Saturday, August 3, 2013

Christ Heals our Paralysis: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Matthew During the Dormition Fast in the Orthodox Church

Matthew 9:1-8
             Romans 12: 6-14             
            I am sure that we have all felt stuck, trapped, or paralyzed in one way or another at some point in our lives.  Whether we were physically ill or caught in an unhealthy relationship or an unfortunate situation at work, life is full of circumstances where we seem to lack the strength to move forward in freedom.  The same is true when we think about the spiritual life and our own personal characteristics.  Learning to put others before ourselves, to restrain various appetites and desires, and to stop behaviors to which we have become addicted are all very difficult things to do.  Sometimes we fall into despair and simply give up because we have had so little success in overcoming our paralysis.  Sometimes we feel helpless before the problems and challenges that we face.
            The good news is that Jesus Christ gives us all solid grounds for hope in gaining strength, freedom, and salvation. This Tuesday is the great feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, when we celebrate the revelation of His divinity to Peter, James, and John, for Christ was illumined brilliantly with light, and the voice of the Father proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.”  At the same time, we continue in the Dormition fast as we prepare to celebrate on August 15 how the Theotokos shared in the resurrection of her Son-- body, soul, and spirit—and followed Him into the heavenly Kingdom upon her death.
            Taken together, these feasts remind us that God’s salvation liberates us from captivity to the brokenness of our lives in our corrupt world, for the Son of God has truly taken on every dimension of our humanity and transfused it with holiness.  He was transfigured before His disciples and we too may be changed by uniting ourselves as fully as possible with the Lord.  His divinity will be revealed through us as we shine with light even as the paralyzed man was enabled to get up and walk toward his house.  As for him, the process of healing begins with the forgiveness of sins which Christ mercifully grants to all who come to Him with humble repentance.  His mercy is such that He forgave this wretched man without the fellow saying anything at all due to the faith of his friends who literally carried him to Christ.  Perhaps his paralyzed state was also a sign of his humility and dependence upon the Lord and an image of our collective sickness and decay.  The Savior did not stop, however, with forgiving his sins, for He transfigured his life by enabling—indeed, by ordering—him to get up, pickup his bed, and walk home.
            The truth is that Christ says exactly the same thing to us all, for His forgiveness is not some kind of legal degree but a true participation in His life, holiness, and divinity which heals and transforms us into living icons of His salvation.  He calls and enables us all to live the kind of life described by St. Paul:  “Let love be without hypocrisy.  Abhor what is evil.  Cling to what is good.  Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another…Bless those who persecute you:  bless and do not curse.”  No, it is not easy to live that way, especially in relation to people who have wronged us or whom we do not find it easy to like or in situations where we have trained ourselves to see only the bad in others and what else can go wrong.  Likewise, it surely was not easy for the paralyzed man to transition from being an invalid to having an active life, for we tend to get used to whatever state of life we are in and find it stressful, frustrating, and scary to act differently.  No matter how miserable we make ourselves, we often prefer that to the difficult course of change for the better.   
            That is one of the reasons that the Church gives us periods like the Dormition fast in order to gain some experience struggling with our addictions, weaknesses, and bad habits.  As we remember the end of the earthly life of the Theotokos, we want to become more like her, able to say, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” in response to God’s calling in our lives.  She said and did that in response to the totally outrageous and terrifying news that she was to be the mother of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  We all struggle, however, to carry out much smaller and easier acts of faithfulness every day.  Too often, we are like a person who wants God’s forgiveness, but does not want His healing.  We are like the paralyzed man would have been had he said, “Thank you, Jesus, for forgiving my sins, but my legs are weak from lack of exercise and I would rather stay in bed than get up and walk.” 
            Even though we fall down like toddlers taking their first steps with some frequency, we must keep moving forward as best we can in the new life that Christ has given us.  Otherwise, we will end up rejecting Him because we will worship ourselves and attempt to make Him in our own image, to use Him simply to get what we want and disregard everything else to which He calls us.  Certainly, we are all inclined to do that because of our self-centeredness and pride, but that is precisely why we have to gain strength in denying ourselves so that we can refocus our energies on serving the Lord and our neighbors in whom He is present to us each day.
            As anyone who has tried to fast, pray, show generosity to the needy, and forgive others learns very quickly, we all suffer from some degree of paralysis.  It is often astonishingly hard to inconvenience ourselves even a little bit in order to give attention to God and our neighbors or to restrain our slavery to our taste buds, stomachs, and bank accounts.  When the Church calls us to undertake these spiritual disciplines, it is not as a punishment or because God likes us to see us suffer.  It is because we need help in getting up from our beds and moving forward with our lives.  We are all too comfortable with the misery of our weakness and paralysis.  Our feeble struggles to embrace the spiritual disciplines reveal to us the truth about ourselves and should lead us to call in humility for the Lord’s help in serving Him more faithfully.
            I hope that we are all doing our best to observe the Dormition fast so that we will be better prepared to respond obediently as the Theotokos did to the Lord’s calling upon her life.  I hope that we are all doing our best to be transfigured into the new life that Jesus Christ has brought to the world as the Second Adam in Whom our corrupt, fallen humanity is healed, restored, and blessed.  I hope that none of us will rest content to lie in the bed of our passions, weaknesses, and self-indulgent addiction to life as we have come to know it on our own terms.  For our Savior did not come to make us feel better about ourselves, to help us succeed by worldly standards, or even simply to forgive us.  He came to make us participants in the life of the Holy Trinity, to become by grace what God is by nature.  Yes, that means shining with light and holiness as He did at the Transfiguration.  Let us use these few days of the Dormition fast to take even the small, faltering steps of which we are capable to become more like Christ—to rise, take up our beds, and walk as best we can, trusting that His grace and mercy are healing us from our paralysis and weakness, and ushering us out of misery into a new and joyful way of living.

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