St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of the Paralytic

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, May 14, 2006

The poor man had been laying in the porticoes of the pool of Bethzada for years and years waiting for what must have seemed to him an impossible task. How often did the water become troubled? Once a day? Once a week? Every other Thursday? Perhaps it was a random occurrence, completely unpredictable. The Gospel is tantalizing in what it does not say as much as what it does say. Of course, if we lived in first century Palestine we would likely know the details of the miraculous pool. Think of how people today are attracted to places where miracles are purported to happen! The face of the Virgin Mary purportedly appeared in an oil slick in a rain-filled pothole in Albuquerque and people rushed like mad to see it. Bethzada must have been hopping!

What did this poor man do all day long? Was he taken there every morning by an uncle or did he stay there all the time relying on the charity of others for sustenance and material needs? How in the world did he spend his time? Was he a quadriplegic? A paraplegic? Could he move at all, or just a little?

You see, I have many questions.

It appears to me that the Paralytic must have learned to spend much of his time preparing for that moment of his healing. I think he was ready for Jesus when he came. He probably spent a few of the early years at the pool fantasizing about that moment, living in the future in his mind, daydreaming about what he would do when the moment finally arrived and he could walk again.

A good deal of his time was no doubt spent looking at the past, maybe when he lost his ability to walk if he ever could, or luxuriating in self-pity over a miserable life. But if that is all he did then how could he have been ready to jump into action when the water became troubled? How many opportunities had he missed? How long can one feel sorry for himself without losing one's mind?

If the moment of the troubling of the water was random and seconds mattered, he must have learned to keep himself vigilant and ready. Maybe this time a stranger would happen by at the exact moment! And how quickly he would have to act to get his attention, to explain his dilemma, to coax some assistance and then to make the move to the water before anyone else could get in. No, I think he must have trained himself to be awake and aware most, if not all the time. My guess is he had become a most vigilant and mindful soul.

Notice, when Jesus asked him the question, “Do you want to be healed,” his answer sounds rehearsed, as it he had worked it out in the most concise way he could. His answer is short, simple, rich and complete. He had worked it out. Although he never says yes directly to the Lord's question, obviously he was ready and waiting, vigilant, alert, available and open. I think he must have made the necessary movement from self-absorption to awareness. All of these things are necessary if one is to receive what God has to give at every moment of our lives.

The joyous secret is that God is always near even when it appears that he is absent. He is “everywhere present and fills all things”, ever present, closer to us that our heartbeat, accessible and available, always whispering in our ears what is necessary and good for us at that very moment. The problem is that we are often somewhere else. We are not listening. We are not available? We are off living in the past or the future in our minds, daydreaming, sleeping our lives away.

The Bible says that God never slumbers nor sleeps, but we do most of the time. I love the description James Joyce gives of one of his characters, Mr. Bloom, who is described as “living a short distance from his body”. The phrase, “I am beside myself” is both an excellent example of Bloom's state and a painful reality for many of us. Fr. Elchaninov writes that we are often painfully wandering the world outside of ourselves and Bishop KALLISTOS writes that one of the greatest tragedies of the Fall is that we are unable to be truly present in the moment in which we live.

The Paralytic's disease became a tool for his awakening and for his eventual healing. So can ours. Every moment, every event good or bad can become a tool in both God's hands and ours if we are single-minded, seeking the kingdom of God, with our faces “set like flint towards Jerusalem” as the Psalmist says. Our main distraction is our absorption with our “selves”, or what we have come to define as “ourselves”. It is the disease that only humility can cure. The ingredients of the medicine of humility are the continual practice of the presence of God, remembrance of his Divine Name, the conscious practice of meditation and prayer, asceticism of both mind and body, preparation and regular reception of the Holy Sacraments and the direct practice of compassion. Only the wise follow the prescription.