A Holy Way for the Weak

Monday of the Second Week of Advent: Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 5:17-26.

Isaiah was graced with such vision! He saw the coming of Christ and all that this meant for humanity; his poetic prophecies are treasures. Today’s readings again present us with the call and response, the promise and the fulfillment, of our faith. Isaiah prophesies that Christ will heal the lame, and Luke describes a memorable episode of the paralytic being lowered through the roof. Yet beyond this prophesied miracle lies a deep message about walking a path, taking courage, and being ecstatically in awe of God.

Today, Isaiah tells us that “they will see the glory of the Lord,” and then, “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!” This is the consequence of seeing the Lord: gaining strength, overcoming fear. There are many things to fear in this world, tyrants, bullies, sickness and death, loneliness. But encountering God puts all of these fears in perspective. Holding His gaze and being drawn by His love, all of those fears are dwarfed and overcome. This is the state of the Christian! God has made Himself known to us, come in the flesh in the form of the Son, and if we dwell in His love, all of our earthly concerns wither and fade. We gain the strength and desire to be with Him.

So in the gospel story we can think of the paralytic and his friends who might have feared the logistics of the crowd or maybe the blowback for disrupting the conversation with all the “Pharisees and teachers of the law” who came from miles around. They might have feared embarrassment, failure, and so many other things. But, they saw the Lord! They were drawn by him and given strength to overcome their fears. Their reward was great: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘As for you, your sins are forgiven.'”

Next, Jesus delivers a great demonstration of how the outward signs of healing are but a foretaste of the spiritual healing he offers. But I would like to focus on what happens after that. What does the paralytic do once he is healed? “He stood up immediately before them, picked up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God.” He doesn’t rest or bask in the healing but goes on his way. Indeed, this is Jesus’s command: “I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” What is important here?

Ceiling fresco from Patriarchate of Peć Monastery, Serbia (1300s) | Image from russianicons.wordpress.com. Although this is the scene from the paralytic laying by the pool of Bethesda, note that Jesus’s command is the same: “Rise, take up your bed, and walk.” 

Let’s look at two things: the stretcher and “home.” The stretcher/mat/bed is the symbol of the man’s beaten down life. All of his defeat, anguish, questions, and trials laid on that mat with him for years. He was bound to that mat as Christ was bound to the Cross. It was his burden, but also his sense of who he was – it defined him. By commanding him to “pick up your stretcher and go home,” Jesus is saying in a different way what he will later tell his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Simply put, this is the Way to heaven. This is the Way that Christ himself walked and that he wants us to walk. We are not meant to forget the world’s troubles but to pick them up, to work to help solve them, to bring love into the world. This is what picking up your cross and following Christ is all about. Acknowledging this meaning, we can also see how “go home” has a deeper meaning than his earthly home. Jesus is telling the paralytic – and us – to pick up his cross and travel the way to his heavenly home.

If there is any doubt that “home” refers to heaven, let’s return to Isaiah’s reading. He says, “A highway will be there, called the holy way … It is for those with a journey to make, and on it the redeemed will walk. Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy.” Yes! This is the Way of Christ prophesied. A veritable “highway” for the redeemed. I love how Isaiah phrases the purpose of the highway: “it is for those with a journey to make.” This is no road of simple connections. It is meant specifically for those who desire to see God, those who have chosen this journey as their life’s purpose.

The Healing of the Paralytic, unknown Dutch painter (1560-1590) | public domain, courtesy the National Gallery of Art. I love the painter’s focus on walking the Way, carrying his burden. This is the work we are all called to do in life once we meet Christ in our baptism.

The final piece of today’s reflection unites the last words of Isaiah and Luke. Isaiah says, “They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.” This is the promise to those on the Way, but it is also attested to by those witnessing the healing of the paralytic. Luke relates, “Then astonishment seized them all and they glorified God, and, struck with awe, they said, ‘We have seen incredible things today.'” This happens multiple times in the gospels, and the Greek word used for “amazement” is no mere wonder at a magic trick or coincidence. The original text reads, “ἔκστασις ἔλαβεν” (ekstasis elaben), meaning “amazement seized them.” Ekstasis literally means “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere,” and in written usage it means a displacement, a disturbance of mind caused by shock, bewilderment, or amazement. It also means a trance and an ecstasy. This is something far beyond what our normal powers of perception can resolve. Watching the paralytic meet Jesus, be healed physically and spiritually, and embark upon the Way, the scribes, priests, and disciples of Jesus were seized by a displacement of their mind, equal parts bewildering and ecstatic. In their ecstasy, they began to glorify God and fear Him, saying, “we have seen remarkable things today.” But remarkable things doesn’t quite translate the original Greek παράδοξα (paradoxa), which means something close to paradoxical, but more properly “something astonishing we didn’t expect.” 

Why does this matter? Because this is the state of conversion, something we always are in the process of experiencing as we journey to God. We must continually convert ourselves to the Lord because this world entrances us with its dramas and enticements. We must inhabit this ekstasis, be seized by bewilderment and astonishment over God’s power, goodness, and magnetism. 

Thus, we receive three great pieces of instruction today in Advent: 1) seek to encounter the Lord because He will give you great courage to overcome your earthly fears, 2) pick up those fears and trials and journey down that highway made for us in the Way that Christ established, and 3) allow yourself to be continually seized by ekstasis over the glory and power of our God. May we take this instruction to heart!

Saint Jerome (San Gerolamo), Giovanni Serodine (1620) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia.


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