Our Divine Liturgy was cancelled this past Sunday due to an ice storm (or, at least, the near certain forecast of dangerous conditions in the wake of one, which turned out to be not so bad, after all, thanks be to God…), so here is a sermon on the Sunday Gospel reading which we missed, on the healing of the woman with a disabling spirit. Prepared by Ross Cooper as the first installment of a series as part of the Saint Stephen’s Course in Orthodox Theological Studies.
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him. (ESV)
Today’s Gospel lesson is, perhaps, not one of the best-known or celebrated of the stories in the four Gospels. The story of the healing by Our Lord Jesus Christ of the “woman with a disabling spirit” on the hallowed day of rest, the Sabbath, is found only in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Although very short, this passage may have some very important lessons: lessons about Who Jesus the Christ Is; about what is the nature of the infirmity, sickness, and bound-ness which we all face; and about what the Incarnation of the Son of God means – a Mystery made present during the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth twenty centuries ago, but which is made real for us each time we gather as an assembly, especially when we gather to celebrate the Holy Eucharist – about, fundamentally, how we are called to be made whole, to be made ‘straight,’ to be released from bondage, to be healed, to have the opportunity to be that very reality which God created us to be, through the redemptive work of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
Among the holy Fathers of the Church who has left us some guiding wisdom on this portion of the Gospel of Saint Luke is Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Saint Cyril lived in the late 300s and the first part of the 400s A.D. He is best known in modern times for his writings and activities during the controversy over the Nestorian heresy, which emphasized the humanity of Christ to the detriment of his divinity – his Godhead. Not by coincidence, perhaps, Saint Cyril wrote commentaries on the whole Gospels of Saint Luke and Saint John. In his writing on the Gospel reading which we heard today, Saint Cyril draws our attention to some very key points in considering this rather short, even terse, and perhaps confusing passage. Saint Cyril’s commentary emphasizes that, in this incident, we may see that:
- Human beings may be (temporarily) in bondage to sickness and suffering, and “held of Satan”;
- That this is not their natural state, as created and given by God, but a transitory condition, allowed in order for greater good to show forth;
- That the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is fully God, and may accomplish healing by a word and a touch of His own volition (not by ‘prayer’ to another);
- That often clinging to rules, even seemingly good and inviolable ‘religious law,’ may actually stem from envy and other passions, and may blind us to the very acts of God Himself, standing right in front of us, and performing A New Deed.
When we look at this passage at first glance, it may seem strange to us that this woman is described by Our Lord Jesus Himself as “a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years.” Saint Cyril explains this by saying that, “…by what happened to her we have seen that Satan often receives authority over certain persons, such, namely, as fall into sin, and have grown lax in their efforts after piety. Whomsoever therefore he gets into his power, he involves, it may be, in bodily diseases, since he delights in punishment and is merciless. And the opportunity for this the all-seeing God most wisely grants him [Satan], that being sore vexed by the burden of their misery, men may set themselves upon changing to a better course.” Saint Cyril does not conclusively say (as also we hear in another Gospel story) that the woman’s suffering and infirmity was necessarily a result of “something she did wrong” – he affirms that, as near as we may know or understand, “God … permit[ed] it, either for her own sins, or rather by the operation of a universal and general law.” What bent this woman over? Whatever it was, it was evil, a reversal of the course of nature, a changing from the wholeness and fullness of health which God had given her, and for which she was created.
[We know that psychological traumas, as well as physical burdens, can cause long-term physical consequences… perhaps some such cause had led to the ‘spirit of infirmity’ which crippled this woman for eighteen years…]?
The next point, according to Saint Cyril, is that the Incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ was to right this wrong, to make straight that which was bent, to free from Satan’s captivity and to make it whole. “God, Who by His very nature is good, did not abandon us when suffering under the punishment of a protracted and incurable malady, but freed us from our bonds, revealing as the glorious remedy for the sufferings of mankind His own presence and manifestation in the world,” wrote the saint, and he tells us that, “He [Jesus] came to fashion our state again to what it was originally,” and that “The Incarnation of the Word, and His taking upon Himself of human nature took place for the overthrow of death and destruction, and of that envy nourished against us by the wicked serpent, who was the first cause of evil.”
In curing the woman, Christ was showing forth His very nature, and His very purpose – His divine “work.” in carrying out this work, the interpretations of the Sabbath law by those such as the ruler of the synagogue held no force.
Also, the purpose of the Sabbath as it had been ordained by God was for rest – rest for man and for beast. Saint Cyril takes Jesus’ words about the ruler further, saying that, at least, this ruler would have cared for his beasts of burden, as allowed by the Law of Moses- but he [the ruler of the synagogue] ‘would have preferred the woman who was made straight,’ the image of God, a ‘child of Abraham,’ ‘to be bowed down after the manner of four-footed beasts, rather than that she should recover the form fitting for man.’ Saint Cyril sees healing as a form of true rest, the rest given by God – and this rest is granted by God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.
See how simple and powerful Christ is in healing, having only to speak a word and to touch with His hand. In Saint Cyril’s exposition, this is sure proof of the Truth of Who Jesus Is –He does not pray to God, as did Moses, in whom the synagogue ruler was instructed, for healing, but He speaks a word, touches, as God, and what is bent, broken, wounded, held in bondage, is made right, whole, and straight.
The very reason the ruler so protested was his denial, his lack of belief, and especially his envy,– and, ironically, in his own act of protesting, his loosening of the mouth, his letting his passions run free, he violated the Sabbath’s law, also.
Saint Cyril of Alexandria instructs us that, in this scene, we see that, in the end,
Shame fell then on those who had uttered these corrupt opinions: who had stumbled against the chief corner stone, and been broken; who had resisted the Physician, who had clashed against the wise Potter, when busied in straightening His crooked vessels: and there was no reply which they could make.
The Physician, Potter, and Maker was acting according to His own will, carrying out that for which he had come to earth, our frail globe, incarnate as a man. The law is His subject, not His master, and was given by Him for rest and for healing.
In a consideration of our own state, when we come to the Divine Liturgy, this is where we are, and the reality of the One Who calls us to His healing, His restoration of all things. At the beginning of the Liturgy, we bless the Kingdom of the One God in Trinity… and then, almost immediately, we bring with us and before God our condition: lost, sick, broken, sinful, ‘in the world,’ even if we are not of it.
The entrance rites of the Liturgy call us from our varied lives and places to be in the very presence of our King, yet we do not leave the world behind, in some mystical trance or hour-long escape or flight of fancy. Instead, on the contrary, we bring ourselves, as God’s creation, from His creation, broken and marred and sometimes so blinded by our own diseases and captivity and envy that we cannot see what is before us, nor see ourselves for what we truly are, and what we are meant to be.
But, nonetheless, in humble and broken hope, we come – we come in our brokenness, into the hospital of souls, into the presence of the Potter, and the Great Physician –
For He wills to make us whole and straight.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.