Sunday IV of Lent
While the theme of blindness and sight, darkness and light, witness and threat feature prominently in John’s account of the healing of man born blind and illustrate the great sweep of Lenten motifs in terms of conversion, baptism and grace, another aspect of the account of the miracle suggests itself to our consideration. If we look at the Gospel account, we can see that the blind man and Jesus have in common that the other protagonists of the incident fail to recognise them. Blindness envelops the entire scene, with the exception of Christ who bestows light, and the blind man who receives it. It is evocative of the first moment of creation, when the Spirit hovered over the darkness and drew forth from nothingness all that exists. Jesus is sent to do the ‘works’ that the Father has sent him to do, while it is still day (cf. Jn. 9: 4).
The blind man is repeatedly asked to prove his identity. He is no longer recognised by those who acknowledged him only as a blind beggar. They knew him only for his function, the inconvenience he represented, the occasional object of their good works. It is extraordinary that in the account of the blind man’s travails, even his parents have a role only as witnesses to his identity as their son, the blind beggar. The blind man is not recognised for who he is. We often talk of “assumed identities”, but in the Gospel passage we see a powerful representation of ‘forced identity’. In this, the blind man shares the experience of Christ, whom neither the crowd nor the Pharisees are willing to acknowledge for who he is.
The newness of the sight of the man born blind is ignored by the Pharisees, the crowd, and even by his own parents. In his new condition, he remains for them as he had been before: an object, not a person, useful insofar as he can manifest the unlawfulness of Christ. Christ alone recognises the newness that is in him, the gift of sight in all its wonder. When before no one cared to share his wonder at seeing faces and colours, form and structure, Christ seeks him out to invite the response of faith in the language of sight, in the vision of Christ with the eyes of the body so that the mystery of Christ might be seen with the eyes of faith: so that sight might be the conduit of light even as light is the vehicle of seeing. In the marvellous experience of first sight, Christ invites the response of faith, that the first response of the experience of light, of seeing, of life might be the worship of the true light, Christ the Lord: “Jesus said to him, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.”
We live in a world saturated by sight, by the stimulation of the senses, particularly the sense of sight. The world transfixes our gaze, not to share in its wonder but to instrumentalise it for its own end: to sell a product, to induce a way of seeing the world that enslaves and wears down our capacity to see with the mind of the heart. Categorisation, caricature, calumny are the stock in trade of the world. In the words of T.S. Elliott, everyone must be “fixed with a formulated phrase…fixed and wriggling on a wall” (Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock). Casting out, wearing down, destroying, setting up for our own self-interested purpose requires but a ‘tweet’. In the world of ever-expanding liberty, where is freedom to be found? Many of us live lives that are exposed, but not, for all that, transparent and free in themselves. The more we reveal about ourselves, the more does the mystery of who we are recede into the distance. We are an image of ourselves, a ‘profile’, a page, but less and less a canvas.
Christ invites us to set our gaze on him. He seeks us out, as he sought out the man born blind. Perhaps if each of us heard that question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man”, we too might say, “Who is he… that I may believe in him”; we might be intrigued to know who he is who might be worthy of the first fruits of our spiritual sight. The response to that question is simply the invitation to look upon Christ. This might be just enough in the moments when we realise we wish to say that ‘who’ we are can no longer be answered by the world and its categories. What else have we to offer in terms of evangelisation and compassion, solidarity and relief but to draw one another’s gaze to Christ, “For in your light we see light” (cf. Ps 36: 9).
In Christ we are revealed for who we are. In him we see with the light of God’s grace. Looking upon him, we see the reflection of his own beauty that he has placed within us, whom he has made in his image and likeness. He continues to hover over the empty void that remains within us, to bring life out of nothingness, to bring redemption from condemnation and isolation. He seeks us out as he sought out the man born blind, attracted by the beauty he has created within us. It is a beauty that never be destroyed. We can never be detestable in his sight in who we are. His beauty endures. It is his spark within us. It is ready to spring back to life once the breadth of God blows over it, for as the first man was made from the clay of the earth, so the second Man is a life-giving Spirit.
In this time of exclusion and condemnation, of categorisation and marginalisation, of extreme and disaffection, the Christian is called to turn his gaze to Christ, to see in him the beauty of his being, to raise our mind from the din that surrounds us and from the priorities of the world and to see in Christ the reflection of who we are. Seeing in him our Creator and Redeemer, we too might be prompted with the blind man to give the first homage of our seeing to him, to “bow down and worship” (cf. Jn. 9: 39). It is the first act of our newfound freedom of the sons of God. “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth” (cf. Eph. 5: 8-9).