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When We Gaze Deeply and Directly into the Light…

March 20, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A - March 26th, 2017
Today’s marvellous Gospel story (John 9:1-41) is about seeing the face of Jesus, allowing the scales of blindness to fall from our eyes, experiencing his healing powers, and acknowledging Jesus for who he really is: the Lord and Saviour who has come into the world. From the very beginning of John’s Gospel, the question of origins pervades the story. Where is Jesus from? Who sent him? What rabbinical school did this son of Nazareth attend? Where did he get all of this? Where did he learn to break God’s law? Such questions permeate the provocative Gospel story of the healing of the blind man in John’s Gospel.
Today’s highly symbolic story of the Sabbath healing of the man born blind is unique because the only Old Testament cures from blindness are found in Tobit (7:7; 11:7-13; 14:1-2), but Tobit was not born blind. Today’s story, the sixth sign of the Fourth Gospel, is introduced to illustrate the saying, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). The narrative of conflict about Jesus contrasts Jesus (light) with the Jews (blindness; 9:39-41). The theme of water is reintroduced in the reference to the pool of Siloam. Ironically, Jesus is being judged by the Jews, yet the Jews are judged by the Light of the world in the flesh (3:19-21)!
The controversy
The story of the blind man’s healing takes exactly two verses; the controversy surrounding the cure, thirty-nine verses. It is the controversy that is the rest of the story! In response to such questions about Jesus’ origins, the formerly blind man replies, “He restored my sight. Where do you think he’s from?” The blind man progresses from darkness to light: he regards Jesus as a man, then a prophet, and finally confesses that he is the Son of God. The Pharisees first appear to accept the blind man’s healing but then begin to doubt and finally deny Jesus’ heavenly origins. The blind man’s simplicity confounds the wise. They end up refusing to see – rendering themselves blind. Yet it is not difficult to sympathize with the Pharisees. They were only attempting what many of us have been trained to do: observe, analyze, describe, and explain the phenomena of a particular situation. Doesn’t this sound all too familiar? Isn’t this how many of us spend our time each day?
The blind man’s background
The formerly blind man did not know all the correct religious phrases with which to interpret his salvation. He was not pious in the traditional sense or even respectful of his elders. What he knew for sure was that once upon a time he sat in darkness, and now the whole world was drenched in sunlight. And he acknowledged that: “One thing I know” (John 9:25). As if the most insignificant thing he happens to know is who saved his life!
The man who has now recovered his sight does not start with special knowledge but with acknowledgment. Jesus is the one who gives him life, who saves him, who removes his blindness, who gives him hope and courage. Jesus – he’s the one! He’s it! We know that the blind man is not the only one to admit “Jesus is it!” The blind man’s spiritual descendants are legion throughout history! Hopefully we are part of that lot!
The question of suffering
Attempts to solve the question of suffering and death have often brought about greater suffering than the initial pain and anguish that one experiences. “Why me?” “Why must suffering exist?” “Whose fault is it that I am blind, deaf, dumb, poor, and not like someone else?” “Can suffering have any meaning?” “Of what value?” “Who causes this?” “Why does such an evil exist?” “Why am I being punished so?” Often we use the metaphor of blindness to describe our inability to grasp the meaning of the suffering we endure.
If we read today’s Gospel story as an ironic comedy and nothing more, we miss the loneliness of its final scene in which Jesus and the man converse outside the synagogue (9:35-39). The man’s profession of faith has a terrible consequence for him and for all of us. He is cast out of the synagogue. He is cut off from the Torah, from his family, from the Friday evening Sabbaths with his family and friends, from the certitude of the Law – all because he gazed deeply and directly into the Light. And yet, it was his persistent gaze that brought him a strange form of healing and sight.
Our blindness today
Many people are very reluctant today to even acknowledge the source of our salvation, the bringer of our hope, the cause of our joy. We are afraid to name him for fear of what others will say. Or is this reluctance perhaps because we aren’t convinced that Jesus is the one; that he’s it? We sometimes describe our blindness as an inability to see the forest for the trees, but that is a rather simplistic analysis. More worrisome is the inherited blindness which so often assumes that there are no lessons left to learn. Arrogance is very often the root of our blindness. We need the miracle of restored sight each day. How often do we behave like those who tried to prevent Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) from seeing and meeting the Lord? Against the cries of the scoffers and cynics in our midst, do we dare to bring our friends, colleagues and loved ones into the very presence of the Lord? How can we not, when we know the result of a lifetime without Christ?
In his Lenten Message for 2011, Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote about today’s Gospel:
The Gospel confronts each one of us with the question: “Do you believe in the Son of man?” “Lord, I believe!” (Jn 9:35; 38), the man born blind joyfully exclaims, giving voice to all believers. The miracle of this healing is a sign that Christ wants not only to give us sight, but also open our interior vision, so that our faith may become ever deeper and we may recognize him as our only Saviour. He illuminates all that is dark in life and leads men and women to live as “children of the light.”
Meeting the Stars of the Lenten Gospels
Today’s Gospel story of the healing of the blind man, along with Mark’s healing stories of the blind man of Bethsaida (8:22-26) and the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind man on the road to Jericho (10:46-52), were undoubtedly very popular stories in the early Church and they remain very significant stories for the contemporary Church. These miracles have always fascinated me because I grew up with my father, who was an eye doctor specializing in eye and reading problems for young children. How frequently we spoke about sight impairments, eye diseases, stigmatisms, cataracts, and 20/20 vision at the dinner table at home!
My father was also a member of a numerous charitable societies and clubs that assisted the blind. I remember vividly volunteering as a child with my father and his doctor colleagues who hosted memorable Christmas parties for blind people. I shall never forget the obvious joy that marked those gatherings. My father died as a relatively young man – in his late sixties – from complications of diabetes that included blindness. It was a terrible burden for him and for us in those final years. Shortly before his death in 1997, we had a long visit and he spoke with me about his funeral Mass. He asked me: “What Gospel will you use for the Mass?” When I suggested Mark’s story of the healing of the blind Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho, my father asked: “What on earth has that story to do with me?” We both paused and had a good laugh over it! I preached on that passage at his funeral Mass.
If I ever get near heaven, I look forward to a long, unrushed conversation with the stars of the Gospels of these Lenten Gospels: the woman of Samaria (John 4), the blind man (John 9), and Lazarus (John 11). They were very fortunate and blessed people to have been made new again through Jesus’ personal intervention, his consoling touch, his loving gaze, and his compassionate words. I would like to ask each of them four questions: “Where did this guy come from? What did you experience when you looked him in the face? What did you feel when he spoke to you? How did you know that he was it?”
Today let us beg to differ with the darkness and the shadows that exist in the world and in the Church, and never grow satisfied with them. Let us never lose sight of the one request that matters: “to see Jesus” – not just catching furtive glimpses, but rather a long, loving meditative gaze upon the One who is our reconciliation, our hope, our light, and our peace.
Living Lent this week
  1. Ask yourself the question: From what kind of blindness am I suffering today?
  1. Reflect on these words by the American writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain (1835-1910): “Kindness is a message that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
  1. Read slowly the words by American author and political activist Helen Keller (1880-1968), the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Helen broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate. “Whether love makes one blind, I don’t know. But that love can help one see, I and others have experienced that a thousand times.”
  1. What corners of the Church, of society, and of our culture need serious healing, restoration, and reformation in our time? Where are our blind spots? Where are the big problems with near-sightedness and far-sightedness? How often do we prefer monologue to dialogue, refusing to believe that we might learn from those who oppose us and disagree with us; refusing to engage the culture around us and preferring a narrow, obstinate, and angry way of existing? Does greed or self-interest blind me to treating them fairly? Am I curt or impolite in dealing with them? Do I demand more of people than I should reasonably expect? Do I see the people I interact with professionally as people, or as objects to be used?
  1. Read #106 on “The proclamation of the word of God and the suffering” in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini:
During the work of the Synod, the Fathers also considered the need to proclaim God’s word to all those who are suffering, whether physically, psychologically or spiritually. It is in times of pain that the ultimate questions about the meaning of one’s life make themselves acutely felt. If human words seem to fall silent before the mystery of evil and suffering, and if our society appears to value life only when it corresponds to certain standards of efficiency and well-being, the word of God makes us see that even these moments are mysteriously “embraced” by God’s love. Faith born of an encounter with God’s word helps us to realize that human life deserves to be lived fully, even when weakened by illness and pain. God created us for happiness and for life, whereas sickness and death came into the world as a result of sin (cf. Wis 2:23-24). Yet the Father of life is mankind’s physician par excellence, and he does not cease to bend lovingly over suffering humanity. We contemplate the culmination of God’s closeness to our sufferings in Jesus himself, “the Word incarnate. He suffered and died for us. By his passion and death he took our weakness upon himself and totally transformed it.”
Jesus’ closeness to those who suffer is constant: it is prolonged in time thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit in the mission of the Church, in the word and in the sacraments, in men and women of good will, and in charitable initiatives undertaken with fraternal love by communities, thus making known God’s true face and his love. The Synod thanked God for the luminous witness, often hidden, of all the many Christians – priests, religious and lay faithful – who have lent and continue to lend their hands, eyes and hearts to Christ, the true physician of body and soul. It exhorts all to continue to care for the infirm and to bring them the life-giving presence of the Lord Jesus in the word and in the Eucharist. Those who suffer should be helped to read the Scriptures and to realize that their condition itself enables them to share in a special way in Christ’s redemptive suffering for the salvation of the world (cf. 2 Cor 4:8-11,14).
  1. Pray the “Prayer for Sight” of Origen (185-253), an early Christian African scholar and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early Church:
May the Lord Jesus touch our eyes, as he did those of the blind.
Then we shall begin to see in visible things those which are invisible.
May He open our eyes to gaze not on present realities, but on the blessings to come.
May he open the eyes of our heart to contemplate God in Spirit, through Jesus Christ the Lord, to whom belong power and glory through all eternity. Amen.
[The readings for this Sunday are: 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; and John 9:1-41.]
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