As we look at today’s Gospel reading, we can be on the lazy side and ask, “What does the account of the paralytic have to do with the Fast?” But if we’re on the more inquisitive side, and we wish to understand how the Church, in her love for us, her children, attempts to move us and motivate us, we’ll come to embrace today’s message with the fullness it deserves.
We talk so very often about “living our faith,” but I wonder if we nearly as often stop to ponder what that expression should mean in our daily lives. We speak often about the saying of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Save yourself, and a thousand around you will be saved.” We’ve mentioned the teaching of St. Nikolai Velimirovich which says, “The salvation of the soul is the only meaning of labor of man on earth.” And we’ve spoken of the teaching of St. Theophan the Recluse which says, “Look to heaven, and measure every step of your life so that it is a step toward it.” Three Holy Fathers, all offering advice to us that, if we are to be selfish about anything, we should indeed be selfish in attaining a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. We need to do this for ourselves first. And the advice is not inconsistent with what we as humans advise others to do. Instructions given on an aircraft teach us that, if oxygen masks descend from the airplane’s ceiling, and if we are traveling with children, we should put our own masks on first. Only then can we be of help to our children, who certainly need to depend on us, but won’t be able to do so if we ourselves are “lost”.
So we are called to live a life that is exemplary. We don’t need to walk up to strangers on the street and ask, “Are you saved? Can I tell you about Jesus?” It’s far more important for that same stranger to see us offer a donation to a beggar, or to leave our own grocery cart to offer help to a senior who is having trouble loading her car, or to let a person go before us into a crowded shopping line. In short, our actions speak volumes about who Christ is in our lives, and it speaks not on Sunday morning when we are inside the Church walls where these people will not see Christ in us, but it needs to speak on Tuesday afternoon, and Friday evening.
“OK, Father. I’m still puzzled about the paralytic,” I hear you thinking.
The instruction for us, especially as we consider our own walk thru the Great Fast, is to be found in the men who bring the paralytic. St. Mark details plainly that there were four of them. And these four had faith. They knew that if they could place their friend before the Lord, Jesus could heal him. They had no doubt in this. Their dilemma was one of logistics – the crowd was so large that they couldn’t get their friend anywhere near to where they knew that the Lord was. If they couldn’t get him in, they’d miss their opportunity. What could they do? “If we can’t get in from any side, let’s go from above!”
By faith they “ascended”, they lifted the rigid body of their friend to the rooftop. And as perilous as it had to be to “open” the roof while they stood upon it, this is what they did, so that they could then lower the unfortunate friend to the presence of our Lord.
So now, what is the gem we’re attempting to mine from St. Mark? He records, “Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, ‘Son, you sins are forgiven.’” HERE is the gem – Jesus SAW the faith of the four. It was by THEIR faith that their friend received healing.
But the faith of the four did not need to be expressed in words. Their faith was VISIBLE. Yes, our Lord saw it, but their faith was shown to every person who had been blocking their path to reach the Lord. Every one there came to understand the faith of these four men, and it was known without speaking a single word! We too, then, need to find it in our ability to modify our behavior so that Christ can speak through our actions. We need to allow Him to be seen in what we DO – as well as what we say, and HOW we say it.
But there are more gems for us to mine in our walk toward our Lord’s Passion. For the antithesis of the visible faith of the four men is present in the same house in the persons of the Scribes who began to judge the Lord for His proclaiming that the paralytic’s sins were forgiven. The Just Judge perceived in the body language of these men their lack of faith, and let us opine that this was as evident in the Scribes as was faith evident in the four.
Let us consider the varied miracles described by St. Mark in this one event. First there is our Lord’s demonstrating that He sees into the hearts of men, discerning faith when it is present in some, but also guile in others. Next there is the forgiving of sins, healing of the soul which in turn permits the body to be freed from the disease which is binding it. And we dare not forget the fact that our Lord heals by His word alone.
Another element we should grasp in our walk toward Holy Week is that we must come and stand in the presence of the Lord for us to attain the salvation we are seeking. The Great Fast is a time during which we are seeking this connection to our Lord, hoping to place ourselves in His presence. But we must approach this with patience and care. In His mercy and love for us, the Lord always hears our prayer, but we may not “feel” His presence at times when we might have hoped to.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, in Beginning to Pray speaks to this issue. He teaches, “A meeting face to face with God is always a moment of judgment for us…. Thanks be to Him that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting.”
The paralytic was able to greet the Lord, to be in His presence, and the Lord’s response was first forgiveness. This indicates that the paralytic’s perspective was already one repentance. This is the perspective we need to adopt for ourselves when we attempt to come into His presence. We need to be humble, quiet, repentant, emptied of self so that there is room for Him within our hearts.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich says it this way. “It is a farmer’s duty to plant and water, but it depends on God’s power, wisdom and mercy whether or not the seeds will bring forth fruit. It is a scientist’s duty to examine and seek, but it depends on God’s power, wisdom and mercy whether or not knowledge is revealed. It is a parent’s duty to raise and educate a child in the fear of God, but it depends on God’s power, wisdom and mercy how long the child will live. It is a priest’s duty to teach, inform, reprimand and guide the faithful, but it depends on God’s power, wisdom and mercy whether or not his flock will bear fruit. It is the duty of each of us to endeavor to be made worthy to stand in the presence of God the Son, but it depends on God’s power, wisdom and mercy whether or not we will be permitted near to the Lord.”
As we walk the path of the Great Fast, we eat less so that we’ll pray more so that our hearts will be moved to compassion for our fellow man and repentance for our own well being. If the Fast is having the desired effect, our faith will become visible by our actions, and we will be living lives desiring to put ourselves in the very presence of our Lord.
Our being here today is evidence of that desire, for He is here today. And if we have completed the walk to repentance, we have the God-given grace to approach Him such that He becomes part of us through the Holy Eucharist.
If I have a prayer this day for all of us as Orthodox Christians, it is that we together will find ourselves “as one” and returned to approach the Holy Chalice before our Lord’s Resurrection!