Epistle to the Galatians 4:22-27
Gospel According to St. Luke 13:10-17
None of us likes to be sick. It’s very frustrating to want to get up and do what you want to do and not to be able to do so. Illness separates us from our usual activities and relationships, and even from our selves. When our lives revolve around our own pain and disability, we aren’t really ourselves anymore. And that’s just a miserable way to be.
When Jesus Christ was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, he saw a woman who was bent over and could not stand up straight. She had been that way for eighteen years. Just think of how she felt, how limiting and frustrating that illness had to be. The Lord said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” Then He laid hands on her and she was healed, was able to stand up straight again, and she glorified God.
But there were those standing around just waiting to criticize the Lord, for He healed her on the Sabbath day, when no work was to be done. Christ answered these critics by pointing out that everyone takes care of his donkey and ox on the Sabbath. “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” The truth of His teaching was so clear that those adversaries were put to shame and the people rejoiced.
In these weeks of the Nativity Fast, of Advent, we are preparing to celebrate the wonderful news of the Incarnation of the Son of God, of our Lord’s birth at Christmas. And we see in this gospel text a beautiful image of what Jesus Christ has done for us by becoming a human being. For every one of us is like that poor woman bound with an infirmity for eighteen years, unable to straighten herself up.
For we live in a world of corruption, of illness, pain, and death. We don’t like to think about it, but there are harsh, impersonal realities from which we can’t isolate ourselves. The horrors of war, crime, and terrorism; the ecological effects of pollution; cycles of violence, abuse, and brokenness in families and in society; and the inevitability of the grave: We don’t have to look far to find ways in which we are held captive.
We all have diseases of soul, of personality, of behavior, and of relationships that cripple us, that keep us from acting, thinking, and speaking as the children of God. For we have all fallen short of God’s purposes for us, as has every generation since Adam and Eve. And we are all bent over and crippled in profound ways in relation to the Lord, our neighbors, and even ourselves.
Joachim and Anna knew all about long-term struggles and disabilities, for like Abraham and Sarah they were childless into their old age. But God heard their prayer and gave them Mary, who would in turn give birth to the Savior who came to liberate us all from sin and death. Today is the feast of St. Anna’s conception of the Theotokos which we celebrate as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Lord to loose us from the infirmities that hold us captive and hinder our participation even now in the life of the Kingdom.
The story of the Old Testament unfolded through the family of Abraham, who was told by God that he would be the father of a large, blessed family. Many Jews continue to think of life after death as being accomplished through ongoing generations of children and grandchildren, not by victory over death itself. But if God’s blessings extend no further than the grave, then we will never be loosed from bondage to the wages of sin, which is death.
The history of the Hebrews was preparatory for the coming of the Christ, the Messiah in whom God’s promises are fulfilled and extended to all who have faith in the Savior, regardless of their family heritage. Christ did not come to privilege one nation over another, but to fulfill our original calling to be in the image and likeness of God; and, yes, that means to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity as distinct, unique persons. God breaks the laws of nature in order to do so, enabling elderly women to conceive and bear children and a young virgin to become the mother of His Son Who Himself rises from the dead. Yes, this is a story of liberation, of breaking bonds, and of transcending the brokenness and limitations of life in the world in the world as know it.
Fortunately, the Lord did not treat the woman in today’s reading according to her physical condition as simply a bundle of disease, even as St. Anna’s fate was not to be defined by barrenness. Instead, He gave her back her true identity as a beloved person, a daughter of Abraham. And on that particular Sabbath day, that’s what Jesus Christ did. He treated her as a unique, cherished child of God who was not created for a corrupt, impersonal existence of pain, disease, and despair, but for blessing, health, and joy. She glorified God for this deliverance, as did those who saw the miracle.
The good news of Christmas is that the Lord is born to do the same for us and for the whole world, to set us free from the slavery to decay, corruption, and weakness that distort and weaken us all. He comes so that we are no longer defined by our infirmities and can leave behind our bondage and enter into the joyous freedom of the children of God. He comes to restore us as living icons who manifest Christ’s glory and salvation in unique, personal ways. Have you ever noticed that icons portray people as distinctive persons, that the personality and character of the Theotokos or St. John the Baptist or St. Luke shines through their icons?
The same should be true of us. We become not less ourselves, but more truly ourselves, when we open our lives to Christ’s holiness and healing. In contrast, sin and corruption are pretty boring. No matter how creative we try to be, there are only so many ways to hate, lie, cheat, and steal. You can only say so much about murder and adultery. Holiness, on the other hand, is infinitely beautiful and fascinating. For the more we share in the life of the Holy Trinity, the more we see that the process of our fulfillment in God is eternal, that there is no end to it or to Him. And since our fundamental calling as human beings is to grow in the likeness of God, we become more truly ourselves—as distinct, unique persons-- whenever we turn away from slavery to sin and passion in order to embrace more fully the new life that Christ has brought to the world.
Unfortunately, people in our culture usually do not view Advent and Christmas as opportunities to be loosed from our bondage to sin and death. Too often, we turn them into occasions for strengthening our addiction to money and possessions, to excessive food and drink, and unhealthy relationships with others. Of course, that’s really a way of saying that self-centered indulgence is nothing but bondage to ourselves, which ends up leaving us hollow and miserable. And that’s not surprising because we weren’t created to find eternal fulfillment and peace in the things of the world, even in one another. That’s why we must resist the cultural temptation to be so busy with shopping and planning and partying this time of year that we ignore the glory and gravity of our Lord’s Incarnation. For He comes to make us all the sons and daughters of God, to extend to us all the blessing and joy of the heavenly kingdom, to loose us from our weakness and infirmity, and to conquer sin and death in us.
So let us not remain stooped over, bound, and barren this Advent. Instead, let us use the remaining weeks of this holy season to prepare to receive the Christ who heals us, who sets us free, and who makes us the unique, distinctive children of God we were created to be in the first place. Let us embrace our spiritual disciplines with joy, fighting our passions and serving Christ in our neighbors, especially those who are lonely and in need. For we, too, have become the daughters and sons of Abraham in Christ Jesus; we too are have been loosed and are to glorify God by living as those who have found new life in the Second Adam, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the One who comes to us at Christmas. Now is the time to get ready for Him.