Articles Devotional

Week 3 of Great Fast

Devotional based on texts taken from the Scripture Readings of Third Sunday of Fifty days Lent – Healing of the Paralytic

In St Mark’s Gospel, the reading for this third Sunday of Lent (Mark 2.1-11) comes immediately after the healing of the leper (Mark 1.40-45), a story we heard last week from St Luke’s Gospel. Last Sunday, after a full week of Lenten struggle, the Church offered us the example of the leper, a man who was full of leprosy, who sensed his need for cleansing, and was not afraid to approach Jesus, kneel before him, and profess faith in his ability to cleanse him, if he was only willing to do so. In response, Jesus stretches out his hand to him, touches him, and heals him. The leper serves as an example to us–to know and acknowledge our own spiritual sickness, which completely infects us; to boldly and confidently approach Jesus; and to ask him for healing, having faith that he is always willing to heal those who come to him with a broken and contrite heart.

Today, a very different example is given to us. Jesus preaches in a house in Capernaum, and there are many people listening to him; they are a large crowd, impossible to break through. Nevertheless, four men manage to get to Jesus, carrying a paralyzed man on his pallet, lowering him through a hole they made in someone else’s roof. Seeing their faith, we are told, Jesus forgives the paralyzed man’s sins, and, in response to the doubts of the scribes, raises him from his pallet and restores his ability to walk.

The paralytic may have been earnestly praying and hoping that he might be cured one day. He may have heard of the carpenter-rabbi from Nazareth, of his teachings, and of his miracles, and he may have thought that this man was his best hope for healing. He may have gotten some friends of his to bring him to Jesus, and it was his faith and theirs that saved him. It is also possible that the paralytic was a bitter and broken man. Paralyzed from birth or through some accident, perhaps he was angry at God for having allowed him to live in such a pitiful state. Maybe he heard of the carpenter-rabbi from Nazareth and responded with cynicism: “Another false messiah”. Perhaps he didn’t want anything to do with Jesus, but his friends took him anyway, and being paralyzed, he was helpless in the matter. We don’t know either way, because St Mark hasn’t told us one way or another–the paralyzed man says not a word. It is the faith of the four friends that is known for sure, and it is in response to their faith that our Lord heals and saves this paralytic and sets him free.

Today we are reminded that no man is saved alone, on his own, by himself and through his own efforts. Ultimately, our Lord Jesus Christ provides healing and salvation for sinners, but sometimes sinners are brought to him for healing and salvation through the mediation, effort, prayer, and faith of others. And we are reminded that our calling as individuals, and as a Church, is to be one of those four men, willing to do everything in our power, and even to take a risk here and there, to save our fellow man. That is our calling as individuals and as a Church; to always be on the lookout for the lost, and to bring them back to Christ and to the Church.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that our Church is very often not a place where this happens. It is supposed to be the spiritual hospital to which Christ calls the sinners in order to repent, but we usually turn it into a “spiritual country club”, where the “holy” and the “pure”, the “good” and the “faithful”, can come, pray, sing, read, light candles, and receive sacraments, making a show of their “holiness”, rejoicing in their “salvation”, and being satisfied with themselves. If we notice our brother or sister going in the wrong direction, heading into sin or peril, we do not sincerely try to help. We stand back and watch, waiting for the fall, and when it happens, we talk about it, we laugh, we make fun, and we feel good about ourselves, that we’re not all that bad. We may even come up with excuses to defend this behavior of ours. Usually, that fallen brother or sister will not feel like they have a place in our community again, and we do not go looking for them to bring them back. They become, and always will be, shameful outcasts. After all, the entire population of Capernaum most likely knew about the paralytic, but they ran past him to sit at the feet of Jesus. Only four men were found in the town who cared enough about the paralytic to bring him to Jesus and place him in the midst of the congregation from which he was most likely very isolated. We are rarely like these four men, and most often we are like the citizens of Capernaum.

Today’s Gospel teaches us to be the eyes and ears, the arms and legs, of the Good Shepherd, always willing to look for the lost sheep, to find them, and to bring them back to Christ in the midst of his Church for healing and restoration. If we do this with pure motives, he is able to work miracles and transformations in the lives of those sheep, whatever their spiritual condition, because of our faith. God can work through us to heal the spiritually paralyzed if we are faithful. But today’s Gospel also convicts us of the reality that this is often not the case, that we quite often ignore, disregard, and even condemn such people, and we are reminded that they may well remain spiritually paralyzed if we do nothing, and what’s more, we will be guilty because of it, and we will join them as our hearts become colder and stonier, as we ourselves become spiritually paralyzed. And if that happens, woe to us–we may not find four friends to bring us back to Jesus.

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Byzantine Orthodox Ethos: A threat to Our Liturgical Theology? – Dn Philip Mathew

Deacon Shaun Mathew touches upon a matter which, though rather tangential to the topic of liturgical translation, is worth discussing, both for the theories proposed and for the resulting implications for liturgical scholarship and praxis, pastoral formation and ministry, and so on. He alleges that a “Byzantine ethos” has crept into the minds of at least some leaders in our Church (though he doesn’t name names, it is clear he is referring primarily to the young priests, deacons, and seminarians of the two American dioceses who have received their basic theological training in Eastern Orthodox seminaries in the United States), and wonders how this ethos may negatively affect them, their ministry, and the future of our Church. I am tempted to simply respond “Come and see”, being happy to welcome him back to the US any time to join us in the work of the ministry, but the ideas he has shared with us here deserve a more thoughtful response.

Let us begin with the question of ethos. While Dn Shaun defines “ethos” well enough, he doesn’t explain what constitutes what he calls the “Malankara Orthodox Syriac ethos”, or even the “Oriental Orthodox ethos”, much less the “Byzantine ethos”. Nevertheless, he goes on to make a case based on concepts which are clear enough in his own mind, but may not be held commonly by the readers, each of whom may have their own ideas about what constitutes each ethos. This is not helpful. Taking into account Dn Shaun’s definition of “ethos” as “the inner spirit with which we approach our way of life”, and my experiences over the last decade with a number of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions before, during, and after seminary, I would say that the basic “ethos” of Orthodoxy is the same across the board. Certainly, each tradition has features which distinguish it from others in terms of liturgy, language, music, art, theological perspective and understanding, ecclesiastical literature and law, polity, culture, and so on, but I don’t believe these constitute a unique ethos in opposition to others, but simply a unique and important variation on a common theme. To give a simple example, a practicing Malankara Orthodox Christian should be able to visit an Orthodox parish of another tradition and have no clue about anything going on in front of him but still know in his gut that this is an Orthodox church: it has the look and feel of Orthodoxy and conveys the same experience of God. I admit this seems to be a very subjective definition of ethos, but some things are naturally subjective (though I would argue that there are some rather objective factors that go into that determination).

In fact, I think Dn Shaun implicitly agrees with my position when he says “The Byzantine orthodox perspective has benefited the youth in America and in India in that at least something Orthodox was/is transmitted to them”. Beginning his post by asserting a unique “Byzantine ethos”, he nevertheless admits here that “something Orthodox” was transmitted, and towards the end he speaks of the Byzantine seminaries infusing in our students the “need to think and live in a truly Orthodox way”: I would say that this “something Orthodox”, this “truly Orthodox way”, is in fact the Orthodox ethos (because, though our tradition is different from the Byzantine, yet we still recognize it as Orthodox), and what he calls the “Byzantine ethos” is just one particular manifestation or “incarnation” of that fundamental ethos (indeed, we have to speak of multiple “Byzantine ethoi”, since there are still more variations within what we think of as one large bloc). Such an ethos is learned by immersion in church life, and not by graduate study. But I would welcome a clarification from Dn Shaun on how he would define each of the ethoi he mentioned so that we are not putting words into his mouth.

The second major point the author brings up seems to revolve around a misunderstanding. He writes “…when we have one or two generations of youths trained to view a liturgical manuscript by teachers who received Byzantine or Roman Catholic training, is it possible that we could lose the ability to view our liturgical texts from our own ethos?” I might begin by observing that a number of notable Malankara Orthodox liturgical experts who have received their scholarly training in such Western Christian centers as Rome and France have not suffered from this handicap, so I see no reason why “youths” with graduate theological training from Eastern Orthodox academies in the US would be any different except in the realm of intellectual aptitude, wherein there is obviously a range. In fairness, the same could be said about the students graduating from OTS, Kottayam–there is obviously a range of intellectual aptitude. But the major misunderstanding is in how he approaches liturgical understanding. When I read quotes such as the above and statements about the tools we use to flush out our theology from liturgical texts, I think that the author confuses a) liturgy (the thing itself, what it is, how it functions, etc.), (b) liturgiology (encompassing the scientific study of liturgy, analyzing texts, words, hymns, rites, manuscript traditions, origins, development, etc.), and (c) liturgical theology (how liturgy expresses theology, how it theologizes, theology gleaned from liturgical practice, etc.). What he has in mind in the quote above regarding manuscripts seems to be liturgiology, for which the methods of analysis are pretty objective and not denominational (if anyone doubts this, I am happy to provide a short bibliography).

Dn Shaun is correct to note that, because there is a unique West Syriac liturgy, there is a unique understanding implicit therein, and we cannot simply transpose Byzantine (or for that matter Ethiopian or Latin) understandings of liturgy on our system. Our liturgy has its own internal order, structure, rationale, “language”, and this needs to be learned, comprehended, appreciated, and taught on its own terms, both academically and experientially. I suspect this is the greater part of his argument, and with this I wholeheartedly agree. But I would disagree that we don’t have anything to learn from the other liturgical traditions. We can say, like St Justin Martyr, “whatever is true is ours”, whatever is true can shed light on our own tradition precisely because it is true and we are dealing with truth. How applicable something is to our situation can be argued, but it is still true and informative. We can indeed learn from those of other traditions or ethoi who have studied our liturgy and written and taught about it. Their personal religious ethos may not be “Malankara Orthodox Syriac”, but those of us steeped in this tradition can take the benefits of their research and insight that much further because we live the tradition about which they write and make observations from the outside. And, quite frankly, we as a Church cannot with a straight face say that we have done a superlative job of living out our own West Syriac liturgical ethos. Dn Shaun is well aware, to give but one example, of the major part of our proper Sunday and festal offices that has yet to be translated into any vernacular used by our Church (except for the books of Sedre). The “Malankara Orthodox Syriac ethos”, as it is expressed by our communities on both sides of our factional infighting (outside the seminaries, monasteries, and institutions such as SEERI), often seems to be an eclectic mix of West Syriac liturgy with quasi-Western and Indian elements coupled with a more or less mainline Protestant understanding of theology, preaching, and church life, except with those elements that distinguish us from Marthomites. So whatever we can learn about our authentic tradition is worth learning in order to regain our bearings and set our Church on a healthier path.

Dn Philip Mathew
White Plains, New York

Source: ICON