JULY 2020 RECOLLECTION: The Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, The Abandoned Sick People
Translated by Fray Hubert Dunstan Decena, OAR
The crisis of COVID 19 has manifested, among other things, the fragility of the human being, his transitory nature and the boundaries of his existence. In a Promethean era like ours, an insignificant virus has brought to its knees the wisdom of a science that considers itself omnipotent, and has put the whole humanity in touch with its own limitations and contingency. The COVID 19 has reminded man that he is not god (homo-deus), but is simply a creature, weak, mortal and limited. But for the believer, sickness and death are not the end. Jesus Christ enlightens also this aspect of human life, because sickness is transformed in him into a place of salvation and within the boundary of the renewing encounter with God. That is why for a Christian sickness is no longer a punishment from God or a “scourge of God,” and is made into an occasion of conversion, of encounter and salvation. Today we shall meditate on this very actual context of COVID 19 on sickness and healing in Christ taking as point of departure the text of Jn. 5:1-9, the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, and the situation that will accompany us will be that of the abandoned sick people.
Enter into yourself.
Let us prepare ourselves for this day of recollection and encounter with God, let us put aside everything that may disperse us, let us retreat into our heart. Let us recognize our spiritual illnesses and let us have recourse to the divine physician to implore his healing and salvation. In a moment of silence and recollection, let us invoke the help of the Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit, grant that before Christ we do not hide our wounds. You are the physician, I am the sick; you are merciful and I am miserable. Is not perhaps the life of man on earth a temptation? Who is there who loves troubles and labors? You command us to tolerate them not to love them. No one loves what he tolerates, though I love to tolerate them. Help us, Lord, to acknowledge our weaknesses and inconsistencies, and to put ourselves always in your hands, O Divine Healer. Amen. (conf. 10, 39 [paraphrase]).
Your voice is my joy.
With heart well disposed, with serenity, I read slowly the following words of the Gospel according to St. John, savoring them and allowing myself to be touched by them.
After this, there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame and crippled. For from time to time an angel of the Lord used to come down into the pool; and the water was stirred up, so the first one to get in after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease afflicted him. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” 9 Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked. Now that day was a Sabbath.
The firmament of Scriptures.
The scene has two parts: the miracle at the pool (vv.1-9) and the discussion with the authorities (vv.10-16). The first is what concerns us in this reflection, but we must not forget that it is the basis for the manifestation of Jesus as the only revelation of the Father, with an authority much greater than that of Moses or any of the patriarchs.
Our story takes place at the pool of Bethesda or the pool Probatica (v.1). It was a double pool, with ritual origin: it was where they washed the sheep that were later brought to the temple. In the time of Jesus, it was the pool of the quarter north of the city, the quarter of the ditch (bethesda). Besides the practical character, it possessed a miraculous character: whoever bathes in this pool could be cured of his illnesses (v.4).
Jesus comes, probably on the feast of Pentecost, and arrives at the pool. He looks around and is detained by a sick man, who the narrator tells us has been lying on his mat for thirty-eight years (v.5-6). Jesus approaches this man and asks if he wants to be cleansed (v.7, which has more coherence with the text): to bathe in order to be purified and become clean of the sickness (another possible meaning of Bethesda is house of grace= bet-hesed-adonay).
The sick man does not answer Jesus’ question but indicates that owing to the state of his health, he is incapable of entering into the water, so that when this is stirred, he arrives late. There is no one to help him approach the water, that is why the grace escapes him (v.7).
Jesus orders him to compose himself, to stand up (v.8). The expression of Jesus, full of authority and the obedience of the sick man, reveal the transforming effect of the word of God that is expressed not only in the obedience but in the healing. The Word heals, Jesus heals, gives back to the man his state of wholeness, not only physical, but moral and spiritual. This man does not go back to become the man he was before the illness, but goes to an anterior state (let us recall that the Gospel says he has been lying there thirty-eight years).
The attitude of the sick man changes completely, from being immobile and dependent on others for almost anything, and now he picks up his mat and walks (v.9). There is a qualitative change, a change for the better, all owing to the active Word, that creates a new reality: where there was nothing but incapacity and passivity, Jesus creates dynamism, movement, action. He who was formerly a paralytic, now is a man who not only walks but can carry his mat; thus manifesting that God continues to act in the life of those who listen to him and obey him.
Indicating that it was a Sabbath Day (v.9) serves as a warning to prepare ourselves: the miracle will cause a polemic: Can Jesus do something on the Sabbath? The answer is ‘yes’ because God has given him all power to act in his name and establish his kingdom.
The healings in the Gospel of John always have one didactic and revelatory purpose. In the case of the healing of this paralytic, they teach that Jesus is the One Sent and Authorized by the Father and that he only acts and does what God commands him.
St. Augustine calls attention to various details in the text we use for our reflection today. First, he points out that the pool of Bethesda with its five porticoes is a figure of the ancient people of God, since the five porticoes represent for St. Augustine the five books of the Law. And in that place there are sick people, because the Law does nothing else than to show forth the sickness and the weakness of the human being, incapable by himself to fulfill the Law without the help of grace. Thus, within these five porticoes are shown the sickness and the weakness of man.
(…) that people was enclosed by the five books of Moses as by five porticoes. But the books pointed out the sick people, they did not heal them, because the Law showed that they were sinners, it did not absolve them. Thus the letter without grace made guilty those whom, after confessing, grace would liberate (Io. eu. tr. 17, 2).
On the other hand, he talks of a weakness that must be healed by grace, the power of God. It is a divine healing that happens when man has faith, and he can perceive in the illness a sharing in the Passion and the Suffering of Christ. To be healed he has to go down, to descend to the pool. To receive the healing action of Christ, we must be humble and accept to share in the Passion of the Lord, putting ourselves into the hands of God and meekly obeying his will. “Thus, going down to the stirred water is this: to humbly believe in the Passion of the Lord” (Io. eu. tr. 17,3).
Furthermore, St. Augustine likewise points out that among the many sick people only one was cured, to show by this the importance of unity, avoiding the division to which pride leads: “There, only one was healed to signify the unity; anyone who would come later was not healed, because anyone who is outside the unity could not be healed” (Io. eu. tr. 17,3).
St. Augustine also underlines that the healing of bodies is something symbolic and ephemeral, and that in reality what the text wishes to communicate is the healing that Christ effects in the soul. In other words, that Christ is he who comes to cure the soul of the worse illness they have, that of sin, that can cause them eternal death, which is much worse than temporal death to which physical illness can lead. Thus, Christ is the only healer and savior of souls, only he can cure the sickness of sin: “For our salvation, what he did for men is in fact greater than what he did among men; having healed the vices of souls is much more than having cured the defects of the bodies that led to death (Io. eu. tr. 17,1).
Finally, St. Augustine, very fond of numerical symbolism, calls attention to the fact that the sick man spent thirty-eight years waiting by the pool. To explain the meaning of this number St. Augustine says that thirty-eight lacks two to become forty. He interprets that forty is the number of fasting, but also is the number that contains perfection that needs to be completed and accomplished by means of good works: “Indeed it is certain that the number forty means a certain perfection in good works, works that are exercised above all in certain abstinence from earthly illicit desires, i.e., fasting in general” (Io. eu. tr. 17,6).
And to arrive at this perfection symbolized by the number forty, the number thirty-eight lacks two. For St. Augustine these are the two precepts of love: love of God and love of neighbor. “If therefore the number forty is the perfection of the Law, and the Law is not accomplished except by the double precept of charity, why then are you surprised that that sick man lacked two to make forty? (Io. eu. tr. 17,6).
In fact, in the final command of Christ, St. Augustine sees a ratification of the precept of love for neighbor, because Christ commands him to stand up, pick up his mat and go home. St. Augustine interprets the paralytic’s mat as the neighbor, whom he must now support and carry. Just as when he was sick he was carried by others, so now that he is healed, he must carry others, must love his neighbor: “And I ask: why is the neighbor represented in the mat if not that when he was sick he was carried in it, and now when healed he carries it? What is said by the Apostle? ‘Mutually carry each other’s burdens and thus you shall fulfill the Law of the Messiah’ (Gal. 6:2). The Law of Christ is therefore love and love is not fulfilled if we do not mutually carry each other’s burdens” (Io. eu. tr. 17, 9).
The cry of the poor.
The Kalighat house that the Missionaries of Charity own in the city of Calcutta is a global reference with respect to the attention given to the sick and the dying, many of whom were abandoned by their families. It is a house that frequently lack economic resources but at the same time has abundant love. This house of shelter for the sick was founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta on the year 1952. Until today it is a place that renders a service from charity in favor of the poorest among the poor, such as Jesus Christ had taught and lived. There is no doubt that the sick abandoned to their fate increase the files of the poor among the poor because more than the pain caused by the physical suffering of sickness and the great difficulties they face just to survive, they live the suffering of the soul and the heart for being abandoned by their families and of not receiving attention, care and affection.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta says that “the greatest sickness today is not leprosy nor tuberculosis, but rather of feeling not loved, not cared for and abandoned by all. The greatest evil is the absence of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards our neighbor who lives by the side of the road, exposed to exploitation, corruption, poverty and sickness.”
There are many ways to abandon the sick. A good group of old people in developed countries receive quality attention in residences for senior citizens, but they are abandoned and very seldom visited by family members, from whom they seek attention and affection. In underdevelo0ped countries it is frequent that the old people with chronic illness that require very costly services are deficiently attended to by their families; some of them are brought to hospitals so they can receive good medical attention but later abandoned. Some who are sick of AIDS, leprosy and mental disorder are stigmatized, discriminated against and abandoned. Some chronic and violent alcoholics are abandoned. When communities are displaced by natural disasters or armed conflicts, there are sick old persons, unable to flee or travel great distances, who are abandoned. In India invalid sick persons classified as “untouchable” are abandoned; these are persons who, on account of their belief, are receiving punishment and it is important not to touch them to avoid contagion. The actual crisis of coronavirus, that has overwhelmed the health systems of various nations, has provoked the death of the sick deficiently attended to or abandoned to their fate. Among the abandoned sick people the most vulnerable without doubt are the old and the mentally ill.
A very painful event that cries to heaven occurred last month of April in the residence for old people in Herron, near the city of Montreal, Canada. In the middle of the corona virus crisis, 130 old residents were victims of negligence by those responsible for the center. The service personnel abandoned the center leaving the old people without food, no sanitary attention and without care. When the authorities learnt of this inhuman situation, they went to the center and found many old people dead and tens in lamentable stated of hunger, filth and lack of attention. In this residence 31 old persons died.
Teresa of Calcutta is the indisputable model of attention for the abandoned sick people. Pope Francis, in the message for the XXVII World Day for the Sick on February 11, 2019 presented St. Teresa of Calcutta as the Model of Charity in favor of the poor and the sick. He says thus:
“I want to recall with joy and admiration the figure of St. Mo. Teresa of Calcutta, a model of charity who made visible God’s love for the poor and the sick. As I said at her canonization, “Mother Teresa, throughout her existence, has been a generous dispenser of Divine Mercy, making herself available to all by welcoming and defending human life, not only of the unborn but also of the abandoned and the discarded…She bent over the weak persons, who die abandoned by the road side, recognizing the dignity that God had given them. She made her voice be heard by the powerful on earth, that they recognize their faults in face of the crimes … of poverty they themselves created. Mercy has been for her the “salt” that gave flavor to each of her work, and the “light” that illuminated the darkness of those who no longer had tears to weep over their poverty and suffering. Her mission in the peripheries of the cities and in the existential peripheries remain in our days as eloquent testimony of God’s nearness to the poorest of the poor” (Homily, September 4, 2016).
Your commitment, your response.
Human life is subject to sickness and pain. How do you live this mystery in your own life? Do you feel united to the Passion of Christ?
In an individualistic world, how do you show your nearness to the sick? Do you keep them in mind or because you are healthy you forget and don’t think of them?
Our communities are called ‘spaces of mercy’. How is your relationship with our sick brothers (of soul and body)? What gestures of charity, patience and mercy do you give them?
Final Prayer: But you who do not yet see God, by loving you neighbor will merit to see him. Love for neighbor cleanses the eyes to see God. Help us Lord, to see you present in our sick brothers, in everyone who suffers, so that cleansing the eyes of our hearts with the eye drops of faith, we will come to see you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, who lives and reigns forever and ever. (Io. eu. tr. 17,8 [paraphrased]).
“Not fulfilling the Law is a sickness. That is why the man at the pool was sick; he had been sick for thirty-eight years, lacking two” (s. 125, 10).