Fr. Alexander Webster, Dean of Holy Trinity Seminary, masterfully compares chronological time and sacred time in the biblical story of the Healing of the Paralytic to reveal that both culminate in the healing work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The paralytic waited for the stirring of the waters every year in order to be healed. Thirty-eight years he waited because he had no one to carry him to the pool. One day the Messiah came and asked the paralytic if he indeed wanted to be healed. When the paralytic responds in the affirmative, Jesus heals him by the power of His Word.
This event shows us, writes Fr. Alexander, that sacred time is never far from chronological time and one enters into the other through the person of Jesus Christ. If and when the Lord comes to us and asks if we want to be healed, be ready to say yes.
By Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster, PhD
Holy Trinity Monastery Cathedral, Jordanville, NY
May 19, 2019
There was a time and a place for the healing of the paralytic in today’s Gospel reading—but not what he expected or could have dreamed!
First, the time:
The Gospel of St. John reveals that the paralytic had endured his “infirmity” for 38 years when our Lord Jesus Christ encounters him near the pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in the walls of Jerusalem (John 5:5). And for all of those 38 years the paralytic dwelled near that pool, along with, as John 5:3 reports, “a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed,” waiting for that special moment each year when an angel would stir the water, so that the first person who stepped into the stirred water might be healed.
Here is how St. John Chrysostom praised the paralytic for his quixotic hope:
The perseverance of the paralytic was astonishing. He was thirty-eight years old, and each year he hoped to be freed from his disease. He lay there waiting, never giving up….And he failed, not through any carelessness of his own but through being oppressed and suffering violence from others. And still he did not give up. [Homilies on the Gospel of John, 36.1-2, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), IVa, p. 180]
After our Lord Jesus Christ, not the angel or the water, heals the paralytic miraculously, commanding him to “Rise, take up your pallet and walk” (John 5:8), the other Jews at the scene choose to complain and to scold the paralytic for “working” on the Sabbath by carrying his pallet!
The miraculous healing seems to have escaped their notice!
From their standpoint, perhaps as pious Jews, if the man had to wait for 38 years, why not one more day? Why not the day after the Sabbath, which the Lord in the Decalogue had commanded to keep holy?
Why not? Because as Jesus Christ said in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
The other Jews would have made the paralytic, like themselves, slaves to a false notion of sacred time!
Now, there is a “sacred time” for us Orthodox Christians, to be sure. We greet the end of the day and setting of the sun as a new day at Great Vespers each Saturday evening—and Daily Vespers every evening in monasteries. We know that the Church blesses all created time every day during the daily liturgical cycle and our own lifecycles from baptism in infancy to the funeral service at the end of life on this earth. So surely the Jewish critics’ concern in the Gospel story today was not misplaced.
But the power of that Gospel story for us today, as in all the centuries past, has its source in our Lord Himself setting aside sacred time: there can be no limits on God’s mercy—even the Sabbath!
The personal encounter with Jesus Christ supersedes everything—even God’s own Old Testament laws of sacred time, and certainly our rules concerning proper behavior on the Sabbath.
But the question remains, “Why then?” Why did our Lord allow the paralytic’s affliction to persist until his encounter near the pool of Bethesda?
That question leads us to the place in today’s Gospel reading—the pool of Bethesda.
The Church Fathers enumerated several reasons for the suffering of the faithful in the Old Testament era and the new Christian era, including punishment when rehabilitation is hopeless, or “to prevent future sins,” or to bring a sinner to repentance, or to set the stage for a mighty work of God. [Orthodox Study Bible, p. 783n regarding Job 4:7]
St. John Chrysostom drew the logical conclusion from our Lord’s command to the paralytic in John 5:15, “Sin no more lest a worse thing come upon you.” St. John declared: “Here we learn in the first place that his disease was the consequence of his sins”!
So our Lord tarries in granting healing to the paralytic to bring that sinner to repentance at the appropriate time and place of the Lord’s own choosing.
But a happier reason for the place in today’s Gospel story came from another patristic writer at the turn of the fifth century, Theodore of Mopsuestia—not a saint or always Orthodox, but sometimes a reliable interpreter of the Holy Scriptures. In his commentary of the Gospel of St. John, Theodore referred to the unusual event at the pool of Bethesda each year:
It was not that many people were healed at the same time but that the one who came down first obtained the aid offered by grace….Even though many lay ill there, he [our Lord] did not heal all of them. But, in order to show his power, he chose one afflicted with a very serious infirmity and who was hopeless already about his recovery. [Commentaries on John, 2.5.2-5, ACCS, IVa, p. 179]
St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his commentary on the Gospel of John early in the fifth century, seized upon the seemingly self-evident question that our Lord poses to the paralytic in John 5:6: “Do you desire to be made well?” St. Cyril wrote:
The question as to whether he wanted to obtain what he longed for is huge. It has the kind of force and expression that conveys that Jesus has the power to give and is now ready to do so, only waiting for the request of the one who will receive this grace. [Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2.5, ACCS, IVa, p. 180]
An unlikely person in a very unlikely place: the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, desperately hoping against reality for 38 years that someone, anyone, would help him into the pool at precisely the right moment—and ahead of all the other afflicted, very needy, fellow Jews.
And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, out of nowhere comes the Messiah Himself!
Now is the time…this is the place for a mighty work of God Himself!
There is no need for the waters, no need for an angel this time: merely by His spoken word, our Lord heals the paralytic: instantly,…fully,… perfectly,…so that the now former paralytic is able, at once, to get up and walk away from his pathetic place of misery for so many years.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no such thing as a “proper” time and place for divine healing: whenever and wherever we encounter the Son of God, healing may occur!
So don’t put our Lord into a box. At any moment—day or night, Sunday or weekday, working day or day off—and in any place—church or home or workplace or on the street or in our cars or in a store or a restaurant or anywhere—our merciful, loving, forgiving God may encounter us and, through His presence, lift our burdens and heal our body, our mind, or our spirit.
Keep praying to our Lord—every day—through the intercessions of the Theotokos, our Guardian Angel, and the saints. for healing of whatever afflicts us. If and when our Lord comes to us and asks, “Do you desire to be made well?”—we need only to be ready to say, “Yes, Lord!”
About the Author
- Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster, PhD, is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain (Colonel), author of four books on Orthodox social ethics, and Dean & Professor of Moral Theology at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary in Jordanville, New York.