The Healing of Soul and Body

On the 4th Sunday after Pascha in the Orthodox Church, we proclaim the Gospel of the paralytic from  John 5:1-15.   Fairly early in Christian history this Gospel lesson was connected with baptism, offering a spiritual explanation of the text as well as of baptism.  Here is the Gospel:

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the   Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.'” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.  Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.

Roman Catholic scholar Jean Danielou comments:

“The fifth chapter of St. John’s Gospel tells the story of the healing of a paralytic man at the pool of Bethesda. Ancient Christian tradition saw in this episode a figure of Baptism: Tertullian, Didymus and Ambrose commented on it in their catecheses.  . . .  The pool of Bethesda was a place where miracles of healing took place; but there miracles took place for only one individual, at one definite instant, by the mediation of an angel. With Jesus these conditions were abolished. He is Himself the salvation which is accomplished at all times, without any intermediary, for every man.  . . .  But this action of Christ’s presents particular characteristics. For one thing, it is not only a healing of the body; it is connected with the pardon of sins. Thus, as often in the Gospel of John, the visible reality appears as the sign of an invisible reality.  . . .   The Fathers, then, were in the true line of interpretation of this text when they explained it in a baptismal sense. Tertullian is the first author whom we find treating it in this way:

‘By his intervention, an angel stirred the Pool of Bethesda. Those who complained of illness were on the watch for this stirring, for the first who went down into the pool ceased to have anything to complain about after the bath. This figure of corporal healing prophesies spiritual healing, according to the law that things of the flesh should always precede and prefigure spiritual things. So, as the grace toward the human being advanced further, it was given to the angel and the waters to be able to do more. Then they brought healing to bodily evils only, now they heal the soul; then they effected only temporal well-being, now they restore eternal life: then they delivered only one person once a year, now every day they preserve whole crowds, destroying death by the remission of sins’.”

(The Bible and the Liturgy, pp 209-210)

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