Mary Poppins? Yes. Mary Poppins.
Fifty seven years years ago last February I was paralyzed. Not physically, but like this: My father had died on January 25. I loved him so dearly, and I took it hard. Then I had spent two weeks with my mother helping her straighten up affairs and getting things ready for her to move. I spent one day tearing down the super model railroad layout that we (well, he) had built. I cried all day. Then I had to get back to finish my last year of Episcopalian seminary in Manhattan. As the train pulled out, I remember so vividly seeing my mom standing alone in the dark on the platform. I was their only child. None of the rest of her family lived nearby. There was no internet, no email, no Zoom in those days – only very expensive “long distance” phone calls. She was truly alone. I thought I just couldn’t stand it.
She was a remarkable person. She handled it. But as for me…
I got back to school in bad shape emotionally, mentally, spiritually. I was ‘way behind in my studies. It was my last term before ordination. I had to get at it. And I could not do it – couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t think, couldn’t write. I was “paralyzed”. This continued for three weeks, and I was getting desperate. Prayer wasn’t helping. Twice-daily worship wasn’t helping. Reading the Scriptures and receiving Communion wasn’t helping. I felt my faith was doing me no good at all.
One Saturday afternoon I took an aimless walk and found myself up near Times Square. A movie theater was showing “Mary Poppins”. I don’t know why, but I bought a ticket and walked in. When I walked out of the theater two hours later, I was risen, I was healed. Not completely, God knows – that won’t come till I see my dad again. But I was risen enough to get to work, and had my best grades ever!
However… I felt so disappointed that it wasn’t my “religion” that had raised me up. It was Mary Poppins!
It took me a long time to understand. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
Jesus and Peter: “Arise!”
This Sunday’s Readings: Acts 9:32-42, John 5:1-15
In the passage from Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Peter is fleeing Jerusalem and is now at Lydda. Christian communities had so quickly been established in the region. He finds Aeneas who has been bedridden, paralyzed for eight years. Peter says to him “Jesus Christ heals you. Rise!” and he does. Next in the town of Joppa (now incorporated into Tel Aviv) on the coast, he comes upon a funeral “wake”: Tabitha (left) a good charitable Christian woman – one of the multitude of such women who have graced the Church over the centuries – has died and been laid out. Peter went to her and said “Tabitha, Arise!” and she does!
courtesy of “Orthodox Christianity Then and Now” at Johnsanidopoulos.com *
* This is a remarkable Blog site – a treasure house of “right-thinking” Orthodox material, including saints of the day. Check it out.
The passage from John’s Gospel takes place back in the middle of Christ’s ministry. Jesus is in Jerusalem and comes to the Pool at the Sheep Gate (in Hebrew “Bethesda” – which explains why some hospitals are so-named) where lies a Paralytic, a man paralyzed for 38 years – imagine, since 1984! Christ says to the Paralytic, “Arise! take up your bed and walk”, and he does.
Below: the ruins of the Sheep Gate Pool, recently uncovered.
This Sunday’s readings are fitting for this season when “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…”
Christ also calls us to arise with Him.
Saint John and the Church Fathers saw double meanings, sometimes triple meanings, in Scriptural passages – things which many Christians in our literal-minded age don’t find it easy to perceive.
There are the obvious literal meanings, of course: Here Peter raised up a man who was physically paralyzed, and Tabitha from physical death. Jesus healed a man who couldn’t walk. Christ rose bodily from the tomb, as He will do for us on the Last Day.
But John is also going for another meaning. For example, when Saint Paul wrote: “You have been raised with Christ, so set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” Colossians 3:1, he meant an inner, spiritual, moral, mental rising from inner, spiritual, moral, mental paralysis.
Often we can be spiritually immobilized, as I was – by circumstances, by pride, by situations we have no idea how to handle, by who knows what? But actually we know by whom, and you know the “whom” I’m talking about, and it isn’t God. I’m sure you’ve experienced this: You knew you needed to pray, or forgive, or apologize, or go to Confession, or get to work or church on time, or…. and you just could not get yourself to do it. Paralyzed, unable to rise.
Father Alexander Schmemann wrote somewhere that the scene around the Pool in this Sunday’s Gospel is also a picture of the paralysis of the modern world. There is healing for the world and all the suffering people in it, and everybody knows it’s “over there” somewhere, but somehow people can’t get themselves over there, so that they can be raised up to something better. The whole world is paralyzed. (By sheer force of will, I am now not adding a paragraph about the U.S. Congress.)
מרנאת , Μαράν αθα, Lord Jesus, come and save us. Revelation 22:20
“Do you want to be healed?”
Let’s look at the story: Jesus asked the Paralytic this absolutely necessary question – because some people do not want to be made well. Their life consists of being sick. I was told about a man who was cured of a long-time debilitating disease, and the rest of his life was a disaster. The only way he knew how to relate to the world was by means of his illness.
The Paralytic answered: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the water”, no one to get me there in time. It was believed that when an angel disturbed the water, the first one to get there would be healed. (Sounds a bit superstitious, does it not?) Modern hydrologists, by the way, say there might have been another cause for the disturbance of the water. No problem. God can heal through angels or through hydrology or through angels using hydrology or… it’s all the same to Him. He made it all.
Do you want to be healed of whatever is holding you down? Do I? John is writing about us in today’s Gospel. And this is why the Fathers chose it, of all possible passages, for a Sunday reading.
So, if we really want to be healed, really want to get off our (um, this is a tasteful Blog, so I won’t say it) and get moving, who should we turn to?
Who can raise us up?
The answer, of course, is Christ our God. I think all of us here know that. As He did for the Paralytic, so He can do for us. Jesus simply said to the man “Rise!” and he got up. Likewise in the Epistle, Peter had only to say the word: “Arise!” and by the power of Jesus Christ they did.
In commentaries, I have read that the Pool is an image of Christian Baptism, of how the beginning of our life in Christ, of our rising with Christ into new life, is through the waters of Holy Baptism. That is true, of course.
But, no. That is not what this Gospel is all about. Note carefully: Jesus did not take the man to the Pool. He simply spoke the word “Arise!” The Pool is an image not of Baptism, but of the fact that the work of Christ our God is not limited to water, to Baptism, to the Church, to anything. Baptism is the normal beginning, certainly. But Jesus Christ can get people up and moving any way He wants to.
The story continues. Pharisees get themselves all in a tizzy: Cut it out! It’s illegal to heal on the Sabbath! Illegal to carry beds on the Sabbath! Hey, fellah, go back and lie by the Pool till tomorrow! (I paraphrase.)
The Mosaic Law indeed said that no one should work on the Sabbath, the day of rest. (Good law. People need to take a break. *) However, Christ was not a physician practicing His trade. He argued in another such case: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:11-12
- Did you know that sixty years ago in America almost everything closed down on Sundays? Even professional sports! Competition and greed destroyed this.
But most important was what He said on another occasion when His disciples were caught picking wheat to eat on the Sabbath, and were accused of “practicing agriculture”! He pointed out that when David and his men were hungry, they had done worse than that; they had “raided” the Bread in the tabernacle in the temple. And then He concluded with something shocking: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. “Look. It’s My Law!” Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ gave the Old Testament Law. It was His to keep the Law, His to ignore. Jesus Christ is not bound by that Law or by any law, whether churchly or secular or the so-called “laws of nature”. He can work any way He wants, because all things are His.
Back to Mary Poppins
Christ can even work through a Disney musical. It took me a ridiculously long time to see this clearly – I think really not till I became Orthodox and realized something I had known before but had not fully grasped: that as God, Christ is present in all places. There is nowhere He is not. He was in that theater with me. It was He who raised me up again through that charming story and the music and dancing.
(If you watch Mary Poppins, make sure it’s the 1964 version, not the 2018 one.)
Of course, it was God who did it. Who else could it have been? There is no one else. For it is He and He alone who makes all things rise. His is the Power that makes the sun rise every morning. His is the Power that makes plants rise up out of the ground every spring. His is the Power by whom every physician raises up the sick. When the priest consecrates the Eucharist, Christ has already been in that Holy Bread long before – by His Power causing the wheat and the grapes to grow, and finally causing the juice to ferment, and the yeast to rise. His is the Power that causes each of us rise up out of nothingness and live and breathe and be. His is the Power that could not be held down by death. His is the Power that can raise us up from whatever is holding us down and get us moving so we can truly live and have abundant life. His is the Power that will raise us up at the Resurrection on the Last Day. And He can do it any way He wants to. Because it’s all His.
How can I be raised up?
I’m thinking now that the spiritual foundation I had received in my parish and in seminary was my preparation for Mary Poppins. Twice daily worship, daily Eucharist and traditional Christian teaching (the Episcopal Church was like that in those days) had given me a solid, even if still shallow, grounding in the Faith. I was ready, even though it took me a long time to realize He could also work in “secular” ways. Actually nothing is secular, except for our misuse of them. All things are His. All things are sacred.
Do you want to “set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth”? Colossians 3:2 If truly you do, here’s my advice. Prepare a pathway for Him. Start with the ways Christ has given us. Call on Him. Pray daily. Worship at the Divine Liturgy. Receive the Holy Eucharist. Go to Confession. Read the Scriptures daily. Let Him get at you.
If you feel He has not yet raised you up… I suggest that you look back, and I’d guess you’ll be surprised at how many times He already has. So wait by the Pool. He will come.
Did you think the story is over? Wrong. There is a final episode.
“Who was it that healed you?”
Jesus leaves the former Paralytic, and then the Pharisees “come at” him: Who healed you? Tell us who He is. What do you know about this Man? (They only wanted to catch Him.) The Paralytic didn’t know. It’s the same point: People can be raised up and healed without knowing it was Christ who did it. In fact, most people are raised without knowing it was Him. It happens all over the world every day to billions of non-believers – and to unwitting believers like me fifty seven years go.
“Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you’.” [That line could lead to a whole new discussion about the cause of sin. Sorry. No time now.] The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.” And now he knew.
And now so do I. Thank you, Mary Poppins, for being His channel. Thank you, dear Lord Jesus Christ, for raising me up through that movie. And now every time I watch Mary Poppins, I thank Him again, and He raises me up again.
The next two weeks: Two more stories that take us deep – The Samaritan Woman and The Man Born Blind