As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
Jesus heard that they [the Pharisees] had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” John 9:1-7; 35-38.
I regularly travel with some friends to a camp in the Sangre de Christo mountains of New Mexico. There, away from the lights of the city, when the sun sets in the forest, I’m always struck by just how dark it can get. That kind of darkness impresses us with fear, with vulnerability and with isolation. I suspect that’s exactly the sort of life the man born blind led until his encounter with Jesus.
In the Daily Office today, we find the story of Jesus and that man, set out in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s a powerful story, powerful enough to have inspired the former slave-trader John Newton to pen one of our favorite hymns, Amazing Grace. (“I was blind, but now I see.”) This story also illustrates two of the attributes of Jesus’ name described by Bernard of Clairvaux in my last post: Jesus is light and Jesus is healing.
Back then, the Jewish people associated blindness and most any sort of physical infirmity with sin. The disciples echo this assumption, asking whether this blindness resulted from this man’s sin or the sins of his parents. That assumption, expressly rejected by Jesus, lingers on with us today. From illness to natural disaster, people and their “religious” leaders try to assign the fault for these events to some past moral failure. Jesus refuses to take part in that speculation.
Blindness and many other physical infirmities would exclude one from the Temple, from the place where good devout Jews could encounter God. In almost every icon depicting the story, therefore, we see the Temple in the background. The man born blind, therefore, becomes a sort of icon for those who the religious structure of that time excluded. And into the darkness that enveloped this man, Jesus enters and describes himself as the “light of the world.”
Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud which he spreads on the man’s eyes. It’s an interesting and curious approach to this man’s predicament, but I think part of the key to understanding this story lies just a couple of sentences earlier. Rather than explaining to the disciples the real cause of this man’s blindness, Jesus tells them: “We must work the works of him who sent me….” Having been sent by God, Jesus must engage in God’s work. Jesus didn’t need a poultice to cure this man’s blindness, but I think he intentionally invoked the image of God’s creation of Adam. Just as God created Adam from the clay (mud) of the earth, Jesus will re-create this blind man’s life.
Jesus then instructs the man to wash himself in the pool of Siloam. (Notice that this is the work for which God “sent” Jesus into the world, and the very name of the pool means “sent”.) The Jewish people used that pool as a place for ritual purification, necessary for entry into the Temple. The man born blind is thus “baptized” back into the community of those eligible to encounter God in that Holy Place and his sight returns. The pool, intended as a place for purification, has become a place for healing and reconciliation.
Now, all this transpires on the Sabbath, and provides the Pharisees with one more instance of Jesus’ disregard for the religious traditions (and authorities) of the day. The Pharisees convince themselves that Jesus is a great sinner, just like the man born blind, whom they expel. John thus makes clear that they remain in the darkness, spiritually blind.
When Jesus encounters the man born blind later, the man confesses his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of Man. There are few moments in Scripture more poignant than his final acknowledgement: “Lord, I believe.”
I’m wondering, who is unwelcome today and who have we excluded because their “sin” disqualifies them? Like the Pharisees, have we fallen in love with doing “churchy things” rather than falling in love with God and his children? Are we instruments of reconciliation in the world, or do we place obstacles in the path of those who want and need God’s help? And perhaps more importantly, I wonder where are the dark places in the world and in our lives not yet illuminated by the light of Christ?
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis