Fourth Sunday of Lent A
I distinctly recall the first time I failed an exam—and how it turned out to be one the very best things that could have happened to me. I was in the 4th Grade…and I failed my eye exam with the school nurse. (Despite the apparent evidence of this bright rose vestment I’m now wearing, the diagnosis wasn’t that I’m colorblind but nearsighted.) Within a few weeks, I was off to the optometrist, and a few weeks after that, I was off to pick up my new glasses. I have very vivid memories of the ride home with my mom in our big ol’ station wagon that day. We were traveling very familiar streets, but I was really seeing so many things for the very first time—not just minute details, mind you, but really big things…like houses and even distant mountains! I remember, too, going to Mass that next Sunday. My home church has many paintings of angels and saints on the ceiling; previously, they’d simply been swirled colors and rough forms, but now I could see the features of their faces and the folds of their clothes. All these things that’s seemed so new and exciting weren’t really “new” at all; it’s just that they’d only now become visible to me.
In a small way, that must have been what it was like for the man born blind when his eyes were opened by Jesus. Did you happen to notice how he failed an exam, too? His neighbors and the Pharisees simply refuse to accept the answers he gives in response to their many, many questions…but that also works out in his favor, for in the process he gains clear sight not just once, but twice.
After his cure, the formerly blind man is questioned by his neighbors, “How were your eyes opened?” He responds, “By a man named Jesus…” The Pharisees then question him, “What do you have to say about this Jesus, since he opened your eyes?’ And responds, “He is a prophet.” Finally, he’s questioned by Jesus himself: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Who is he, sir, that I might believe in him?” “You have seen him, the one speaking with you.” “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshipped him. (He finally answers one question right!)
Take note of the progression in the man’s answers about the identity of Jesus: from a man (another guy like himself)…to a prophet (someone sent by God)…to the Lord (that is, God himself); from a notion based on the hearsay of others (how else did he learn even Jesus name, since he never introduces himself?)…to an initial opening to faith (“he must be from God if he was able to heal me”)…to a deep, personal commitment (Jesus is no longer a stranger, but has become the center of his life).
While the man’s bodily eyes were opened instantly, the eyes of his heart are only gradually opened to the truth about Jesus Christ. But as the man born blind grows toward better vision and greater light, his neighbors and the Pharisees are sinking into worse blindness and deeper darkness.
Take note, now, of the progression in questions and doubts of the neighbors and Pharisees. They begin by questioning the identity of the blind man: “Maybe it’s someone else who just looks like him.” Then they question Jesus’ identity and motives: “He must be a sinner, since he heals on the Sabbath.” They ridiculously question the man’s parents: “Are you sure this is your son?” They even try to get the blind man to deny his cure: “It’s unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of someone born blind.” In the end, they express doubts even about themselves: “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”
While the man was born blind through no fault of his own, these others are going blind because of their persistent, stubborn refusal to see.
Unfortunately, this effort to protect what’s familiar and hang on to an illusion of control, this fearful resistance in the face of something new and unknown, this rejection of Jesus and his teaching because it challenges us and our way of thinking, is a tragedy often repeated, even in our own day.
We’re awfully sensitive at this time of year to the steady increase of daylight. It’s pretty nice now that it’s still light out after 7:00pm, isn’t it? And each day, the sun comes up just a few moments earlier. This regular cycle of dawn and dusk, of sunrise and sunset, makes it clear: we’re always either gaining light, or losing it. There’s no standing still. And what’s true in the daily round is also true—as we see in this Sunday’s gospel—of our spiritual lives.
We were all born blind beggars, with the mud of sin covering our eyes. And as we began our journey of faith, our walk with the Lord, Jesus sent us to wash—not in the Pool of Siloam, but in the healing waters of Baptism. In the early church, Baptism was also known as “illumination” or “enlightenment.” That’s why we read this particular story in preparation to renew our baptismal promises at Easter. Baptism fills our hearts and minds with the light of truth, shedding light on our earthy life and enabling us to walk toward the glorious vision of God. But unlike the day I got glasses, our sight is restored gradually. Ours is first the faith of childhood, a “borrowed” faith, that rests on what others have told us about Jesus. As we grow into the faith of spiritual youth, we begin to make it our own, to express our own convictions, but still maintaining a safe and respectful distance. Finally, we reach Christian maturity, where we put our full trust in Christ and make him the very center of our life. This process of conversion is ongoing—it begins at Baptism, and lasts our whole life long.
This midway point in Lent is the perfect time for us to consider: In terms of daylight, where is my spiritual life right now: is the sun rising ever higher and brighter, or sinking toward the western horizon? In terms of growth and maturity, where is my faith at this point: still borrowed from others, or growing in my own conviction, or quite personal and deep? How clear is my vision? Where is God calling me to go with him, and how is he calling me to get there?
God naturally sees things differently than we do. That’s certainly made apparent when Samuel goes to seek out and anoint young David—no longer to shepherd a flock of sheep, but to shepherd God’s chosen people: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.” Left on our own, we don’t see that well. But God takes us beyond the limits of our fallen nature by his supernatural gifts—by grace. The Lord’s own light illumines our minds and enlightens the eyes of our hearts. We can begin to see life and the world and other people, in a least a small way, from God’s perspective. The disciples understandably asked Jesus, “Why was this man born blind?” And Jesus responds, “That the works of God might be made visible.” When, by grace, the Lord opens our eyes, it’s like everything is new as we begin to recognize his fingerprints on everything. The truth is, God has been present and active in our lives all along…it’s just that now we can see it.
The wonders of modern science—whether with spectacles like mine or a surgeon’s laser—can often do for our bodily eyes what once required a miracle. But only God can give sight to the eyes of the heart. As we continue to make our way to Easter, let us ask Jesus for the illuminating grace we need to always walk as children of the light.