Christ is risen! And now Jesus is telling us to rise. The Risen Lord raises us.
To the paralytic, Jesus says “Rise – take up your pallet, and walk” (John 5:8). Jesus says “Rise” to a paralytic in each of the four gospels.
To Aeneas, Peter says, “Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed” (Acts 9:34).
And to the disciple Tabitha, Peter says, “Tabitha, rise” (Acts 9:40).
Rise. Rise. Rise.
Saint Augustine says that this is the word of healing – “the conferring of the cure.”[i] To rise is to be healed, made whole, restored to the fullness of life. This makes a lot of sense if we are illuminated. And by that I mean baptized, chrismated, and communed in the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s not happenstance that the healing of the paralytic in John takes place next to a pool, which, when stirred by an unseen spirit, brings healing of body to one submerged in it (John 5:4). This is a type or prefiguration of baptism. We are buried with Christ in death by being submerged in the waters of baptism, which have been stirred and “sanctified by the power, action, and descent of the Holy Spirit,”[ii] so that we will rise up with Christ out of death into everlasting life by rising up out of the waters of baptism.
Several of the fathers[iii] also point out that this pool is where the priests would wash the animals to be sacrificed to the Lord in the temple. This further strengthens the image of baptism evoked by the Sheep Pool. Because we who are baptized are baptized into the sacrificial death of Jesus, the Lamb of God – whose death destroys death and raises us up from death to everlasting life.
You see, when we are baptized, we are like the paralytic hearing the word of the Lord – “Rise”. Before baptism, we are still paralyzed – that is restricted, not free, but enslaved to death and to the consequences of our mortality – to the bodily passions and sin. But through baptism, God fills our lives with grace – with the life of God, with his own energies, which free us from our enslavement to these things.
Maybe we lose sight of our own freedom sometimes. Because we often fall again, pining after the fleshpots of Egypt, wishing we were enslaved again with full bellies, or wishing we were paralyzed again, because when we were paralyzed all we had to do was lie around. Now that we can walk, we must carry our pallet. And that’s hard work. We must do the work of living the life in Christ. And it isn’t always easy. So sometimes like a dog returns to its vomit we return to our sin, even after we’ve been baptized and freed from it.
But if we do, our Lord who loves us unconditionally comes to us again in the second baptism of holy repentance. In this holy mystery, it is as if he says to us again, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” Again healing us with the word “Rise.” And again he follows that with the commission to be about the work of God.
This is like when he forgives the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). He forgives her saying, “Neither do I condemn you; go.” She can go. She is free to go. She will not be subjected to punishment for her sin. But he continues, “and sin no more.” Now that we’ve been forgiven, we are free to live a sinless life – a holy life – a grace-filled life – a life impossible without grace but made possible by grace. It is God’s own life he invites us to live.
This is part of what Jesus means I think by telling the paralytic to take up his pallet and walk. This is a meaningful command. We know that this healing takes place on the Sabbath. And we know that the Jews said it was not lawful to carry a heavy burden on the Sabbath. Did Jesus forget? I don’t think he did. I think every word he speaks is well thought-out, profoundly meaningful, and inspired.
It is worth recalling that Torah nowhere explicitly forbids carrying an item from one place to another on the Sabbath. Torah forbids work on the Sabbath. But what is work? Later, Mishnah strives to answer this question. Mishnah developed to serve as “a fence around Torah”[iv] – to make it so that if a pious Jew follows Mishnah, he cannot come even close to breaking Torah. So later, after the time of Christ, Mishnah would outline 39 types of work forbidden on the Sabbath including carrying an object from one house to another.[v] But all this was still in dispute at the time of Jesus. And, in any case, these are human laws built around Torah and not Torah itself. Jesus above all has the authority to supersede Mishnah. And he himself is the word of God before all ages and is himself the source of Torah.
Jesus knew he was commanding the paralytic to break this Mishnah regarding the Sabbath. He does know everything after all. So I believe he had a good reason for telling him to do this. Or many good reasons.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian points out that it would have been a great miracle just for Jesus to say to the paralytic, “arise and go” even if he had not also had him take up his pallet and walk “Would it not have been a miracle that he, who was not able to turn himself about on his bed, should arise easily and go?” But he also makes him carry his bed. Why? Ephrem writes that this is “to show that he had given him a complete healing…, not like the sick who come back to health gradually…. Even if he were silent,” Ephrem writes, “his bed would cry out.”[vi] So the carrying of the bed demonstrates to all the totality and immediacy of the healing available in Jesus Christ.
Caesarius of Arles offers a more allegorical interpretation which I quite like. He says that taking up our pallet means to carry and govern our bodies. (Sermon 171.1) You see, before he encountered Christ, the paralytic was carried about by his pallet. It bore him. But after he encounters Christ and confesses to him his weakness – saying “there is no one to put me in the pool when the waters are stirred” – after this, Christ says to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” Now he carries the pallet. Now he carries that which had carried him. He bears it.
This is so like the bodily passions of our bodies subject to death. Before Christ or without Christ our bodily passions – hunger, lust, sloth, and so on – rule over us. We go where they say – do what they want – obey them. We are not free. But Christ frees us. In him, we are free. But notice, he does not tell us to cast away the pallet – the body, or even in some sense the passions. But to rise, take them up, and walk. Our bodies and even our passions can be redeemed and restored to their true nature and purpose in Jesus Christ, in whom we are free, in whom these things are not our masters, in whom we are the masters of these things.
Our passions and appetites and impulses are distorted by sin. They are run amok – drunk with power – having been given by us disordered dominion over our whole lives. As for example when we allow fear of the difficulty involved in making a virtuous choice to prevent us from so doing. And we take the easy way out. But I don’t believe that the passions and impulses and appetites in us are in themselves contrary to our true nature. With Saint Isaiah the Solitary, I believe these come originally from God and so are good in essence. But we need to carry them rather than them carrying us. Our passions must, with God’s help, “be educated, not eradicated…, transfigured, not suppressed…, used positively, not negatively.”[vii] Having risen in Christ, we must carry our pallets rather than being carried by them.
[i] Tractates on the Gospel of John 17.7
[ii] special petition in the Litany of Peace before the blessing of the baptismal waters
[iii] E.g. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Augustine, Alcuin
[iv] Pirkei Avot 1.1
[v] Mishnah Shabbat 7.2
[vi] Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron 13.2.
[vii] G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrand, and Kallistos Ware, eds., “Glossary,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume One (London: Faber and Faber, 1979-1995), 364.