The editorial of the month

Father Sebastian White, o.p.

by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

One man who was there had been ill for thirty-eight years (Jn 5:5). This verse, from the Gospel at Mass on April 2nd, is moving enough in itself. We’re obviously not dealing with a run-of-the-mill head cold. But I find this detail particularly haunting this year—if I were in that man’s shoes it would mean I had been suffering for my entire life.

One and all

He isn’t alone, of course. There is a whole crowd of people lying around—unhealthy, unhappy, unloved. They have been failed by life; whatever was meant to satisfy them, whoever was supposed to take care of them, it didn’t work. They are ill, blind, lame, and crippled.

Then Saint John zooms in on one person specifically (for Jesus knows and loves us intimately, personally), the one who was ill for thirty-eight years. Saint Augustine delivers an arresting mystical interpretation. Thirty-eight, he says:

is a number which belongs to sickness, rather than health. The number forty has a sacred character with us, and is significative of perfection. For the Law was given in Ten Commandments, and was to be preached throughout the whole world, which consists of four hemispheres; and four multiplied by ten equals forty. And the Law, too, is fulfilled by the Gospel, which is written in four books. So if the number forty possesses the perfection of the Law, and nothing fulfills the Law except the twofold precept of love, why wonder at the feebleness of him who was two less than forty?

In other words, this one man is an everyman, his paralysis embodies the position we are all in apart from the grace of Christ. Prior to Jesus, his whole being is helpless, unfulfilled: I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up. Augustine concludes: “Some man was necessary for his recovery; but it was a man who was God.”

The big picture

The heading for this passage in my Bible reads, in bold text: Cure on a Sabbath. While the timing of this miracle only emerges several verses later in the story, the editors of this edition were surely justified in bringing it to the fore. After all, when Jesus heals or teaches on a Sabbath he reveals who he is—his place, or role, in the grand scheme of things. As the Savior, he is the grand scheme: Jesus, Son of God, is the lawgiver; Jesus, Son of Man, ransom[s] those under the law (Gal 4:5).

At the end of the passage some begin to persecute Jesus because he did this on a sabbath. But right worship and saving obedience are gifts of grace. True Sabbath rest—the forgiveness of sin—comes from the Redeemer; true observance of the Lord’s day means loving the Lord Jesus.

That, if anything does, warrants a bold font.

Take up your mat, and walk

After thirty-eight years of lying on that mat, I’m sure the man, now healed, was good and ready to get rid of it. Why not let him toss it?

One explanation could be that Jesus did not want him to clutter up a public park, along the lines of the disapproving notices adorning office kitchens everywhere: “Please do not leave your dirty dishes in the sink.” But I’m quite sure Jesus is concerned with more than teaching him not to litter. Instead, the Lord leaves him with the constant reminder of his former condition. Lugging around his silly mat might have been annoying—a battle even—but I bet that man never forgot he depended on Jesus.

So it is with us. Even after baptism removes Original Sin (it is no coincidence the healing took place at a pool), “certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as…concupiscence” (CCC 1264). But all that—the baggage we all carry—is providential, it keeps us from getting carried away with ourselves. Our vulnerability to suffering and death unites us to Jesus, who suffered and died for us; our lifelong war against temptation and concupiscence prepares us to receive a crown of victory. After all, God established a whole economy of grace—seven sanctifying sacraments, not one. Baptism does indeed make us holy; the rest of the sacraments—especially regular confession and Communion—make us more holy.

Just a few things to think about during this season of forty days, this season that unites us to Jesus, our Savior, our Lord.