By: Fr. James Gross
We’re in the groove of taking surveys these days in our parish. If we were to take a survey of which one of our five senses we would most hate to lose, I’m sure a lot of us would say our sight, because we depend on it so much. But the Pharisees and scribes during Jesus’ time had an additional reason. They placed a high priority on one’s ability to read and study the Scriptures, perfecting their observance of the Law of Moses. At the time, someone who was blind could only snag the Word out of the air, so to speak, and rely on their memory.
To these men, a fate so awful required an explanation which made more sense than a cruel twist of fate: it had to be God’s punishment for sin. That’s why we get this seemingly bizarre question from Jesus’ disciples to begin this gospel. “Master, who is to blame for that man’s blindness—himself or his parents?” Jesus insists that neither one is at fault; his condition is an occasion for God to manifest His glory.
Earlier in St. John’s Gospel, he informs us that Jesus and his followers were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the high holy days of the Jewish calendar. As part of the celebration, the temple was outfitted with a great many torches and lamps to illuminate it in grandeur. By declaring himself to be the light of the world, Jesus makes the argument that his Father has sent him forth to bring the festivals of the Old Covenant to completion.
Typically people with ailments pursue Jesus, or have their family or friends do so. Recall what happened with the blind man Bartimaeus. Hearing a ruckus, he asked what was going on. “Wait, who? Jesus of Nazareth? He’s HERE? Holy cow! Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” And, granting their request, the Lord rewards them for their faith. But here Jesus pursues the blind man in order to heal him. It almost seems odd to us, until we realize that the Lord is continuously pursuing us. He does not intend to violate our freedom, but searches for us precisely to give us what we cannot give to ourselves.
Resembling our Heavenly Father in the creation accounts of the Book of Genesis, Jesus works with clay to apply a paste to the man’s eyelids. The language St. John uses in Greek is exactly that of the Father molding our first parents from the clay of the earth. In fact, some commentators have surmised that the blind man may not have had any eyes at all, and that Jesus in this miracle is giving sight by creating eyes for him to see. I find that idea fascinating.
Also, the way Jesus uses humble material objects in this healing reminds us of the sacraments. Plain water cleanses the body, but the waters of Baptism purify the soul. Bread and wine provide a sparse meal, but Jesus changes those gifts into Himself when the Church celebrates the Eucharist.
The rest of the story is the fallout that ensues when the authorities try to get to the bottom of this miracle. In the first place, they object to Jesus healing the man born blind on the Sabbath. The interrogation becomes tiresome because of the men’s ignorance of God’s power at work in their midst. But St. John goes into detail here as a reflection of what is happening to Christians in his time. Not only did the Romans pressure them to practice the pagan religion of the Empire, but Jews were casting them out for proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus.
As for the healed man, when he declares that Jesus is a prophet, the enraged Pharisees toss him out of the synagogue. St. John the Apostle saw this very scene unfold over and over as one town after another disowned the Christians in their midst and told them, “Either stop saying that Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Son of God or beat it.”
For the safety of all those involved, celebrations of the Eucharist and meetings for prayer often took place secretly and in the dark. Jesus is our light, whether we are gathered in a place of shimmering brilliance or the darkest, dingiest cave. Our ancestors in faith could say the same thing. For them, the choice was obvious. They became social outcasts but would not betray the Lord, even at the risk of their lives. The healed man’s parents were not ready to take that step as evidenced by the caginess of their statement that their son was of age and could speak for himself, but we have to be ready to say, “I was blind, but thanks to Christ, now I see.”
Because the Pharisees claimed that they could see, their sin remained. What do we believe about our blindness? Can we see our poverty before God and our own need for healing? St. Paul urges us on today: “Arise, O sleeper, and Christ will give you light.” In today’s first reading, God instructs Samuel that, while human beings see outward appearances, He looks into the heart. Are we able to see ourselves as we truly are? And more importantly, are we able to see ourselves as the Father sees us, with tender compassion and the desire to restore our sight and recognize that we are His beloved children?
About six months after his election, Pope Francis sat down for an interview with an Italian journalist. The very first question was broad and philosophical: “Your Holiness, who is Jorge Bergoglio?” The Pope reflected for a moment and responded, “Jorge Bergoglio is a sinner.” A moment later, wishing to expand on that answer, he said, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Many people heard that and said, “Oh come on…he’s the Pope! What has he done?” But this was not false humility. Pope Francis spoke for us all insofar as the light by which we see comes not from ourselves, but from Christ.
Our parish Penance Service is on Tuesday evening of Holy Week, April 11th. There are many other times set aside for confession besides, such as before every weekday Mass. Would the man born blind want you to cling to your sins and remain in darkness, or would he rather invite you to see anew by the light of the Trinity? Come to the Divine Physician and be healed.