Saturday, March 23, 2019

It Takes a Person to Overcome Paralysis: Homily for the Second Sunday of Great Lent and the Forefeast of the Annunciation in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12
          Even as we continue our Lenten journey, we prepare to celebrate tomorrow the Feast of the Annunciation, which commemorates the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that God had called her to become the Theotokos, the Mother of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  When she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Mary united herself to Him in a uniquely personal way as the Living Temple of God when she carried Him in her womb.  She did not receive merely an idea or a set of instructions, but a Person Who transformed her for all eternity.  By her free response, she became the New Eve through whom the New Adam was born to restore and fulfill everyone He created in the divine image and likeness.
In today’s gospel lesson, Christ healed a paralyzed man as a sign of His divine authority to forgive sins.  By enabling him to stand up, carry his bed, and walk home, the Savior transformed the man’s life in ways that religious teachings or laws could never have accomplished.  Like the Theotokos, this fellow encountered a Person Who shared His gracious divine energies with him, Who made him a participant in His perfection of what it means to be a human person.  The formerly paralyzed man did not encounter a shadow or symbol of religious truth, but the God-Man Himself.  That was how he was healed.
On this second Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, who defended the experience of hesychast monks who, in the stillness of prayer from their hearts, saw the divine light of the uncreated energies of God.   They knew and experienced God, not as an abstract idea or concept, but through deep personal union with Him.  They opened themselves to the Lord and became participants by grace in His eternal life.  Like the Theotokos and the paralyzed man, they did not receive merely a message, but the Lord Himself.
The spiritual disciplines of Lent are opportunities to become like these holy people in uniting ourselves to Christ personally.  Intensified prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not ends in themselves; they do not teach us rational truths about God or satisfy legal requirements.  Instead, they are ways of receiving personally the healing presence of Christ, of opening ourselves to Him so that we may experience His salvation more fully.  Like the paralyzed man, we need to encounter the Lord in order to gain the strength to control our thoughts, words, and deeds as we move forward in a life of holiness.  We cannot overcome the weakness of slavery to our self-centered desires simply by trying hard on the basis of our own power, and we surely cannot conquer death.  We can, however, cooperate with our Lord’s gracious divine energies by opening our hearts to Him in daily prayer and the services of the Church, even as we pay no attention to the distracting thoughts that often arise in our minds when we seek to attend to God.  A bit of self-denial in what we eat helps us find strength and fulfillment in Him, not in obsessively pleasing ourselves.  In generosity toward our neighbors, we serve the Savior in them and turn away from self-centeredness.
By embracing these disciplines with humble faith, we will come to share personally and more fully in the life of Christ as we become better living icons of His restoration of the human person.  We will grow in our ability to say with the Theotokos “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  We will grow in our receptivity to His grace and in our participation in His eternal life from the depths of our souls.  Instead of being paralyzed by our passions and lying helplessly in a bed of sin, we will acquire the spiritual strength to make progress in pursuing a life of holiness.
This is not a path only for great Saints, of course, but for us all.  The greater our spiritual health, the more clearly we will see that sharing in the life of Christ is an eternal goal we may never claim to have mastered.   To encounter Him personally leads to humility and regret for the myriad ways in which we have not made His life our own.  That is why the pre-Communion prayers stress our unworthiness to receive His Body and Blood, which each of us must do with the awareness that we are the chief of sinners.  When we confess our sins during Lent, we acknowledge how far short we have fallen from uniting ourselves to the Savior in holiness.  As He did with the paralyzed man, the Lord Himself forgives our sins in Confession and strengthens us to obey His command to rise, pick up our beds, and move forward.
Let us, then, continue the Lenten journey that leads to our Lord’s Cross and empty tomb.  By embracing its disciplines with humble faith, we will embrace Christ Himself.  He is not an idea or a collection of laws, but a Person Whom we must receive by uniting ourselves to Him in holiness.  As we pray, fast, give to the needy, and confess our sins, let us do so not as mere religious obligations, but as ways of participating more fully in the salvation that He has brought to the world for the healing of paralyzed people like you and me from bondage to the power of sin and death.  He does not save us with shadows and images, but through sharing His life with us by grace.  The only question is whether we will open ourselves to be healed and transformed by Him as the unique persons He created us to be.

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