His destiny seemed sealed at birth. The women who helped his mother through the long hours of labour, helping her push through the pain, laying cool cloths on her fevered brow and willing her, urging her with their energy, towards the anticipated moment of celebration, turned their faces away quickly to hide their shock at his twisted form when it emerged. Instead of a celebration, his welcome quickly turned into a time of grieving the death of dreams and expectations.
He’d found long ago that resignation to his limited role on the stage of life made things easier. He had come to accept that being born a cripple left him with no choice of vocation. His only possible means of survival was the charity of others - a humiliating dependence on those who passed by his begging post. He was carried and placed daily, in the shade of the afternoon, at the gate of the temple in Jerusalem that faced eastward towards the Mount of Olives; the gate called Beautiful.
The account of the incident that warranted his inclusion in the third chapter of the book of Acts, begins innocuously with the words “One day” - as if it were an ordinary day. It was three in the afternoon, one of the three daily times of prayer. The man was being carried to his usual place, at the time calculated to be the most profitable.
Amongst the gathering crowd were two followers of the teacher Jesus, who had been executed recently outside Jerusalem. Their lives too had a rhythm and routine that involved the temple, as we are told that they and the explosively growing crowds of new believers met together every day in the temple courts. The moments that followed are recorded in exquisite detail. The man whose life was predictability personified was about to play a pivotal role in the drama that was the early church.
He put out his hand – an automatic response to the approach of worshippers. He knew his part well, for he had played it so often. He knew every possible response equally well – indifference, compassion, pity – to some he was obviously invisible – they had mastered the art of looking ahead as they passed him by.
The two men before him were breaking the familiar pattern though. Both of them saw him. They looked at him, not through him, or away. And, what’s this? They demanded of him that he look at them!
He hoped maybe a bigger than usual hand-out was coming his way. He knew that once someone really saw you it was hard to walk away without being generous. The law and traditions commanded it after all.
One of the men was speaking now. He was saying something about no silver; no gold. His right hand, still outstretched in the familiar gesture, hoping for cold coin, was suddenly grasped in the warm, rough, strong, hand of the speaker, who was invoking the name of the dead teacher Jesus, as he told him to walk and simultaneously helped him up.
Words and actions tumbled into one swirling moment of unimaginable power. Time seemed to stand still and speed up, all at the same time. The man’s thoughts raced. I can’t stand up, doesn’t he know? But I’ve never been able to move like this before and something is happening to my ankles. My legs, I can feel them – sensation is flooding into them – they are filled with strength – and look – I see strong muscles where there was only weakness and atrophy an instant ago.
The man did what he had never done before, and never in his wildest dreams ever thought of doing. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. He walked with the two Jesus followers into the temple courts, where he had never been before, and as the unspeakable power continued to flow in his legs, he gave way to the unquenchable impulse to jump rather than walk, as he cried out praises to God.
He had gone from a life at the gate, to a life of participation. His outstretched hand that day became the point of contact with God – the point of transformation and healing.
I’m gripped by the events of that afternoon and their implications for me, a follower of Jesus. I dare to believe that here and now the ordinary can become the extraordinary; that as I look; as I see, the person before me, God may want to interrupt his existence, rearrange his expectations and pour into him a gift beyond his wildest imagination. My part is only to grasp his hand and whisper the name of Jesus. And to remember a man, who long ago, thought it was an ordinary day.