Today’s gospel is St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in the town of Capernaum (Mt 9:1-8). The afflicted man is brought to Our Lord by his friends, lying on a stretcher. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.’” I wonder if there wasn’t some feeling of disappointment at these words. The man and his friends clearly want a physical healing. They’re certainly not expecting Jesus to forgive the man’s sins. It’s important to remember, however, that Jesus knows what we need most. During His days on earth He healed many, curing them of illness, restoring strength to their bodies. But He did not heal every physical ailment or cure every disease. This was not His primary mission, for what good is it to walk about freely if your heart is enslaved and your soul is dead in sin? The scribes standing nearby, think Jesus’ expression of forgiveness was blasphemous, for God alone can forgive sins. In response, Christ demonstrates His power by telling the man, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home,” and the man does.
If we think about it, this passage helps us come to greater understanding of the sacraments. One common definition of a sacrament is: “a visible sign of an invisible grace” (St. Augustine). Our Lord heals the man physically after forgiving his sins as a visible sign of the invisible grace of forgiveness that He has bestowed upon him. The man is able to receive the grace, thanks to the assistance of his friends, who are an image of the Church. Because they loved him, they brought him to Jesus. Jesus forgives the man when He sees the faith of his friends, and then proceeds to heal his body as well.
Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis notes that the stretcher can be read symbolically as both a funeral bier, something upon which a corpse is placed, and a crib, something upon which a newborn is placed. Thus, it is an image of Baptism and of Reconciliation. The man who had been dead in his sin is brought to new life again, reborn through his encounter with mercy of the Son of God. The stretcher might also be thought of as a kind of paten (the little metal plate the priest uses at Mass for the Communion host), upon which is placed the lifeless piece of unleavened bread. At the words of the priest who speaks them as Christ, that lifeless object becomes the very Source of Life, who is invisible to our eyes but present in a way that we can receive His living flesh and blood as food.
These images reveal the power of the sacraments. At the Mass, we can imitate the friends of the paralytic as members of the Church and place our loved ones on the paten of the priest. It might be someone who is suffering from an illness or some other kind of trial. But most especially we offer to God in this way those who find themselves far from the Lord, who might even be dead in their sins. In loving faith, we entrust them to the care of the Son of God, and in hope, we pray that He might have mercy on them. How can the Lord reject such an offering, which so closely resembles the offering of love He made of Himself on the cross, which is the same offering of love He makes through the priest at the Mass on the altar? Through the sacraments, the Lord shares His divine life with us and with those we entrust to His care.