Today's readings [display_podcast]
Now this sounds like a horrible thing for a priest to be telling you in Mass, but I’m going to say it anyway. Who on earth cares about the healing of a blind person? Well, the blind person, sure, and maybe some of his relatives and the people who know him, but what do we care? Why spend so much time telling the story and have our feet aching as we stand here listening to this Gospel? You’ve probably figured out by now this is a rhetorical question, and you must know that I’m about to give you the twist that makes this all relevant. The reason we care about the story of the healing of the man born blind is that the story isn’t about the man born blind. It’s about us.
We might be sitting here thinking, just like the Pharisees, “surely we are not also blind, are we?” And the answer is YES. We are blind. That’s what Lent is about: the realization of our blindness and our yearning for the healing power of Christ. So it’s in that spirit that we have to roll up our sleeves and dig into the story, because there’s more here than meets the eye, if you’ll pardon the pun.
I want to begin this reflection by looking at our first reading today. Whenever I hear it, it makes me remember my dad. He was a man who always seemed to see the best in people. The best in me and my sisters, certainly, but also in just about any person he’d ever met. Which, believe me, was a considerable list – Dad was that typical Irish guy who never met a stranger. When we had his wake back in May, we were all overwhelmed by the incredible number of people who came and shared with us how they were inspired by him and encouraged by him, all because Dad saw something special in them.
That’s what was going on in today’s first reading. Everyone thought the very good-looking Eliab was the one that Samuel came to anoint. Everyone, that is, except for God who quickly pointed out that Samuel and the others were seeing as human beings see: that is, they were seeing the outward appearance and maybe even the superficial parts of the personality that come across on a first impression. But God sees deeper than that – God sees into the heart. He sees beyond that outward appearance, and the superficiality of our first impression personality, and deep into the heart of who he created us to be.
That’s the kind of vision I often wish I had. Dad seemed to have that kind of ability to see people as God sees them. I try, but quite often fail. I’m sure many of us wish that we could see beyond the pettiness of the things that irk us about other people, and to see those people as God created them.
This is the kind of thing that highlights the blindness we all have, the kind of blindness that makes today’s Gospel reading really about all of us. We may or may not have some kind of physical blindness. And even if we did, that wouldn’t be so bad as far as Jesus is concerned. Indeed, he heals the blindness of the man in the first minute of the story and then goes on for a long time to give him sight in other ways and to expose the blindness of the others in the story. The worst kind of blindness that we can have is to not even desire to see things and especially other people as God sees them. To reject God’s vision for us and for our world is a kind of terminal blindness that leaves us in some ways without any hope whatsoever.
This kind of blindness is what St. Paul meant when he said to the Ephesians in today’s second reading, “you were once darkness.” Notice how he didn’t say you were once IN darkness, no – you were once darkness. Darkness itself. That’s how blind we are when we come into the world – we are all the men and women born blind, and we must turn to Jesus because he is the only one who can restore our sight.
But maybe restore isn’t the best word to use here. Because the blind man had never even seen at all – he was born blind. So his healing was not so much a cure as much as it was a creation, or better, re-creation. The very act that Jesus used to heal him gives us a clue about this: he makes clay from the earth in much the same way that God formed Adam, our first parent, from the clay of the earth. The healing of the blind man then takes us back and re-creates us from the inside out. We are all re-created in baptism, and that’s why the man is then sent to the pool at Siloam – which is a name that itself means “sent” – just as we are sent to the font to be baptized. It is baptism that heals the blindness we are all born with.
And we can see the effect of the baptism on the man in the story. He is sent to Siloam to wash and on coming out, he can see. He then is questioned by the people who knew him as a blind man about whether he was in fact the man who was blind. He replies “I am.” Now this answer is a Scriptural red flag and I want you all to mentally bookmark it because I’m going to come back to it in a minute. But right now I want you to notice what he says about Jesus: this man called Jesus restored my sight, but I don’t know where he is now. Later he is questioned by the Pharisees, and when they suggest Jesus is a sinner because he does not respect the Sabbath, the blind man rejects this and says “he is a prophet.” He is questioned a second time by the Pharisees, and this time he goes a little further, he suggests that he is a disciple of Jesus, and when he meets Jesus after being thrown out of the synagogue, makes a beautiful confession of faith and says, “I do believe, Lord.” His faith has grown from being in total darkness, to recognizing Jesus as a man who healed him, to seeing him as a prophet, to acknowledging him as Lord and God.
We, too, must come up out of the waters of baptism – sent as we are – to witness to Jesus at work in our world. We might at various times of our lives have a limited view of God and an infant faith. But we are given the gift of Lent over and over again in our lives to be continually converted and to walk in the light of our baptism in new and more profound ways. Our annual observance of Lent calls us to grow in faith with every passing year and see God and others in deeper and clearer ways.
When the people asked the blind man if he was the man born blind, he said, “I am.” That probably is a familiar Scriptural phrase for you. Because whenever you hear it, it’s always in reference to God. When Moses asks God who he should say sent him to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, God says, “tell them I am sent you.” In the Gospel of John, the phrase “I am” is used many times, but only by Jesus. Except for this one time. Here it is used by the man re-created from darkness to light. Why would that be? Well, nothing in the Gospels is ever an accident, so we can dismiss that thought – it’s certainly no mere coincidence.
What I think it means is that this man is presented now as another Christ, who has been healed and forgiven and converted from darkness to light and now sent into the world to witness to his faith and draw others to faith in God. And that’s why the story is not merely about this man. The story is about all of us who reject the devil’s darkness, who reject seeing and labeling people in negative ways, who reject racism and hatred, who reject violence, terrorism, war and crime, who reject the idea that life is expendable, who reject the darkness this world calls us to in all its forms. This story is about all of us who submit to God’s re-creating power in our lives, who go to the pool of baptism and are sent into the world to bathe the darkness in the light of God’s presence. This story is about all of us who need Lent to deepen our faith
just like the formerly blind man’s faith grew in the story. This story is about all of us who will stand up and say with the formerly blind man, “I do believe, Lord.”