It hadn’t happened all of a sudden. At first it was just hard to stand up straight in the morning when she got out of bed. Morning stiffness, you know; totally understandable considering what she slept on– a thin mat on the floor, which didn’t offer much padding or support. Then she couldn’t stand up after she bent over to knead the bread. Pain shot up her back and down her legs. Steadily, relentlessly, day after day it got worse. “Watch where you’re going, old woman!” people would shout at her, as she bumped into them or their carts. “I wish I could,” she’d mutter, but by now her field of vision was only about 2 feet in front of her. She couldn’t really take in a deep breath any more, because her chest was all caved in, and food barely had a chance to make it all the way down, so scrunched up were her inner organs. “And behold a woman having a spirit of infirmity 18 years, even was bent together and not able to bend up into all-fullness.” That’s how Luke’s Greek literally describes her (Mark Davis, Left Behind and Loving it, 8/25/13) “… was bent together and not able to bend up into all-fullness…”
All-fullness–that’s what the Sabbath was supposed to let you feel–all full (of God,) complete, just perfect. Sabbath-keeping is the jewel of Judaism. “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,” Isaiah writes, “from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth…”
A day of rest is good news to those who must work hard the other 6 days of the week. Shabbat (Sabbath) is life-giving to those who are worked to death. It is a gift to simply take delight in God, to rest in the care of God, knowing that you are made in God’s image, beautiful to behold. We’ve lost that sense of delight, can barely imagine what that “all-fullness” would feel like. Who has time for Sabbath? Who has the temperament to simply “rest in the Lord”? How boring! our kids say, and we must confess that we agree with them. And then there’s the dour, legalistic, anything but delightful history of Sabbath-keeping in the Protestant tradition, full of “no’s”–no dancing, no drinking, no card-playing, no fun, no playing, no nothing but church.
Sabbath arrives by the Presence of God,
[writes Nancy Rockwell] the Indwelling Spirit, in Hebrew, called “Shekinah.” She is the Sabbath Bride, the transformational Spirit of God, source of prophecy, Wisdom, the feminine Presence of God.
So every week the Bride arrives.
…There is much mysticism about Shekinah in Judaism
[Rockwell continues]: it is said that she enters Jerusalem through the Beautiful Gate. It is said that the Messiah will enter through that very gate with her. This is the gate tradition says Jesus used to enter the city on Palm Sunday. This gate has been walled up for nearly a thousand years, and was walled up for fear those sayings might be true….Still, she comes, all over the world, to tables with lit candles where Sabbath bread is blessed by women bending over it. (Rockwell, Bite in the Apple, 8/18/13)
So the woman came to the synagogue that day, hoping against hope that Shekinah would enter through the doorway with her and that at last she too would be able to delight in Shabbat and praise God from her “all-fullness.” And that day, Shekinah was there and, more than that, recognized her as sister. “Sister,” he said, “Mother, Daughter of Abraham, you have been loosed from your bonds.” It was as though he was pronouncing her healing rather than performing it. “You have been loosed”–already; past tense. He just touched her to make her feel her body and its energy. “Go ahead, you can stand up.” And “immediately she stood up and began praising God.”
“But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” To give him the benefit of the doubt, the leader of the synagogue was trying to be faithful too. He was trying to follow the law, but he had forgotten the delight which God intended for the sabbath, the realignment to joy that the sabbath was meant to help us return to. In his duty-bound, legalistic framework, healing and restoring to wholeness were merely work, which was prohibited. When Jesus pointed out that even he, the synagogue leader, would untie his donkey or ox to lead it away to water on the sabbath, those who grumbled against Jesus were “put to shame.” They could see the truth, the rightness, of what Jesus said. The law for them had gotten out of alignment with the spirit within it. Shabbat was meant for delight, for joy. Jesus didn’t set aside the law; he merely offered a different interpretation of it, and knew that it must always bend to grace. (David Lose, Working Preacher, 8/25/13) “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” Wasn’t she bound to be loosed?
Luke makes clear that this bondage is spirit-driven, bound by Satan, but the woman may have had arthritis or scoliosis, osteoporosis, or any number of degenerative bone diseases. “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” But there are many things that make our shoulders droop and our backs bend over. What burdens are weighing you down, causing your body or spirit to bend over, rather than bending up to all-fullness? It may be concerns about your own health or the health of a loved one; it may be a relationship that is weighing you down, twisting up your insides so that you can barely eat; it may be fear that barely allows you to take a full breath and narrows your vision. It may be a dream deferred or squashed altogether; it may be a sense of shame or guilt. Humiliation causes our heads to drop and our shoulders to curve. Discouragement weighs down our steps. Schedules that are crammed from morning to night can crush us with their weight. The sadness and horror of the world’s events, the plight of our planet, may cause us to be “bent together and not able to bend up into all-fullness.”
This story opens the door to possibility, offers a window into the all-fullness that is actually already in our midst. It is the story of a coming together, to hear the stories, to open up to the Indwelling Spirit of God, Shekinah, Wisdom. It gives us a glimpse of the kingdom, where we catch a vision of the image in which we were made and which calls us to realign our lives to that original intention. It is a taste of the messianic banquet already set before us. Telling the story itself, letting the story get inside us, can help with that realignment, that healing.
Jesus was quintessentially a story-teller, weaving words and melodies that were the very energy and vibrations of the “kingdom,” the holy realm, that was coming and was and is already in our midst. Those stories continue to weave their wonder-working powers, told in many places in many ways. Where are you in this story?–
On a day long ago it came to pass as the Seanchai
[the story-teller] was taking his journey along the rivers and trails of Cúige Mumhan, he heard faint sounds of sean-nos [melodies] wafting along the soft waves of an early evening breeze. It came from the little village of Caiseal. His heart was drawn by the warm spirit of what was surely an especial cilidh* (gathering). During a cilidh old people and young would come together around the hearth of a village home and there would be music and dancing.
If a Seanchai was present there would also be the telling of stories and ofttimes, if the energy was just so, it was said that an extraordinary Seanchai would become a weaver of stories and music and people. In this way of working with tales the Seanchai is a weaver of energy and words; and sometimes healing will break forth in the gathered people. This cilidh is a sacred space of words and people’s hearts. Some say it is in this sacred space that Tír na nÓg, the blessed realm,
[the kingdom of God] can be known.
The sun is setting very late one evening and lengthening shadows of ancient trees cast a ghostly specter through the mist. A dusty trail leads to an old stone house where candles send a welcome to all who approach. Music and laughter can be heard and the Seanchai comes to the doorway of a large room where a fire burns in the aged hearth. Young and old are clapping and singing. They open a path in the crowded room as though they know this is one who tells tales, sings the music of the blessed realm and weaves wonder into longing hearts.
As he sits, the crowd grows quiet. The Seanchai closes his eyes and softly begins to sing a tale of new worlds and renewal of human hearts. An old woman stands in the back of the room, bent over with age and soft bones. She comes to listen, tucked away in a corner where she is no bother to those who dance. She has not danced for over two hundred moons and her heart has grown heavier with lack of hope at the passing of each season of the falling leaves.
The Seanchai, eyes still closed begins the haunting lines of ancient Sean-nos. Within him the music and the tale weaves its way into a place of dark where hope has not dwelt for much time. The crowd is quiet as all are transported to a new place. A heavy weight seems to rise from the room and floats as smoke to a place of light.
The old woman feels the words and the music; her eyes turn to the Seanchai and for the first time in many years she lifts her head ever so slightly. She has not gazed into another’s eyes since hope began to flow from her heart.
“Dance!” The Seanchai cries with a loud voice. Guests are startled and energy fills the room.
“But Seanchai,” the old woman protests, “I cannot stand…” Her words of objection die in her throat as she begins to straighten.
“Dance!” He commands.
The room breaks out with joyous shouts; all are astonished and celebrate with much clapping and dancing. The guests flow apart like water as the old woman slowly makes her way to the center of the room and begins to move – sinew and bones – as in the time when her years were few.
The house is filled with rejoicing. Great love flows to the old woman who danced. Timeless wonder, love and praise so enfolds the cilidh that no one noticed the Seanchai quietly making his way out the door and into the damp night air. Though one later said he thought he heard the storyteller singing softly as he made his way along the dark trail.
You cannot go
To Tír na nÓg
Yea hosts have tried
And all have failed
Not by land
And not by sea
You cannot go
To Tír na nÓg
If the song
Of Tír na nÓg
Should fill your ears
And then your soul
Then not by land
And not by sea
You will surely come to Tír na nÓg
You cannot go
To Tír na nÓg
You can only come
A heart set free
(–John Jewell, Lectionary Tales, Aug. 25, 2013)
May the song of Tir na nOg, the blessed realm, the kingdom of God, fill our souls, and so may our hearts be set free. So may we bend up to all -fullness. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark