Sermon for Sunday 21 August 2022
“There appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”
Ankylosing spondylitis. It’s an illness of the spine that gradually leads to the fusing of the spinal bones. It may not surprise you to know that biblical scholars have spent endless time conjecturing what exactly was wrong with the woman cured in today’s gospel. Ankylosing spondylitis seems to be one of the most popularly held opinions.
Wikipedia describes it as follows: “a type of arthritis characterized by long-term inflammation of the joints of the spine typically where the spine joins the pelvis.”
Seems like a reasonable bet doesn’t it. It certainly matches the symptoms we heard in our gospel.
But what if the illness she’s suffering from wasn’t physical at all. What if it was a psycho-somatic problem – a psychological or emotional problem that prompted her physical impairment.
It may not surprise you to know there is a rival camp of biblical scholars on this question who assert she may be suffering from the rather curiously named disorder, “hysterical scoliosis.” Hysterical scoliosis is defined by the Scoliosis Research Society as “a non-structural deformity of the spine that develops as a manifestation of a psychological disorder.” In other words, the origin of her problems may be psychological and not physiological.
To be quite frank with you, I have no idea whatsoever which of these complicated medical conditions is the culprit. I don’t think it will ever be possible to say with certainty what was wrong with the woman we heard about. And I feel quite strongly that’s actually not the point of the Gospel reading we heard this morning.
What we know for certain is this. The woman had been crippled for 18 years, was bent double, and unable to stand up straight. But after her interaction with Jesus, she is not just healed. Jesus tells us she has been “freed from bondage.” Whatever is going on here, this story represents more than just a physical cure.
To get a bit deeper into this passage I suggest we chuck away modern biblical scholarship with its various medical diagnoses, and look to the Fathers – to that golden period of theological reflection in the church’s first few hundred years referred to as the Patristic Age. For there we find an altogether different attitude to the passage set for this morning.
For those early theologians, this woman bent double stands for something more than herself. She is a representative. The woman bent double represents you and me. For in some sense, we are all bowed over and handicapped by our slavery to sin.
St Ambrose is one of the first people to spot this in the 4th Century. He says of the woman, “In fact it is her soul that is bent over. It is inclined to earthly rewards and did not possess heavenly grace. Jesus saw her and addressed her. She immediately laid aside her earthly burdens.”
What’s more, Ambrose’s pupil Augustine applies this idea to all of us. He says, “The whole human race, like this woman was bent over, bowed down to the ground…the devil and all his angels have bowed the souls of men and women down to the ground. He has bent them forward to be intent on temporary and earthly things and has stopped them from seeking the things that are above.” For Augustine, this being bent to the ground represents our incapacity to reach up to God and see him as he really is.
As we contemplate this morning’s Gospel reading, I think it tells us a lot about healing. For the saving action of God in Christ is not just about the personal salvation of a series of individuals. Rather it brings about the healing of all creation, the reconciliation and making whole of all things. That is what Christ’s death and resurrection accomplish – a triumph over the forces of sin and death and of all that mars our human existence.
So whenever we experience healing of any kind – be that physical or medical, emotional, or psychological, whenever people are reconciled, relationships restored, strength renewed, hope recovered, health regained – be it by different means medical, or miraculous; through counselling or conversation – we experience in some small way the triumph of Christ over Satan.
We are all of us subject to death and illness and decay. I cannot claim that faith in Christ removes that from us in this life. But I think we can say from today’s Gospel that amongst the darkness and complexity of our world’s fallenness and pain, we see glimpses of what our future will be in Christ when he stores all things in him at the end of time; when all that bows us down, all that holds us fast and bends us crooked is stripped away and we are freed from Satan’s bondage, to stand upright in the freedom of being sons and daughters of the living God, the source of all life and healing.
Fr Peter Anthony