The Church sets the bar very high.
I’ve written a lot lately about earthly attachments and giving ourselves and all we have to Christ. If you’re anything like me, it can feel sort of overwhelming to think about what goes into the Christian life. The more I think about the call to give ourselves away, the more overwhelmed I tend to feel, thinking that I’ll never attain the kind of life that Christ calls me to live.
It can be easy to get discouraged.
I especially feel this as we approach the fourth Sunday of the Advent fast. I haven’t fasted nearly as well as I had planned. I haven’t kept up my schedule of reading the Scriptures as regularly as I had hoped. And I certainly haven’t even begun to pray as I would like.
It can be easy to get discouraged.
And I see myself in the central figure in this Sunday’s reading.
We read about a woman who has been bent over for eighteen years, forced to look at the ground everywhere she goes. She has been afflicted by Satan, the Lord tells us, and it has been a burden that she cannot escape.
Oh, how I understand how this situation feels.
Blessed Theophylact doesn’t exactly help all that much in his interpretation of this woman’s affliction, likening us sinners to her, writing, “Is not that man indeed bent over who is attached to the earth, and who always sins in disregard of the commandments, and who does not look for the age to come?”
Great, I think. More things wrong with me: complete disregard of the commandments and not caring about the age to come. What hope is there?
Of course, that’s what I want to do when I read these texts. It’s far too easy for me to do so, to beat myself up and focus on how I need to do better, how I need to pray harder, fast stricter, etc.
But then I realized that the reading isn’t entirely or even primarily about demonstrating how wretched we are; rather we see in this passage what we see in almost every passage of Scripture: a Jesus who wants to deliver humanity from that which afflicts us.
We see a merciful Jesus.
We see this woman who is afflicted in her body, who is bent over, who has been looking at the ground for eighteen years, and then we see Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Promised One of Israel, the Word who has taken on a human body…touch her. He lays His hands on her and makes her well.
As easy as it is to look at the Scriptures, to look at our lives and see all the things that we are doing wrong, all the things that we think we need to perfect, it can be just as easy to neglect the biblical and traditional reality of how Christ comes to us.
He comes to us in a body. He comes to us in a way that is accessible to us. He comes to us to touch us, to bind Himself to us in our humanity.
And that’s what we’re preparing for with this Fast: the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, the Word, Power, and Wisdom of the Father.
Honestly, I find that I continually have to combat the sense that I have to earn Christ’s love, to win His approval of me, to somehow be made worthy of His grace.
But all of that is just a trap. It’s a trap to keep me in despair, to keep me from actually looking to Him who promises to come to me, to heal me.
Who promises to love me.
I don’t know how it becomes so easy to lose sight of the primacy of God’s love for us. But it almost always leads me to feel deeply ashamed and, honestly, a little bit like giving up. After all, there’s no way that I’m good enough to follow Christ.
The only response is to hang my head and walk away, sort of like the rich young ruler we read about last week.
But Christ’s offers us the grace to follow Him, and invitation to be forgiven and healed rather than “bound by Satan” (Lk. 13:16).
One of my favorite Mumford and Sons songs has this lyric:
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive at every start.
This makes a lot of sense to me. When I think of the things that have made a difference in my life, it is not the times I’ve been lectured about the things I need to change. But rather, it is the experiences of extreme grace, of extreme acceptance, that has changed my life.
It is not by berating myself that I become spiritually renewed, but by allowing Christ to draw near to me, to bring his humanity to touch my own and to heal it.
Ultimately, it is not my fasting, it is not my prayer that heals me, but Christ.
And the good news of the Fast, the good news of the Gospel of Christ, which includes his taking on a human body, is that He draws near in merciful and compassionate ways that are easily accessible to humans with bodies. We don’t just have to close our eyes and bear down to see Him, but rather, He comes to us physically in the Church. To touch us. To heal us.
He is the Bread of Life that feeds us.
He is the arm of the priest embracing us in Confession.
He is the oil of unction that heals our afflictions.
There are three weeks left in the fast. We’re halfway there. Instead of being like me and focusing on everything that is wrong with us, let’s turn our attention toward the Incarnate Word of God, who comes to us mercifully, bringing the greatest present of all:
 Blessed Theophylact, The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke (Chrysostom Press: House Springs, 1997), p. 170.