For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.
The Divine Physician
There are many occasions in this world to be surprised, and many times when we meet with something completely unexpected. We have seen, in the past few weeks, that we can find many wonderful, positive things in the world around us that God created. His own glory is shown in the things he has made. But the reality of surprise has a dark side as well. While we marvel at the beauty of God and his works, we are shocked at the ugliness of human sin.
Being the selfish beings we are, it is easier for us to concentrate on the faults of others and to be bothered by them. To look at the harm that someone else has caused and be disgusted is a common enough experience. But what about when we look within? What about when we see our own faults, our own awful choices? How disgusting can we make ourselves with sin! How ugly do we paint our souls! The English exclamation “sick!” is doubly appropriate here: it means both “disgusting” and “diseased,” and that is exactly what we are.
“Who is the doctor who can cleanse my hidden wounds? O, will he be able to heal and to cure [them]?” The character of the adulterous woman of the Gospels is brought to the forefront in the Basilica Hymn of the Sixth Sunday of Lent as a symbol for each of our souls. She speaks, on our behalf, of spiritual wounds, self-inflicted and festering with rottenness. Medically, she knows that, as with a physical wound, even her spiritual wounds need cleaning, but she is stuck in a sad state: what doctor can tend to an invisible wound? How can any human being even see the dirt stuck inside to begin to clean it? And this is only the first stage of healing! Even after a wound is cleaned, it requires binding up and care, and time to heal.
Without a doctor who can see the soul itself, the wounds we have only continue to fester and rot, and become worse and worse over time, burning us with the pain of regret and guilt, and pulling us to sin again and again, making us wound ourselves more and more deeply. “O who will be able to deliver me from the fire?” [thus] cried the adulteress.
The Messiah names himself the doctor of souls when he is confronted by the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 9. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” Christ is everything we need, filling our every void and fulfilling our deepest hopes, and so he is also the healer, the doctor, of our spiritual wounds, the one whom the adulteress sought, the one whom we seek.
The image of the adulteress is quite widespread in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel are compared to an adulterous wife when they sin against the Lord, and their idolatry is compared to adultery. But the power of this image is most meaningful when we realize God’s reaction: he does not reject the unfaithful bride, but forgives her again and again, patiently teaching her and bringing her back to himself.
It is this hope that the adulteress has: “I will unravel the tangles of sin, and draw near to the Lord and Savior.” The narrator of the hymn then takes up his own voice, explaining the affirmation of the adulteress, showing why she has a solid basis for this hope, and why we do as well: For indeed, he did not cast the tax-collector away from him, and with his speech, he converted the Samaritan woman. With his word, he gave life to the Canaanite woman, and to the hemorrhaging woman he gave healing with the hem of his cloak. With his merciful word, he freed the adulteress from her sins, and invited her to the book of life with the saintly women. We can trust that Jesus will heal us when we turn to him, because he has proven his mercy to so many.
We no longer need to sit and pick at our wounds, feeling the pangs of remorse and hurting our souls more and more with sin. We have a doctor who can see all, who can read our hearts and touch them with his grace. It is significant that all but one of the people healed by Christ mentioned in our hymn is a woman, because the word “soul” (nawsha) in Aramaic is a feminine noun, and so the individual soul can be represented by all of the healings mentioned. Thus the hymn ends: Along with them, my soul says at all times: blessed is the Messiah our Savior!
Doctors and Disciples
The same Christ who walked before that adulteress and forgave her sins, healing her hidden wounds is still with us, except now he is invisible and is approached by faith. Seeing him work through his Holy Spirit in the Church requires belief in his healing power stretching from heaven to earth. And as he worked in the flesh as he walked in Jerusalem, so he works through his disciples today, “in Spirit and in truth.”
“’As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’” (John 20:22-23). In his Name, the apostles forgave sins and in his Name do their successors do the same. One of the earliest pieces of evidence in the whole universal Church of individual “Confession,” as we call it today, is found in our own Chaldean liturgy, and it uses the same image we have been discussing, that of the Divine Doctor:
Our Lord has given the medicine of repentance
to the skilled physicians who are the priests of the Church.
So let anyone whom satan has struck with the diseases of wickedness
come and show his wounds to the disciples of the Wise Physician,
and they will heal him with spiritual medicine.