Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), ‘Christ healing the sick at Bethesda’ (1883), Chapel of Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark
John 5.1-9, Jesus Heals on the Sabbath
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha,* which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.
The Pool of Bethesda is just north of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In his Gospel account, John describes Jesus going to such a pool, surrounded by five covered colonnades.
In this large painting, Bloch depicts a gathering of people with various infirmities or diseases who have come to the pool at Bethesda to be healed. In the right background are three women representing three generations – a grandmother, a mother, and a child – who have come to draw water from the pool. Barely noticeable is the man in the lower-left foreground who has no legs but who puts his hands in his sandals so he can swing his body forward toward the water.
Though the crippled man in the centre, under a blanket, is a focus of the scriptural account, the light rests upon both Christ and the red-turbaned man who sits on the stone steps beside the pool and stares at the viewer with a confrontational gaze. Behind the impressive and brilliant figure of Christ stands one of the Apostles, who shields him from the crowds while he approaches the man who has had an infirmity for thirty-eight years. As Jesus lifts the blanket shading the seated figure, the reflected light from the Saviour begins to illuminate the face of the awestruck man. The amazed expression on the man’s face, not used to the attention now afforded him by this Healer from Nazareth, is obscured by shadow.
The most intriguing and carefully rendered figure in the crowd is the man with the red turban who sits on the steps… Perhaps the man’s piercing gaze is meant to thwart others who would enter the pool before him; or perhaps, somewhat embittered, he looks askance at the impending miracle, begrudging its recipient and his own unresolved plight. His eyes, as well as the eyes of the young child in the background, meet the eyes of the viewer with an acknowledgment that we are all participants in a powerful spiritual experience. Either unaware or skeptical of Jesus’ power to heal, he continues to wait for the waters to move, suggesting man’s inclination to trust in superstitions rather than in Christ. Whatever his motives, his confrontational expression solicits an emotional response and acknowledges the onlooker as a participant in the story. Whatever his motives, his direct gaze acknowledges the onlooker as a participant in the story.
The steps of the pool curve outward to include us in the composition, as though we are standing on these same steps. Perhaps we, too, have come to the Pool of Bethesda to be healed. The man’s eyes seem to penetrate ours and to confront us. Is he resentful of our presence? Or is he pleading for our assistance to help him into the pool? The man’s central location between the still water of the pool, known for its healing properties, and the Living Water who stands behind him presents the viewer with cause for reflection.
A Reading from a Sermon of Bernard of Clairvaux
‘Behold, the name of the Lord comes from afar.’ Who could doubt these words of the Prophet? Something superlative was needed in the beginning if the majesty of God was to deign to come down from such a height, for a dwelling so unworthy of it. And there was, indeed, something superlative about it; great mercy, immense compassion, and abundant charity. Why did Christ come to earth? We shall ﬁnd the answer without difﬁculty since his words and actions clearly reveal to us the reason for his coming.
It is to search for the hundredth lost sheep that came down hurriedly from the hillside. He came because of us, so that the mercies of the Lord might be revealed with greater clarity, and his wonderful works for humankind. What amazing condescension on the part of God, who searches for us, and what great dignity bestowed on the one thus sought! If we want to glory in it, we can quite reasonably do so, not because we can be anything in ourselves, but because the God who created us has made us of such great worth. Indeed, all the riches and glory of this world, and all that one could wish for in it, is a very small thing and even nothing, in comparison with this glory. ‘What are we that you make much of us, or pay us any heed?’ But then again, I should like to know why Christ determined to come among us himself and why it was not, rather, we who went to him. Surely, it was for our beneﬁt. What is more, it is not the custom of the rich to go to the poor, even if it is their intention to do something for them.
It was, therefore, really our responsibility to go to Jesus: but a double obstacle prevented it. For our eyes were blind, and he dwells in inaccessible Light. We were lying paralysed on our pallet, incapable of reaching the greatness of God.
That is why, in his immense goodness, our Saviour, the doctor of our souls, came down from his great height and tempered for our sick eyes the dazzling brightness of his glory. He clothed himself, as it were, with a lantern, with that luminous body, I mean, free from every stain, which he put on.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 1 ‘On Advent’, 7-8; PL 183, cols. 38-9