Luke 13: 10-17
Even as we hear the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle reading that Christ is our peace, we are reminded yet again by the conflict in Syria that our world desperately needs the Prince of Peace Whose birth we will celebrate in a just a few weeks. We have prayed for months for the release of the kidnapped Metropolitan Paul and Archbishop John, but this week we have added to the list Mother Pelagia and the nuns and orphans of St. Thekla Convent in Maaloula. They too have apparently been abducted. Following the directive of our own Metropolitan Philip, we are now praying for them all in every service, and I ask you also to remember them in your daily prayers for safety and freedom.
Even though they live far away and we do not know them personally, these bishops, nuns, and orphans are not strangers to us, but fellow members of the Body of which we are a part. We are one with them in the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul taught, the Lord has united both Jew and Gentile in His one Body, the Church. People from all over the world are no longer strangers and foreigners to one another, but “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” No matter what language we speak or our national or ethnic heritage, we all “have access by one Spirit to the Father.”
Our Savior came to bring us true peace, the fullness of reconciliation with God and one another. His peace is manifest when we share a common life as “a holy temple in the Lord…a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” Of course, we are pleased when wars cease and enemies learn to live together without open violence and hatred. But Christ came not simply to make our life on earth a bit more tolerable, but to loose us from the bondage and corruption that our sins, and those of all humanity, have brought about. That is why He was born at Christmas.
As the Lord 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 how she felt, how limiting and frustrating that illness had to be. He 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.
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.
We see in this gospel text a beautiful image of what the Son of God 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. We see it so clearly in the captivity of our brothers and sisters in Syria, but it is evident also in our own lives in different ways. For we live in a world of corruption, illness, pain, and death. We do not like to think about it, but there are harsh, impersonal realities from which we simply cannot isolate ourselves. The horrors of crime and terrorism; disease, addictions, and other infirmities; cycles of violence, abuse, poverty, and brokenness in families and in society; and the inevitability of the grave. We do not have to look far to find ways in which we are all held captive.
Of course, 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 “fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God.” For we have all fallen short of God’s purposes for us, as has every generation since Adam and Eve. 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. Tomorrow is the feast of St. Anna’s conception of the Theotokos which we celebrate as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Lord to set us free from the infirmities that hold us captive and hinder our participation even now in the life of the Kingdom.
The entire 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. 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 slavery in all its forms, including the decay, corruption, and weakness that distort us all. He comes so that we are no longer defined by our divisions from one another and can leave our bondage behind. 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 and freely 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 brings to the world.
As we continue to prepare for Christmas by prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance, we should remember that these spiritual disciplines are ways of participating personally in our Savior’s healing of our sick and weakened humanity. We should welcome the deliverance that He brings into our lives. And even as we do that, let us remember the kidnapped bishops, nuns, and orphans of Syria in our prayers. His peace is for them every bit as much as it is for us. For together with them, we are by God’s grace “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”