Sunday, 6 September 2015

The healing of the man at the pool: a reflection on the mosaic from S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna


We are beginning a series looking at incidents from the life of Jesus. The incidents which we are choosing are incidents which are portrayed in the earliest known set of images from the life of Jesus. They are in the church of St Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna. 

Ravenna, in NE Italy, is an amazing city. It is completely off the tourist map, and yet it contains 8 world heritage sites. Those include the church of St Vitale, and the church of St Apollinare, not to mention two baptisteries. 

Ravenna is significant because between 400 and about 550 it was the most important city in the Western Empire after the fall of Rome. The Christian architecture and the art was influenced by both East and West, by Rome and Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the residence of the senior Patriarch of the Eastern churches. And while virtually all of the early Christian art in Constantinople, Jerusalem and the East was destroyed in the iconoclasm of the 700s and 800s, Ravenna – because it was more to the west – survived. And so the mosaics in the churches can date back to the early 400s. 

The most striking set of mosaics on entering the church of St Apollinare Nuovo are the rows of martyrs and saints. On the left are the women, with crowns in hand, processing towards Christ seated on Mary. They are led by three wise men with their gifts, who are given names. 
The men are on the right. They process, with crowns in hand, towards Christ seated on the throne with a sceptre of authority.

But the row we will be looking at is the row at the very top. It is hard to see. When we visited I had forgotten my glasses and so I had to get my boys to describe the images. And today we are beginning with the image at the back of the equivalent of our North side – the beginning of the series. 

The first mosaic is an image of Jesus blessing a man who is carrying his bed. And it is an illustration of the story that we read in John 5. [It could be an illustration of the man who was healed after he was lowered through the roof by his friends, where Jesus also tells him to take up his bed and walk, but since that incident is illustrated a little later, I suspect this is the John 5 incident]. 

What is fascinating about this particular image is that we know of one that is much older. The earliest known illustration of a bible story that we have is from a house church in the ancient town of Dura Europos in Syria, which dates from no later than 256. It cannot be later because the city was besieged and destroyed in 256, and the chapel was covered over with dirt until its discovery. Fortunately the walls and murals were taken away to Yale University art gallery. I say fortunately, because today Dura Europos is in territory controlled by IS, and it certainly would have been destroyed. But clearly our artist has made use of this very early tradition.

So let’s look at this image in the light of the passage that we read (John 5.1-18). Because John’s gospel is the original source for the artist. 

1. A youthful Jesus, who is shown with a halo, blesses the man carrying his bed. 

The story is part of a series of stories in John’s gospel in which Jesus reveals his glory and his grace. He turns water into wine, he heals the official’s son at a distance with a word, and now he heals someone who has been paralysed for 38 years. 

It is all about Jesus taking the initiative. Jesus comes to him, asks him if he wants to be healed and then heals him with a word. 

It is a glimpse of heaven, a taster, preview, foretaste of that time when there will be no more pain or suffering or death, when creation is shaped to become what it is meant to be. We are all disabled in different ways. In that day the land will be healed and we will be healed. There will be no more disability. The blind will see and the deaf will hear, ‘and the lame will leap like a deer’. We heard that in the prophecy from Isaiah 35.6

And later on when Jesus is challenged because he has told the man to carry his bed on a Sabbath (the Jews had laws forbidding people to work on the sabbath, and carrying your bed was considered work), Jesus makes the astounding claim: ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working’. (5.17). In other words Jesus is claiming that when he heals the paralysed man with a word, he is doing exactly the same thing that God did on the days of creation. He is claiming to be the eternal Son of God. That is why the authorities are determined to kill Jesus. You cannot have someone going around claiming to be God, especially if he is doing the sort of things that Jesus did and if people are believing him. 

So we have Jesus, who has come from God to bring blessing to helpless men and women. We see the glory of Jesus and the grace of Jesus.  

2. The man who is carrying his bed. 

The man who John tells us about does not come over as having a particularly attractive character. 

There is a serious danger when we try to uncover motives in another. You can read what you want into another person, and come out with anything. But I am going to take the risk here. 

He seems to be someone who sees himself as the victim and who blames everybody else. So when Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed (it is a good question. Sometimes we become so comfortable  with what we know is not best that we are reluctant to change our lives), but when Jesus asks him, he doesn’t say yes, but says, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool’. There was a belief that when these waters in the pool became rough (people thought they did not exist and John had made up this story to stress a theological point – but then they were discovered in an archaeological dig in the C19th), whoever got into the water first would be healed. In other words, when Jesus asks him whether he wants to be healed, he doesn't say yes, but he says, ‘It’s not my fault. If others helped me, maybe I would have been healed.’

And later when the Jews ask him why he is carrying his bed on a Sabbath, he seems to be saying, ‘It’s not my fault. The man who healed me told me to do it’. 

That I think is why Jesus tells him to ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’. He is saying, ‘You have met with the grace of God. Now take responsibility for your life. It is not about others. It is now up to you’. When we stand before God there will be no victims and there will be no excuses. I do appreciate that there are times when people do things to us that really do mess up our lives. They will have to answer for that. But we will have to answer for what we do with what we do have. We cannot blame our parents or circumstances or the authorities. I am convinced that God’s love is not about mollycoddling us. The divine desire is for us to grow so that we become the men and the women who he created us to be.

And later, when Jesus tells him to sin no more or something worse might happen to you – Jesus is not saying that in every case sickness is a consequence of sin (in John 9 we are clearly told that is not the case), but he does seem to be saying that there was something about this particular paralysis that was connected with sin. And he is warning the man, ‘stop sinning or there is something much worse – you will one day face the judgement of God’

3. The disciple.

In each of the illustrations on the left hand wall there is a disciple. They are gesturing in one of three ways. Some are praying to Jesus; some are pointing to Jesus and some are pointing us.

There may be some ambiguity about the man who Jesus heals. Is he, for instance,  informing on Jesus or bearing witness to Jesus? 

But there is no ambiguity about what this particular disciple is asking of us. He is pointing us to the next image. He is inviting us to come on a journey. Jesus has come to us, met us and blessed us. He has healed us in the sense that he has enabled us to carry our own bed – to, in words that he uses elsewhere ‘to to take up our cross and follow him’. He is a disciple, one who follows and learns from Jesus, and he is inviting you and me on the same journey, to become a disciple of Jesus. 


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