Feast of St Dionysios the Orator
TODAY’S reading from the Holy Gospel tells us of two miracles of human healing at the same time, one displayed invisibly through an angel’s ministration, the other visibly through our Lord’s presence. But we must explain the mystical meaning of both briefly, lest a lengthy explanation of the reading may perhaps be oppressive to some.
The pool called Probatica, which was surrounded by five porticoes, is the Jewish people, protected on all sides by the guardianship of the law so that they would not sin. And indeed the law, which was written down in the five books of Moses, is properly symbolized by the number five. The people who used to preserve purity of life in certain respects, but to be stirred up in certain other respects by the temptations of unclean spirits, are properly designated by the waters of the pool, which at times used to be calm from the winds, but then were stirred up as they rushed in.
And it is good that this pool was called ‘Probatica’. Probata in Greek means sheep. There were undoubtedly among that people some who knew how to say to the Lord, “We your people and the sheep of your flock confess you forever” (Ps. 79.13). ‘Probatica,’ though, is commonly taken as ‘pool of cattle,’ called that because the priests used to wash the sacrificial offerings in it.
The multitudes of ailing people who were lying in the aforementioned porticoes, awaiting the movement of the water, signify the throngs of those who, upon hearing the words of the law, were sorrowful because they could not fulfill it by their own powers, and so with all the devotion in their soul they besought the help of the Lord’s grace. The blind are those who did not yet have the perfect light of faith. The lame are those who were unable to fulfill by their steps the good things they knew they were to do; the shriveled are those who, no matter how much they may have had the eye of knowledge, nevertheless lacked richness of hope and love. Such as these were lying in the five porticoes, but only those in the pool when the angel came were healed: recognition of sin happens through the law but the grace of forgiveness comes only through Jesus Christ.
‘Angel’ designates the one who descended invisibly into the pool and moved the water to provide the power of healing. Clothed in flesh, Christ descended into the water as an angel of great counsel (cf. Is. 9.6, LXX), that is, as a herald of the Father’s will to Jewish people. By his deeds and his teaching he moved sinners, so that he would be killed—He who, by his bodily death, was able not only to heal those who were ailing spiritually, but also to bring the dead back to life. The movement of the water, then, suggests the Lord’s passion, which occurred by the nation of the Jews being moved and stirred up. And because through His passion those who believed were redeemed from the curse of the law, it is as if they were healed as they descended into the troubled water of the pool, though up until then they had been lying diseased in the porticoes. The letter of the law taught the ignorant what was to be done and what avoided, yet it did not aid those taught to fulfill its decrees—so it is as if it contained in its porticoes those led from the places of previous ignorance, but did not heal the enfeebled.
The grace of the gospel, however, through faith and the mystery of the Lord’s passion, heals all the illnesses of our iniquities, from which we could not be justified in the law of Moses. Thus it is as if it sends the diseased, cast out from the porticoes of the law, into the stirred-up water of the pool so that they can be healed. Through the water of baptism it cleanses people from the sins which the law pointed out. The Apostle bears witness “that all we who have been baptized in Christ Jesus have been baptized in his death. We have been buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, as Christ has risen from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6.3-4). It is good that the one who first went down after the movement of the water was healed of whatever illness had him in its grip, for there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4.5), and a person who in catholic unity is imbued with the mysteries of Christ is healed from whatever illnesses caused by his sins that holds him fast. Whoever is out of harmony with that unity is not capable of securing salvation, since it is from One.
Now that we have spoken about the first miracle in the gospel reading which the Lord granted, let us speak to you of the brotherhood about the second, which he would grant. In this miracle story it is set forth that one person was healed, not because the benevolence of the almighty Savior was unable to heal everyone whom he found ailing there, but so that He might teach that there is no place of salvation accessible to anyone outside the unity of the catholic faith.
—St Bede the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels