A real Bethesda today
by Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis on April 27, 2018
We offer two sets of reflections on the gospel reading of the Lord's miracle at Bethesda: The first about the place of healing, Bethesda; the second about the miracle itself of the healing of the paralytic. Bethesda means “House of mercy”. This pool, where all those who were infirm would find their cure by being washed in its waters, stands for the Church, the House of God’s mercy. The Church is the true Bethesda, with its holy sacraments, particularly that of holy baptism, in the waters of which we find healing and attain life everlasting.
Bethesda prefigures Baptism
Bethesda was a pool of water, like so many others. Yet it was unique, because miraculous healings were taking place in it. Like then so today too there are many baptismal fonts. We can be and are being baptized in many places, but we do not receive spiritual healing from them all. The font found in the Orthodox Church is unique. God willed it this way. We should not confuse the washing of cleansing and regeneration we receive in the Orthodox Church with its false imitations.
Observe this wondrous thing: An angel of God ministers to the faithful. Angels attend even to our physical well-being, although what they are really interested in is our spiritual well-being. Thus they become physicians of our souls and bodies, acting on behalf of the Lord, who is the physician of our souls and bodies. God uses the angels as His ministering spirits. Of course it is God who acts behind them.
Today as well, God has His ministers, the priests of the Church. The priest, by moving the water as he makes the sign of the precious Cross in the water, sanctifies it and delivers from spiritual sickness those who enter it professing their faith and trust in the Lord, restoring their spiritual life. This power is superior to that of the angels, as the life eternal granted by the baptismal water is superior to the physical health granted by the waters of Bethesda.
Bethesda, says St. John Chrysostom, is a prefigurement of holy Baptism. Compared to it, however, it is only a shadow, because while it cured only every once in a while and then only one at a time, Baptism heals as many as they approach it, at any time. More importantly, while Bethesda healed the body, holy Baptism heals the soul. In both cases one needs to have faith in God, who alone effects the healing. It is not magic. The power of God acts in both instances. One also needs to have a strong desire to be healed.
God’s energy does the healing
Notice this: Many were those waiting by the pool of healing. Yet only few were cured. Likewise many come under the porticoes of the Church. Few, however, find healing. Being in here is not enough. One needs to plunge himself or herself into the healing waters of God’s mercy to obtain complete cure. Notice again: The waters by themselves did not effect the healing. It is in the nature of the water to clean the body, but not to heal it from sickness and disease. Yet with God’s energy, the water of Bethesda did what is not in its nature to do. So too with holy baptism: one’s soul is cleansed and purified by “the descent and energy of the Holy Spirit.”
Observe this as well. The waters were not effectual all the time. Otherwise anyone could find healing, at any time, whenever they pleased. No. Healing was effected only at certain appointed times. So one had to be ready, because that time was unknown. We too need to be ready at all times, to receive the healing grace of God. The very reason this House of Mercy exists is to provide healing. It is not a place to come and relax. It is not a place where we come to bask in the sun. It is not a place to sit and chit-chat. We may come to this House, the Ecclesia of God, for many reasons. What good would it be, however, if week after week, year after year, we always walked away sick?
We must do our part
Observe something else: Though the healing comes from God, it comes in a manner according to His plan: the action of the patient is still required. The angel moved the water but did not throw the sick person into it; this part is left to us by the All-wise God, to our initiative and free response to His loving kindness. As further proof that our free response to God is required, hear the strange words the Lord addresses to the paralytic:
“Do you want to get well?”
God does not force His will on anyone. Our cooperation is always needed. Without it, God’s saving grace does not reach us. There is a rule of thumb in what we should expect God to do for us and in what God expects us to do. The rule of thumb is this:
Even when God performs miracles He expects us to do our part. God heals us in His Church through the holy sacraments and through the truth of His gospel. This is not done in a vacuum, however, without our participation. We need to prepare ourselves properly to receive God’s grace, to understand the truth of the gospel and to put it into practice.
The virtues of the Paralytic
God heals us:
- in His Church
- through the holy sacraments, and
- through the truth of His gospel
Let us now move more closely and offer a few reflections on the paralytic and his miraculous healing. We admire the paralytic who, in addition to having faith and a strong desire to be healed, also has stamina. For thirty eight years he kept coming back. He persisted, without losing hope. What about us? Do we perhaps complain about minor illnesses? Do we lose hope if we don’t get well soon? Let us learn from him. At times we get so discouraged we curse the day in which we were born or we point our finger to God, demanding that He give us an account for wronging us. Now look at this man. Admire his tolerance. No complaining comes from his mouth. He could be blaming his relatives and friends for abandoning him, for not caring about him–but he does not.
The paralytic could also make fun of this stranger who puts him to test, asking him: “Do you want to get well?” The answer should be so obvious to all, yet he does not utter a word. No bitterness and no irony comes from his lips. He doesn’t know who this stranger is, but his only answer is stated calmly, humbly, without emotion—and he is rewarded. The omnipotent Word of God, who created everything that exists, speaks, and with His word alone He restores fully and instantaneously the paralytic’s infirm limbs, giving them strength not only to walk, but also to carry a weight and to balance himself, thus demonstrating that he was completely healed.
Our healing is up to us
Let those who suffer, let those who are in pain and sorrow, let those who see their suffering be prolonged—with no cure on sight—let them learn that the Lord has not abandoned them. Let them never lose sight of their hope. Let them be consoled. The Lord knows of their affliction, and He will visit them in His time. Let them, however, not be mistaken about something else: the cure will come only if they come to the realization that their condition was caused by sin, perhaps not by their personal sin, but by sin. Only when they realize this, only after they repent for their sin, only after they carry their cross without grudges and with hope and trust in God, will their cure come. In a way then, we can say that healing is up to us! The Lord wants everyone to be saved, but those who are saved are only those who care about their salvation, who recognize their sinfulness, who earnestly seek Him who alone heals, and who place their complete trust in the Lord.
The former Paralytic is tested
Finally, healing is brought about through obedience to Him who commands him to rise and to lift up his pallet and walk. Certainly the One who is the Lord of nature is also the Lord of the Law. His acts of healing demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is God. Carrying the pallet publicly demonstrates that the paralytic trusted in God. His faith was tested because surely he was going to face the Sanhedrin, and the narrow-mindedness of the Pharisees, as a Sabbath-breaker, with the consequence of being thrown out of the synagogue. By ignoring the fear and the danger of being cut off from his people, he demonstrates that he was ready to receive God’s mercy. And he did.
Let us furthermore observe the following: The words of the Lord, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may befall you,” teach us that we should not take the restoration of our health for granted. The doctor sends us home prescribing us medications, a special diet and exercises, to improve our health and so that it will be maintained. Our spiritual health is similar: There is no instantaneous salvation. We need to maintain our wellness, because we may lose it. Worse than 38 years of misery is eternity in hell.
Finally, observe what happens. The paralyzed man, full of gratitude to God for having healed him, runs to the temple to give thanks to the One who is responsible for all blessings. And when he finds out who his healer is, he does not hesitate to declare openly to all who His benefactor was: Jesus Christ, the Healer of our bodies and souls. Too bad that so many of the others did not recognize the authority of the Healer. Instead of praising God for the great miracle performed through His Son, being full of pride and envy, blinded by their love of power, bent in protecting their own little interests, rejected the Anointed of God.
My dear brothers and sisters: The paralytic stands for humanity. Humanity lays infirm, paralyzed, incapacitated by the sickness we brought upon ourselves when we disobeyed God and mistrusted Him. The consequence of sin has brought sickness in our members, darkened our mind and paralyzed our will, weakened our faculties so that we think and do what is not pleasing to God. We lay paralyzed, unable to be saved on our own. However, by remaining close to the spiritual Bethesda (the Church) we are visited by the merciful Lord who passes by and raises us up from our bed of pain, reinvigorates us and renders us once more healthy and whole. May we welcome the visit of the God-man, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, who will cure us and restore us to His communion. Amen.