Tomorrow, on the third Sunday after Pascha, we remember the healing of the paralytic, which has particular significance for me, being the day on which I was received into the Orthodox Church eight years ago. Rather appropriately, it also happens to be the topic of the only surviving sermon of St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
A sermon of our Blessed Father, Cyril, Bishop of
Jerusalem, on the Paralytic at the Pool.
Jerusalem, on the Paralytic at the Pool.
(1) Wherever Jesus appears, there is salvation. If He sees a revenue officer sitting in his office, He makes him an apostle and evangelist. Laid in the grave, He raises the dead to life. He bestows sight on the blind, hearing on the deaf. When, as now, He visits the public baths, it is not out of interest in the architecture, but to heal the sick.
(2) By the Sheep Market in Jerusalem there used to be a pool with five colonnades, four of which enclosed the pool, while the fifth spanned it midway. Here large numbers of sick would lie (unbelief also was rise among the Jews). The physician and healer of both souls and bodies showed fairness in choosing this chronic sufferer to be the first recipient of His gift, that he might the earlier be released from his pains. For not for one day only, nor for two, had the poor man lain on his bed of sickness – nor was it now the first month, no, nor the first year – but for eight-and-thirty years. His long-standing illness, rendering him a figure familiar to passers by, now made him ocular evidence of the power of his healer. For the paralytic was known to all by reason of the length of time. But though the master physician gave proof of His skill, He was rebuffed by those who put an unfavourable construction on His work of mercy.
(3) As He walked round the pool, “He saw.” He did not elicit the information by asking questions, for His divine power obviated any such need. Not “asking,” but “seeing” how long the invalid had lain there; “seeing,” He knew; indeed He knew before He saw. For if in the case of secrets of the heart “He had no need to question anyone concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man,” much more was this the case when it was a question of diagnosing diseases with visible symptoms.
(4) He saw a bedridden man weighed down by a sore sickness; for the paralytic’s heavy load of sins aggravated the long-drawn agony of the disease. A question addressed to the sufferer hinted to him his need: “Wilt thou be healed?” Not a word more; He left him with the question half spoken. For the question was ambiguous; it was because he was sick not only in body but also in soul (compare His later saying: “Behold, thou art cured; sin no more, lest something worse befall thee”) that He asked him: “Do you want to be healed?” What mighty power that implied in the physician, making relief depend only on the patient’s willing! It is because salvation is from faith that He asked “Do you want to be healed?” that his “Yes” might give Jesus His cue. This “Wilt thou?” is the word of Jesus only; it belongs not to doctors who heal the body. For those who treat bodily ailments cannot say to any and every patient: “Wilt thou be healed?” But Jesus grants the will, accepts the faith, and freely bestows the gift.
(5) Once when the Saviour was passing by, two blind men were sitting by the roadside. Though their bodily eyes were sightless, their minds were open to the light. The blind men pointed out Him whom the Scribes did not recognise. For the Pharisees who, for all that they had been taught the Law – yes, had studied it from childhood to old age – had nevertheless grown old still uncomprehending, now said: “As for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (for “he came unto his own, and his own received him not”). But the blind men kept on crying out: “Son of David, have mercy on us.” Those whose eyes did not serve them to read knew Him whom the students of the Law failed to recognise.
Going up to them, the Saviour said: “Do you believe that I can do this for you?” and “What will you have me do for you?” He did not say: “What will you have me say to you?” but “What will you have me do for you?” For He was a doer, a maker – a giver of life, too – not now beginning to do for the first time (for His Father works always, and He works with His Father); He was the maker of the whole world at His Father’s command. Alone begotten, without intermediary, of the Alone, He questions the blind men, saying: “What will you have me do for you?” Not that He did not know what they wanted, for it was obvious: but he chose to make His gift depend on their answer, that they might be justified out of their own mouths. The reader of hearts could not be ignorant what they would say; but He waited upon their words; now His question was their cue.
(6) He stood by the cripple, the doctor visited the sick man, nor is it so strange that He condescended to attend the invalid by the pool, for had He not visited us from Heaven? He asked him: “Wilt thou be healed?” by the question leading him on towards the saving knowledge, raising a question in his mind. A gift, truly, of grace! No fee was charged; else the patient would not have had the physician coming to him. He said to Him: “Yes, sir; for the long duration of my illness makes me desire health; but, desire it as I may, I have no man…” Do not lose heart, my good fellow, because you “have no man”; God you have standing by you, One who is at once man and God under different aspects; for both must be confessed. The confession of the humanity without the confession of the divinity is unavailing, or rather earns a curse. For “cursed is he who puts his trust in man.” So with us: if, hoping in Jesus, we hope in the man only, not including the divinity, we inherit the curse. But as it is, we confess both God and man, and both truly: in worshipping Him as God truly begotten of the true Father and as man not merely in appearance, but really and truly born, we receive a real and true salvation.
(7) “Yes, I do want to be healed, but I have no man…” Maybe it was because of his dire straits that Jesus came to his rescue. For the generality of the sick had relatives, friends too, and maybe other helpers. But the poor cripple, crushed by a literally universal want, utterly destitute, abandoned, alone, found the Son of God, the Only-begotten, coming to his aid.
“Wilt thou be healed?” “Yes, Lord, but I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool.” No, but you have the spring itself. “For with thee is the fountain of life,” the fountainhead of all fountains. “He who drinks of this water, out of his belly shall flow rivers,” not of the water that flows downwards but of that water that springs up – for the spring inspired by Jesus’ draught, unlike man’s puny leap which lands him back on earth again, carries us up to the sky; the water “bubbles up unto life everlasting.” Jesus is the wellspring of all blessings.
(8) Why, then, fix your hope on a pool? You have Him who walks upon the waters, who rebukes the winds, who holds sovereign sway over the ocean; who not only Himself walked on the sea as on a firm pavement but vouchsafed the like power to Peter. For when the night was black and the Light, though it was there, was not recognised (for Jesus, walking on the waters, passed unrecognised in face and features; it was the characteristic timbre of His voice that betrayed His presence), they, thinking they were seeing an apparition, were frightened until Jesus said to them, “I AM, do not be afraid.” Peter said to Him: “If it be Thou whom I know, or rather whom the Father revealed to me, bid me come to Thee over the waters”; and Christ, generously sharing what was His own, said: “Come.”
(9) There stood by the waters of the pool the Ruler and Maker of the waters. To Him the cripple said: “I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool.” The Saviour said to him: “Why do you await the troubling of the water when you can be cured with no trouble at all? Why wait for the movement that is seen? More swiftly is the mind’s command performed by the word. Only look down into the swirling power of the spring and glimpse there God clothed in flesh; consider not the man whom your eyes see, but the invisible God who works through Him whom you see.”
“I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool.” He said to him: “Why set such narrow bounds to hope, intent on some poor water-cure? Arise: He who commands it is the Resurrection.”
Everywhere the Saviour becomes “all things to all men”; to the hungry, bread; to the thirsty, water; to the dead, resurrection; to the sick, a physician; to sinners, redemption.
(10) “Rise, take up thy pallet and walk.” But first rise, cast away your sickness; afterwards you can put muscle on faith. Exert your strength first upon the bed that used to carry you; learn to carry away on a wooden stretcher those passions by which you were for so long carried away. He was ordered to carry his wooden litter by that Saviour of whom it was said: “The King hath made him a litter of the wood of Lebanon. The pillars thereof he made of silver, the seat of purple, the inside paved with mosaic.” The imagery represents the Passion, this imagery reserved in the Song of Songs for sober and chaste bridals.
For you must not, accepting the vulgar, superficial interpretation of the words, suppose that the Canticle is an expression of carnal, sexual love. No; it is the language of bridals with an immortal Lover, bridals pure and chaste. If you do not divine the sense of the Canticle, go to the book of Proverbs. Make an indirect approach, mounting by degrees to the Canticle. “Wisdom hath built herself a house,” it says, as though speaking of a woman, “and hath sent her servants.” Elsewhere it says: “Love her, and she will protect thee.” This is not the love of woman, but of wisdom, which drives out carnal love. For where wisdom is stored, there carnal love is banished; not passions but wise thoughts house with wisdom. “They are become as stallions frenzied in heat”: an urge unworthy of reason. If, then, in the Canticle you hear talk of a bride and a bridegroom, do not read into such language a reference to sexual passion (that would be to fall back to earth), but sublimate the passions by the passionless.
(11) Meditate on the heavenly lessons of the Song, a Song that breathes chastity and tells of the Passion of Christ. In describing the Passion of the Saviour, it even names the place: “I am come into my garden,” referring to the Garden of His burial. It mentions the spices too: “I seized the aromatic spices in handfuls”; for the divine purpose reached its fulfilment. After His resurrection He said: “I have eaten my bread with my honey.” For “they gave him honey from the honeycomb.” Again, referring to the wine mingled with myrrh, the Canticle says: “I will give thee a cup of spiced wine.” Of the perfume poured over His head it says elsewhere: “While the King was at his repose, my spikenard sent forth the odor thereof”; for “when he was reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came in and broke an alabaster box of ointment of precious spikenard, which she poured over His head.” So of the Cross: “…a litter of wood” – the wood of the cross which carried Him – “the pillars thereof he made of silver.” The commencement of the cross was silver, the betrayal. For as a beautiful chamber is crowned with a golden roof, the whole structure soaring upon pillars, so of both the crucifixion and of the resurrection of Christ the beginning was silver. For if Judas had not betrayed Him, He would not have been crucified. Therefore it was, as symbolising the beginning of His famous Passion, “the pillars thereof he made of silver.”
(12) “The coverings of purple.” Therefore they also “clothed Him in purple”; in mockery, of course, but fulfilling the prophecy; doing it under inspiration, for He was a King. However much they did it in a spirit of derision, still they did it; His royal dignity was emblematically heralded. So, likewise, though it was with thorns they crowned Him, it was still a crown. And it was soldiers who crowned Him; kings are proclaimed by soldiers. “The covering of purple, the inside paved with mosaic”: the devout children of the Church know Lithostrotos or “Gabbatha” in Pilate’s palace.
(13) But this is a digression; when on the subject of the pallet, I was led on to speak of the litter in the Canticle.
He said, therefore, to him: “Rise, take up thy pallet and walk.” The disease was long-standing, the remedy swift. The paralysis had lasted for years; the strengthening of the sinews was instantaneous. For the creator of the sinews, He who provided a variety of remedies for the blind, He who gave that incongruous salve by anointing with clay (for a plaster of clay, applied to sound eyes, deprives them of sight, but Jesus by means of clay bestowed sight upon the blind)…His power reached others by yet other means.
Where He simply said: “Rise, take up thy pallet and walk,” what astonishment, do you think, seized the beholders! Yet, marvellous as the sight was, it was the faithlessness of the onlookers that was really strange. A years-old disease is healed, but an obstinate incredulity was no healed. Instead the Jews’ malady persisted; they did not want a cure.
(14) If they were right to be amazed by the incident, they should have gone on to adore the healer of bodies and souls. But they murmured; for they were the children of murmurers, of those who twisted good into evil, calling bitter sweet and sweet bitter. It was quite in accordance with the divine “economy” that Jesus worked on the Sabbath, performing deeds transcending the Sabbath, that the deed might convince. It was because an assertion can be met by a counter-assertion, while there is no answer to the deed, that He used to heal on the Sabbath; the lesson is, instead of relying on arguments, which only provoke counterarguments, to let deeds convince the onlookers.
(15) They said to him: “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for thee to take up thy pallet.” The Lawgiver was present, and another says: “It is not lawful for thee?” “Appoint, O Lord, a lawgiver over them”: it was spoken of the Saviour. The man who had just been cured both in soul and body immediately retorts with a wise word from Wisdom. Unable to give a legal answer, he makes a brief one: “You all know,” he says, “my long-standing sickness and the long years I was bedridden, my destitution in my distress. Not one of you ever took pity on me, taking me and putting me first into the pool that I might be cured. Yet, when you showed no pity, how have you now assumed the office of lawgivers, saying: “You’re not allowed to take up your pallet?” My answer, then, in a nutshell is this: ‘I did it at the command of Him who cured me.’ However little account you make of me, yet the deed should impress you. He applied no salve; He employed none of the expedients or remedies known to medicine. He spoke a word, and the work followed; He commanded, and I executed His command. I am only obeying the command of Him who by His command healed me. For if He who commanded had been powerless by His command to cure me, I should not be obliged to obey His commands. But now that His word of command has caused a palpable and inveterate illness to disappear, I have every right to listen to Him to whom my disease listened and, listening, was ended. He who made me well, he it was who said to me: ‘Take up your bed’.”
(16) The miraculé did not know the identity of his healer. We have here a striking instance of our Saviour’s shunning of vaingloriousness. For after working the cure He turned aside to avoid receiving recognition for the cure. We do just the opposite. If we are fortunate enough to have a vision in a dream or to succour someone by the imposition of hands or to drive out a devil by invoking the Lord, so far are we from hiding our little triumph that, even unprompted, we boast about it. Jesus gives us an object lesson in not talking about oneself. After the cure He immediately turned aside to avoid recognition. He comes and goes as the occasion calls. When it was proper to prevent the acclaim of the achievement, He withdraws; only when the crowds had gone did He reappear to add spiritual to physical healing, saying: “Behold, you are well: sin no more.”
(17) He is a versatile doctor, sometimes healing the soul first, and then the body, sometimes following the reverse order. “Leave your sinful ways, lest something worse befall you,” He says, through one teaching many. For the warning is addressed not alone to the man in the Gospel, but to all of us. For if ever we find ourselves afflicted by sickness, grief or trouble, let no one lay it to God’s charge: “for God cannot be tempted by evil, and himself tempts no man.” Each of us is scourged, “fast bound with the ropes of his own sins.”
“Sin no more, lest something worse befall you.” Listen to the saying, Everyman. Let him who before was a fornicator slough off his lust; let him who before was avaricious become generous in almsgiving; let the thief pay heed: “Sin no more.” Great is God’s forbearance, lavish His grace. But let not His exceeding patience breed contempt. Do not make God’s long-suffering a pretext for continuing in sin. Take the cure for your carnal passions, so that you too can say, in the words of the lesson so appropriately read: “For what time we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the law, were at work in our members.” If the Apostle says, “What time we were in the flesh,” he was not speaking of our mortal envelope of flesh but of the deeds of the flesh. He was himself, indeed, still clad in the flesh when he said, “What time we were in the flesh.” It is in the sense in which, when the deluge was preparing, God said: “My spirit shall not remain in these men, because they are flesh” (the spirit being perverted to fleshly appetite), that the Apostle says: “When we were in the flesh.”
(18) Let no one, then, be “in the flesh”; but, being in the flesh, let him not walk according to the flesh. The Apostle does not mean that, to avoid sin, we should withdraw altogether from the world, but that, being in the flesh, we should make the flesh our servant and not be ruled by it. Let us not be slaves, but masters, in our own house. Let us be moderate in our eating, not allowing ourselves to be carried away by gluttony. So bridling our appetite, we shall govern also its henchman, lust. Let the soul rule the body and not be at the beck and call of animal instinct.
“Sin no more, lest something worse befall you.” It is a warning to all; God grants that all ears may hear it. For it is not always that the fleshly ear, when it receives a message, transmits it to the mind. That is why the Saviour, when addressing those who had “ears of flesh,” said, “If you have ears that can hear, then hear.”
(19) Let everyone, then, give ear to Jesus and “sin no more.” Let us, rather, hasten to the great Pardoner. Are we ill? Let us have recourse to Him. Is it a sickness of the soul that ails us? Let us become disciples of the physician of knowledge. Are we hungry? Let Him give us bread. Are we dead? Let Him raise us to life. Have we grown old in ignorance? Let us beg wisdom of Wisdom.
(20) But my sermon has betrayed me into wordiness, and I am, maybe, standing in the way of its practical lesson. God grant that all of us may heed the Saviour’s words, that, aided by mightier works, we may send up our praise to God, to whom be the glory now and forever, through all eternity. Amen.
Anthony A. Stephenson (trans.), The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 2,
Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1970, 209-222.
Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1970, 209-222.