At the Vigil Mass of today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul was read the story of a paralyzed man whom Peter and John encounter just outside the Temple at the Gate called “Beautiful.” This paralyzed man’s story is our story and as we read it we learn something of our own spiritual journey to the Lord and to heaven, symbolized here by the Temple. Let’s look at this moving story which is not merely an event of 2000 years ago but is our story. (N.B. The Beautiful Gate is the gold plated doors in the foreground of the picture to the right).
1. At the Story opens we see that Peter and John were going up to the temple area for the three o’clock hour of prayer. Allow if you will that Peter and John represent the Church. Both of them bishops: Peter, the great leader, first Pope and holding the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, and John the great contemplative and mystic. Here is the Church, with authority to preach and teach in Jesus’ Name and also given the great gift to mystically contemplate the Lord whom she announces. And what are they, (what is the Church) doing? They (She) are journeying to the Temple. And the Temple symbolizes the Kingdom of God, heaven and God himself. Yes, here is the (visible) head of the Church shown forth by Peter and the heart of the Church shown forth by John and they are on pilgrimage to be with God. They are going up to worship him (as we will all one day, pray God), to be caught up into the heavenly liturgy.
2. What time is it? The text says it is three in the afternoon. Now the Jewish context for this is that this was a time for regular prayer. Fair enough. But in the Christian context three o’clock is the hour of mercy. It is the hour when Christ died. It is the hour when salvation’s price is paid. It is the hour when we begin to stand a chance to ever make it out of the long reign of sin. It is three o’clock in the afternoon.
3. And a man crippled from birth was carried and placed at the gate of the temple called “the Beautiful Gate” every day to beg for alms from the people who entered the temple. – Who is this man? He is us. We are crippled from our birth, incapable of, and lacking the strength to walk uprightly. And what has this man done in his condition? He has turned to the world around him to seek help. People carry him so that he can beg. But notice that they can only place him outside the Gate called Beautiful. He is still outside the Temple. He cannot get in on his own and no one has been able to get him beyond that gate. He is outside the Temple, outside of the Kingdom of Heaven. He cannot save himself. Neither can the world save him or get him inside the gate. This is us. We cannot save ourselves. We do not have the strength to walk uprightly past the beautiful gate into heaven. And the world cannot help us either. It can only carry us to the gate, but not beyond it. Life will only deliver us to death. Medicine cannot save us. Science cannot save us. Philosophy, education, money and power cannot save us. The world carries us a certain distance but cannot close the gap, cannot get us inside the gate. And so we sit outside the gate, begging mercy, incapable of saving our self or being saved by those who can merely toss us the equivalent of coins in the face of our massive debt.
4. But thanks be to God it is three o’clock and the Church has come to pray and by God’s grace, enter heaven.
5. Disclosure – When [the crippled man] saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. But Peter looked intently at him, as did John,and said, “Look at us.” He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them. Something of a “theology of disclosure” is unfolding here. As the man first encounters Peter and John (that is, the Church) he does not see anything extraordinary. Perhaps they will be a source of money. But money is not what he really needs. What he needs is to get inside the gate, into the Temple which symbolizes the Kingdom of God and heaven.
As he looks at Peter and John he is unaware of anything unique. Many people see the Church in this way. They are content for the Church to be merely a place of social gathering and they think of her in human terms only. Even worse they see her as merely a human institution and call her “it.” They regard her liturgy as ordinary and focus more on the human elements such as who the celebrant was, how good his sermon was and if the music good and the congregation pleasant. They see only the human, the ordinary. They do not know that her liturgy draws us up to heaven where Christ the Bridegroom and High Priest ministers to us and leads us in perfect worship of the Father. They do not see her sacraments as powerful beyond measure and the Word she proclaims as bearing the transformative power of God. Like this crippled man who saw Peter and John (the Church) as ordinary, so do many today continue to see the Church as ordinary.
But Peter looks intently at him and says: “Look at us!” In other words, look again. See something beyond the human. For Christ is the head of the Body, the Church. He indwells his Church and has mystical union with her. The “us” here is not merely Peter and John, it is the Church and Christ! And so the Church rightfully declares, “Look at us!” And we who are crippled must first overcome our blindness and learn to see Christ ministering in and through his Church.
6. Word – Peter said, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” Then Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong. – It is right that the Church should feed the poor, help the sick, clothe the naked and engage in all the corporal works of mercy. But she has even more to offer, she has Christ himself. And we who are the crippled man learn to seek Christ, not just worldly improvements and consolations. And then Peter and John, the Church, do what the Church must always do, they (she) announce Jesus Christ. And in his name and by the power of his Word speaking through them, (a word that does not just inform but also performs and transforms), they say what the Church has always said to a fallen and crippled world: “Rise and Walk!” Rise, for you are dead in your sins, and walk, for though you have not had the strength to walk uprightly, now by God’s grace you do! The world is skeptical of the Church’s moral vision for they do not figure on grace and the power of God’s Word to transform. But the Church does not bid us to end fornication, addiction, anger, greed and so forth by our flesh, but rather in the Name of Jesus Christ. That is, by the power of his grace now present and available, we have the capacity, the strength, to rise and walk.
And Sacrament – And notice too, Peter does not merely speak the Word to him but also takes him by the hand and raises him. Hence the Church does not merely preach God’s word, she stretches out her hand through the sacraments and the liturgy to strengthen and heal us by God’s power working through them. Every Sacrament touches us somehow. Perhaps it is water splashing upon us in Baptism to make us rise from the dead, oil being applied to strengthen and sanctify us in confirmation, anointing of the sick and holy orders, hands being laid on us in those same sacraments and in confession. And, most preeminently where the Church stretches out a hand to feed us and we are nourished by the Lord in the Holy Communion. So the Church does not just stand in a pulpit and preach, she stretches out a hand and touches us. And that hand is really the hand of Jesus Christ mystically united with her and extended through the priests of the Church.
By the power of God’s Word, spoken through the Church and the outstretched hand symbolizing the touch of the Sacraments, the man becomes string and is now standing, by the grace of God.
6. He walks uprightly and enters! – He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God. – And now comes the astonishing fact that he enters through the Gate into the Temple which symbolizes the Kingdom of God and Heaven. He has made it through the gate by the Grace of God. And notice that the grace of God did not come in some merely personal, private way. Rather it came by and through the ministry of the Church. Christ has worked his justification through the ministry of the Church he established to teach, govern and sanctify in his Name. Notice that the text says the man went into the Temple WITH THEM. He is now within the Kingdom. Before him looms the inner court of the Temple and the Holy of Holies, a great testimony of the presence of God, experienced now (and one day perfectly) in heaven.
This ancient Temple in which they stand will soon be destroyed but it’s place will be taken by every Catholic church, wherein dwells the more perfect Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle. For we who are (were) the crippled man but have now been strengthened through the ministry of the Church are standing within the Church. The tabernacle looms before us as the great presence of God. Every journey up the aisle we make is symbol of the pilgrimage we are on to heaven. We now have the strength to walk that final distance into the Holy of Holies if we but persevere and allow the Christ to minister to us through his Church. We who once were crippled and unable to walk, through baptism, confirmation and Eucharist are now strengthened to walk uprightly (with confession to help with the stumbles) toward the Holy of Holies. And one day, by God’s grace working through the Church we shall journey fully into the Holy Holies.
At the Gate Called Beautiful: A Picture of the Church and Our Spiritual Journey.