(Wilt Thou Be Made Whole?)
Fr. Basil Zebrun
In the Orthodox Church the Sundays immediately after Pascha focus thematically on what took place following Jesus' Resurrection. Additionally, they remind the faithful of their personal renewal through baptism, by references to water, healing and enlightenment as found primarily in the Gospel according to St. John. The missionary endeavors of the Apostles and the early life of the Church are also highlighted through readings from the Book of Acts.
The Church's ordering of post Paschal lessons originates from Pascha being the traditional feast for receiving catechumens. Historically, the appointed Scripture readings and accompanying hymns -- from Pascha to Pentecost -- constituted further instruction for the newly received. Their rebirth in Christ and reception of the Holy Spirit illumined their minds to a more profound understanding of the Church's mysteries. Thus, during the fifty days leading to Pentecost the newly baptized heard for the first time, lessons from St. John, the most sacramental and mystical of the Gospel accounts. Those who were already members of the Church, upon hearing these passages, were reminded of the New Life bestowed upon them at the time of their own baptism.
The Third Sunday after Pascha (May 11) -- also known as the Fourth Sunday of Pascha -- specifically commemorates Christ’s healing of the Paralytic (John 5). The passage is a beautiful expression of our Lord's self-identification with man, His desire to save man from the corruption of this world.
The Evangelist John identifies this as the third sign (miracle) performed by our Lord. It takes place at the Sheep Pool in Jerusalem, during the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the commemoration of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Indeed, the five porches of the Pool are sometimes said to symbolize the Law, specifically the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy.
By some accounts the Sheep Pool in Jerusalem was a foul place. At the pool sacrificial animals were washed. In addition, the pool possessed healing properties so that people with various diseases sat around the water, often for years, waiting for a chance to be cured. At times they cried out greatly in pain. Suffice it to say, few came near this place unless absolutely necessary.
As it happens, Jesus drew near, and by coming to the pool He did two things. First, He displayed great compassion for one man, who never had an opportunity to hear Christ's words or to see His miracles; the Gospel tells us that he had been ill, immobile, "thirty eight years" (verse 5). Neither had the man any chance of benefiting from the water's miraculous quality due to the competitive atmosphere surrounding the pool. The Gospel relates that after the stirring up of the water, "whoever stepped in first...was made well of whatever disease he had" (verse 4). Thus, the man said to Jesus, "Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me" (verse 7). Considering the Paralytic's situation, Jesus did not require faith from him as He did with others. He simply asked one question: "wilt thou be made whole?" (verse 6), sometimes rendered, "do you want to be healed?"
Secondly, by showing such love to the Paralytic, Christ's love for all mankind is revealed. The Sheep Pool with its stench, misery and death, is an icon of this fallen world. The response of the Paralytic -- "Sir, I have no man" -- reflects the experience of those who suffer through life's divisions, its broken character. There is, in fact, "no man" who can help except One. And to each person that One Man -- Jesus -- says, as He did implicitly to the Paralytic, "God's Savior has arrived. Do you want to be relieved not just from physical ailments, but from every consequence of sin, and ultimately from the "fear of death," that holds men captive (Hebrews 2:15). In other words, "wilt thou be made whole, complete?" Do you want a new and blessed life, the antidote for the brokenness of this world?"
Answers to the above are not as obvious as some may think. The questions assume a particular dynamic between God and man: that in everything God takes the initiative, but man is called to cooperate with divine grace. Nothing is forced. There is no coercion, no overriding of human freewill. There is always the possibility of saying no to Jesus, as well as yes, and an affirmative response implies a lifelong commitment. Thus, the initial question of desire -- "wilt thou be made whole?" -- is necessary.
For the Paralytic it was necessary because his physical limitations may have led to mental and emotional debilitations as well; feelings of despair or perhaps uselessness. A hymn sung at Great Vespers describes such a possibility, placing words into the mouth of the Paralytic as part of an inspired commentary:
"The Paralytic was like an unburied corpse. He saw Thee and shouted: “Lord, have mercy on me! My bed has become my grave! Why should I live? What use is the Sheep's Pool to me? I have no one to put me into the pool when the waters are stirred. I come to Thee, O Fountain of healing. Raise me up, that with all I may cry to Thee: ‘Glory to Thee, O Almighty Lord!’” (Lord I Call Upon Thee; Eve of Paralytic Sunday)
Thus, on one level, Christ's healing would bring with it a practical accountability for life as never before experienced by this man, essentially requiring Jesus to ask: "Wilt Thou be made whole?"
On another level, however, our Lord offers the Paralytic more than the ability to walk or to function physically, one hundred percent. In the end He brings salvation, and this particular gift of spiritual healing also demands dedication, a giving up of the old and faithfulness to the new, an ultimate accountability. In the Orthodox Church this "taking off and putting on," is acknowledged at the time of baptism when the newly illumined are asked, "do you renounce Satan?" and "do you unite yourself to Christ?" For our purposes we could say that the catechumen is essentially questioned several times, "Are you sure that this New Life is what you want, and that you wish to follow Christ as our Lord?"
Of related significance, Jesus later says to the Paralytic, "See, you have been made whole. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee" (verse 14. See also John 8: 11). The assumption is that once a person has received the gift of Christ, life cannot simply continue as usual. From that moment there is a calling to, "work out (one's) own salvation, with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12) in light of divine grace: "Sin no more..."
Some people may reject the above dynamic as insulting to God's sovereignty and power. It is unsettling to others, because such an understanding of salvation and healing places a certain responsibility on the faithful, on their desire to be changed and to live "the New Life."
But the Orthodox Church would emphasize that with such an approach God's great love is shown. God loves His creation so much that He is willing to share everything that He is and has, including freedom. Ultimately, God wants sons and daughters who love Him and not servants who merely fear Him, or who are forced to obey Him. He Who has freed man, honors His creatures with the freedom to choose the life of glory and splendor made manifest through the Resurrection. Christ is Risen!