[These readings were used for the Mass of the Second Scrutiny.]
When Dad was alive, we pretty much couldn’t go anywhere with him and not have him find someone there that he knew. He’d been a softball coach for over 25 years, had been a catechist at church, and helped with the youth retreat for many years. So it often seemed like he knew everyone everywhere we went. Sometimes it was kind of annoying, to be honest. We had a schedule, but he had to stop and catch up with whoever it was he recognized. To us, they were all strangers, but to Dad, they were so-and-so’s brother, or the girl he coached fifteen years ago, or the son or daughter of someone he knew from church. Not only that, but Dad was able to see in them talents or gifts that they sometimes didn’t know they had. He brought out the best in those he coached, and after he died, many people told us how he encouraged and challenged them to do wonderful things. We knew he did those things for us, of course, but to know how he saw great things in others was a real blessing.
Dad had the kind of vision that God wanted from Samuel in today’s first reading. It’s easy to get caught up in seeing people from the outside, but God’s vision goes way beyond that – to the heart, to what makes the person whole and holy. Eliab was the logical choice for king of Israel. He was strong, mature, and good-looking; he would be charismatic enough to lead the people. But that’s not what God was looking for. He was looking for a man with a good heart, and David was that man. He too made a “splendid appearance” but that appearance went through to the core of who he was, and that was the vision God had for Israel.
Today’s readings are filled with images of vision – blindness and sight, light and darkness. And it’s our second reading today that points to the problem: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Notice how it does not say “You were once in darkness” – no, it says, “You were once darkness.” We were once darkness itself, plagued by the darkness this world can so often bring upon us, engaging in the darkness that keeps us from seeing the heart of others but instead keeps us focused on their outward appearance or first impression. But, as that line also points out, we have the antidote – we have the Lord who makes us light – and not just people in the light, but people who are light itself. This is the crux of what the scriptures are getting at today.
The vision theme is really played out in today’s Gospel reading. We have here the man born blind, and his healing. So I imagine you’ll all be surprised to know that this story is not about the healing of the blind man. Sure, that’s how it looks on the surface, but just like Samuel, we are being called to look a little bit deeper. Yes, Jesus heals a blind man. He does that rather quickly, actually, like in the first minute of the story. Then we spend all the rest of that story standing there listening to something else. And that something else is the real story here – that something else is the healing of the formerly-blind man’s darkness from the inside out.
Notice the progression. 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.” Then he has this to say about Jesus: this man called Jesus restored my sight, but I don’t know where he is now. Simple as that. 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. He has grown in his faith.
So that, I would suggest, is the real story here. We have a story of a man who has grown in his faith. Just like last week, if you came to the nine o’clock Mass, we had the story of the woman at the well. It wasn’t just a story about a woman who gave Jesus a drink of water. It was a story of a woman who came to know Jesus more deeply, and realized that she was really thirsting for that living water that only Jesus can give.
There are a couple of details in the story of the healing of the blind man that are worth noticing. First, he is sent to the pool of Siloam to wash the clay off of his eyes. So the detail here is that there is water involved. Whenever we see water mentioned in the Scriptures, it usually reminds us of a certain sacrament – what sacrament is that? Right, baptism. So what’s involved here is a baptismal moment, in which a man who was formerly plagued by darkness is now redeemed and re-created and comes to new life and light through the sacramental remedy of baptism. The name of the pool – “Siloam” – is significant. We are told that it means “sent.” So by washing in the pool of Siloam, the man receives baptism and is then sent forth into his true vocation. This is a mirror of our own baptisms in which the blindness that we are born with is washed away in the pool of baptism and we are sent forth to be people of light.
The second little detail is the answer the man gives when he is first questioned by those who used to know him as the blind man. He is asked whether he is indeed the man who was born blind, and he says, “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 and in relation to himself. 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 here, then is the real story, finally. The story is about all of us. We are the “other Christs” who are washed clean and recreated from darkness to light in baptism, and are called on to deepen our faith throughout our lives, and to spread the light to every corner of the dark places in which we live. We have to be people who reject the devil’s darkness: we have to reject seeing and labeling people in negative ways, reject racism and hatred, reject violence, terrorism, war and crime, reject the idea that life is expendable, we have to simply reject the darkness this world calls us to in all its forms. We have to go to the pool of baptism and allow God to recreate us as people of light.
We do this together with our Elect, those who will receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist at Easter. As they come before us for the second scrutiny today, we reflect on the darkness in our own lives and we set it before the One who is light itself, the source of the light that we receive at baptism, and we renew our pledge to be the “other Christs” who will spread the light in our world – in our workplaces, our schools, our communities, wherever it is that God puts us. Because God intends to recreate those places, and all the people who are in them, with his wonderful light as well.
Physical blindness isn’t nearly as destructive as the blindness that comes from stubbornly resisting the light. There is no sin in physical blindness. But we cannot – indeed we must not – remain as the Pharisees, saying “we see just fine, thank you.” That is the way sin remains. Just like the man born blind, we have to acknowledge our own darkness in order that it would be exposed to Christ’s wonderful light.