12 Jesus was in one of the towns where there was also a man covered with a skin disease. When he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged, “Lord, if you want, you can make me clean.”
13 Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do want to. Be clean.” Instantly, the skin disease left him. 14 Jesus ordered him not to tell anyone. “Instead,” Jesus said, “go and show yourself to the priest and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses instructed. This will be a testimony to them.” 15 News of him spread even more and huge crowds gathered to listen and to be healed from their illnesses. 16 But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.
17 One day when Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and legal experts were sitting nearby. They had come from every village in Galilee and Judea, and from Jerusalem. Now the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal.18 Some men were bringing a man who was paralyzed, lying on a cot. They wanted to carry him in and place him before Jesus, 19 but they couldn’t reach him because of the crowd. So they took him up on the roof and lowered him—cot and all—through the roof tiles into the crowded room in front of Jesus. 20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
21 The legal experts and Pharisees began to mutter among themselves, “Who is this who insults God? Only God can forgive sins!”
22 Jesus recognized what they were discussing and responded, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions? 23 Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But so that you will know that the Human One[a] has authority on the earth to forgive sins” —Jesus now spoke to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, get up, take your cot, and go home.” 25 Right away, the man stood before them, picked up his cot, and went home, praising God.
26 All the people were beside themselves with wonder. Filled with awe, they glorified God, saying, “We’ve seen unimaginable things today.”
Luke 5: 12-26 (CEB)
(Note: Not a part of daily lectionary)
December is a great, if sometimes exhausting, month to be a musician. It is the month of the year when our lives are filled with music, holiday music at the mall or choir cantatas at church or carols on the radio. As a professional musician, I sometimes cringe at the music I hear during December–“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” is perhaps my least favorite piece of music in the world–but I do find myself seeking out music for the season that might deepen my understanding of the rich prophetic words that we hear in Advent and the uncommonly beautiful birth narrative that we hear at Christmas. One of my favorite cantatas for the season is Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, a semi-sacred work based on the legend of Nicolas, the patron saint of travelers, seamen, and children. Nicolas’s story is far from dull, and Britten’s musical settings of a Nicolas’s dramatic call and a narrowly averted shipwreck are particularly thrilling.
The most bizarre part of the story and the cantata would have to be the story of the pickled boys. Yes, pickled boys. Clearly, there is nothing holly nor jolly about boys who have been pickled. In the story, three starving travelers enter a city in search of food. As they sit down to eat, Nicolas warns them not to eat the meat, for he knows that the meat comes from three pickled boys. He then performs one of his most remarkable miracles by bringing the boys back to life. After they’ve been pickled. And partially butchered. Can you imagine a preacher preaching this text on Christmas Eve?
What I find most moving about the cantata is how it ends. After all that has taken place in the story, Britten concludes with a version of the hymn, “O God, in a Mysterious Way”. What other hymn could follow a story so strange?
“Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’” This is how Luke’s account of the healing of the paralytic man ends. When God has done something that we struggle to understand, perhaps the best course of action is to glorify God and name the strangeness. It’s not entirely unlike the angels who came to the shepherds, glorifying God in the midst of a night that went quite differently than the shepherds had thought it would. We mainline Christians can be afraid of change, and we like to understand exactly what is happening when it happens. Perhaps there is wisdom in the actions and words of those present with the paralytic man, who chose not to attempt to explain a God who is sometimes beyond explanation but rather to glorify a God who moves in a mysterious way.
A Prayer for the Thirteenth Day of Advent
O mysterious and unfathomable God, we are fearful and full of doubt. Help us to have faith in your sovereign will and to delight in the unexpected ways you work in this world. Help us to welcome Christ into our lives again this Advent season. It is in Christ’s name that we pray. Amen.
Director of Music and Adjunct Instructor of Church Music