Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily for 2nd Sunday of Great Lent & St Gregory Palamas

[Mark 2:1-12 (§7)]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters!

We now come to this Second Sunday of Lent which heralds the third week of the Great Fast when, since the 14th century, holy Mother Church has called upon the faithful to commemorate our Father among the Saints, St Gregory Palamas. This commemoration of St Gregory acts as a continuity to our celebrations last week with the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and the remembrance of the witness and martyric sacrifice of the great hierarchs, fathers, mothers and lay people of the church for the preservation of the savour of authentic Orthodox Christianity, Ancient Christianity in its fulness and in its power.  For our Gospel reading this week we turn from the Gospel of John to that of Mark and to interpret this Gospel there can be no more appropriate Father for us to choose that St Gregory himself.

St Gregory begins his homily with a general word about fasting to his flock in Medieval Thessaloniki.

If anyone is looking for the right season to practice virtue, it is now, in these forty days. Our whole life is intended as a suitable means of attaining salvation, but this season of fasting is more especially so.

As Lent moves into its third week, it is so easy for early momentum, early enthusiasm to become dampened, or for us to fall into despondency due to our strength of our sinful habits and our temptation to vice and distraction. St Gregory’s words should rouse us to keep picking ourselves up from our idleness and sloth and arousing ourselves to true prayer, true fasting and dispassionate almsgiving.

St Gregory then turns to provide his listeners with his own inspired exegesis of our Gospel this morning:

And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house.

Although our Lord was born in Bethlehem, he lived in Nazareth and then after His Baptism in the Jordan, he went, to dwell in Capernaum, a fishing village on the Northern shore of Lake Galilee which would have had a population of around 1500 people in the 1st century.

And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them.

As our Lord was based in Capernaum He would have been very well known especially when he started to work some wonders and miracles from the start of his ministry. Alongside the works our Lord also preached the Word to them. St Gregory, makes a sharp observation on this point, comparing those first listeners of Capernaum to ourselves as 21st Century listeners of the same Word.

Publicly and without reproaching anyone, He preached to all the work of repentance, the Gospel of salvation and the words of eternal like. Everyone heard but not everyone obeyed. For although we all love listening and watching, not all of us love virtue.

His last sentence, cuts through to the bone I think. How easy is it to listen to spiritual teaching, or even – in my own case – to attempt to write spiritual teaching, but how much harder is it to actually change our lives, fight against our sins and bad habits, to cease from our ingrained selfishness and hard heartedness and to take up the Cross?

And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay.

Interestingly, St Gregory addresses something which has always puzzled me about this passage, which was that was the Lord moved to heal the ‘sick of the palsy’ on account of the faith of his four friends or on account of the paralysed man himself. In considering this question, St Gregory recalls that although in the Gospels, healing presupposes some movement of faith on behalf of the person seeking healing, there are several occasions when our Lord heals on the basis of the intercessions of others, for example, the healing of the Centurion’s servant, the Caananite woman’s daughter or Jairus’ daughter. However, as St Gregory says –

Of these three, however, Jairus’ daughter had died, the Canaanite woman’s daughter was beside herself, and the servant was not even present. The paralysed man, by contrast, was present and in his right mind, although his body was paralysed.

St Gregory, thus concludes:

It seems more likely to me, therefore, that his bearers accepted faith in the Lord and ventured to approach Him as a result of the paralysed man’s own hopefulness and faith … they could not have done this against his wishes’.

St Gregory then reflects on how different sins, as well as circumstances can keep someone from Christ, but in the case of the Capernaum paralytic, these obstacles have been taken away through the illness he has been given.

It was love of human honour that distanced the Pharisees from faith in the Lord …. Others were prevented from drawing near by lands, weddings, or worries about the affairs of life, but the paralysed man’s physical weakness put an end to such things and removed them from his thoughts.’  

The paralytic had lost so much. He had lost the control of his legs and his arms and was reduced to a life in his bed. So many of the things that may have tempted him or occupied him had been taken away. He could no longer go out drinking with his friends, or be taken away with lust, or accumulate wealth. He was entirely dependent upon others for almost all of his most basic needs and dependent upon their charity. How humbling this must have been for him. In my own work as a social worker, I have myself seen how terrible progressive neurological illnesses have caused the person to become humble and meek in the face of suffering and in enduring indignity. So, we – who are fortunate not to be paralysed –  could ask ourselves, what wordly cares, what temptations, what worldly distractions draws us again, and again, away from Christ? Whilst able bodied and healthy physically, what good is all this physical vitality if we remain proud, hard hearted and distant from our Lord – spiritually dead? As St Gregory muses –

There are times when illness is better for sinners than good health, because it helps them towards salvation and blunts their inborn evil impulses.

I am reminded of a dear friend, and spiritual father, Archimandrite Athanasius (Ledwich) who bore the cross of his own suffering with great patience and good humour. Even when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer he still was full of joy, and did not moan about his pain or difficulties which far exceeded those of the people who came to him wanting, of course, his comfort, reassurance and care. I recall him saying that God gave him illness and suffering because he saw that he was, in his words, ‘too much of a wimp for real asceticism’. This is how we should see our own suffering and illnesses that we are given as mystical medicine for our sins.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.

By ‘their faith’ – St Gregory explicitly sees this as not just limited to the friends who carried the stretcher but extending to the whole party including the paralysed man. St Gregory then turns to the way in which Christ addresses the paralytic Son, thy sins be forgiven thee and the order in which healing happens, first healing of the soul and then of the body.

What a blessed way to be addressed! He hears himself called “son” and is adopted as the child of the heavenly Father. He is joined to God who is without sin, having immediately become sinless himself through the forgiveness of his sins’.

But there was certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts?

As we have seen so often, it is the Scribes and Pharisees who show their real difference and distance from the others who eagerly and lovingly gathered around the Lord, seeing in Him the Chosen one of Israel, the Hope of the Nations. Rather the Scribe and Pharisees, whilst physically close to the Lord throughout his journeys in Israel were never spiritually close to Him at all, but were always looking for opportunities to denounce Him as a fraud, as a spiritual fake and hypocrite, in exactly the same way that we Pharisees accuse in others the same failings we know we have in ourselves. As the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of course knew the innermost thoughts of all those that surrounded Him, both the humbled paralytic on his stretcher as well as the proud Pharisees and Scribes with their robes and phylacteries.

It seemed to the scribes that the Lord was unable to heal the paralysed man, so He had resorted to something obscure (hidden) …this was blasphemy but was also something easy that anyone could do’.   

Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.

The forgiveness of sins was of course something that only God could do, and yet here was a man, a man from Nazareth claiming to offer something which only God could do. Our Lord, to thus overturn the actual blasphemy of the Pharisees, uses this miracle as an opportunity to show that He is God Incarnate, God-made-flesh. As St Gregory says –

Something that no one had ever seen or heard of had now come to light. Christ was both God and man, twofold in nature and energy. On the one hand He spoke as a man like us, on the other hand as God He accomplished whatever He pleased through His word and command alone.

And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion.

Just as it was God-like to read the heart and secret thoughts of man, and God-like to forgive people their sins. So too was it God-like for things to happen, not through physical effort, manipulation of force but immediately by simple verbal command alone.

Dear father, brothers and sisters, we can thus see that St Gregory shows how this wonderful story of the miracle of the raising of the Capernaum paralytic is in fact a revelation of God’s Incarnation that God has come to dwell among us. And this in essence was at the heart of St Gregory’s concern as a Bishop and as an inspired defender of the Monastic and Hesychastic tradition of Mount Athos. He was keen to show against the heresy of Balaam that God could indeed be authentically known and really experienced through the Holy Mysteries and through the prayerful and ascetic life of the Church. Through his holy prayers, may we in our own small ways find healing from the paralysis of our sins and may our own Communion with the very Energies of God which we will experience in our Liturgy today illumine, enlighten and warm our darkened and hardened hearts.