This is the Sunday of the Second Scrutiny for those preparing for baptism. We are living in strange times, with our public liturgies on hold. But the Word of God is always near us. During their Exile, Israel was cut off from their Temple with its daily sacrifice. This was the crucible of their formation. It was the time when they discovered how close God was to them in His Word. It is a chance for us to grow deeper into the same. Placed before us today, is the gospel of the man born blind. Like last week’s gospel, it is meant to lead us deeper into the mystery of Baptism and the divine life.
Christ Healing the Blind, El Greco (Domeniko Theotokopoulos), 1570, 47 x 57 1/2 in. (119.4 x 146.1 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Jesus opened the eyes of several blind men in the gospels. The fact that this one is blind from birth however, means that his healing is of a different order compared to the rest. It is far more astonishing for one thing. This man, in some sense, has no capacity to see. It would not simply be a matter of restoring something lost, but of creatingsomething new. For John, of course, this is a sign, more than a miracle – giving us greater access to the Person of Christ and the Mystery of the divine life. Losing sight mid-course is a very different experience of blindness from someone who has never seen at all. This man has never known what it is to see. He lives off the mercy of people, begging for a living. Even the way he is healed and then brought to the Pharisees echoes this passivity; he allows himself to be moved by other people, without much say in his life. The Samaritan woman was not looking in the right place, but she was at least searching, still hoping to find something that would satisfy her. He is (literally) not looking for anything at all. He paints a far more passive image.
This man, of course, stands for all of us. This is an image of the woundedness of sin, even original sin. The deepest problem with sin is that it makes us blind to the fact that we are cut off from the life that God wants to give us. We do not even know there is something far greater to seek. We go with the crowd, moved by one thing and then another.
Jesus sees this man and heals him. Once again, there is the sovereignty of God’s choice. Strangely, Jesus acts without this man’s permission. Does that mean Christ did not respect his freedom? This again, exemplifies another aspect of grace. Grace, the action of God in one’s life, always respects and enhances our freedom because it moves us, Aquinas would say, in the direction we are meant to go. True freedom is not about having the choice to commit evil. True freedom is the power to become everything we are meant to be. Jesus always asked people what they wanted from him. This man, however, having never seen, never knew what he could ask for. To him, this healing comes as pure gift.
Jesus spits into the ground, creates a paste with the mud and applies it to the man’s eyes. This might seem odd to us, now, in the West, but not to most cultures and in most times. The healing properties of saliva have always been known. But there is something more significant in Jesus’ action. In Genesis, God bends down, makes man out of the clay and breathes his breath into him, giving him life (2:7). This is the work of creation. And to this man, who has no capacity to see, Jesus bends down and re-creates, making something completely new, where none has existed.
This work of re-creation is even greater than creation. The first Adam, was created wholly from the earth and given life by the breath of God. In freely choosing an act of evil, he would start the corruption of the whole of human race. This corruption, the Fathers would say, having started at the head, spread to the whole body, like rot, like decay. A simple repentance on our part would no longer suffice. God had to provide a way of providing a new head, which will not be affected by that sin. And only the incorruptible Word of God, who created all things out of nothing, could take perishable flesh to himself and destroy the death in that very flesh, giving us life.
Augustine, commenting on this passage says, the saliva, coming from the head, represents Christ’s divinity and the mud his humanity. In other words, it is Christ’s incarnation through which we are healed, made whole, saved.
This divinity and humanity, Christ incarnates, Augustine says, to form a salve, a kind of healing balm. It is the Latin word from which we get salvation. This is an image of the sacraments. Here, the ministry of Christ continues. Catholics who attended all their Catechism classes might remember that in all sacraments, there is matter and form. Perishable matter (water, wine, bread etc.,) is mixed with the particular form of words, which is the Word of God spoken over them – which gives us the sacraments. This sacrament is the salve, Jesus applies to this man. It has the power to re-create where nothing existed before.
From here, he sends him to the pool called Sent to wash, which completes the image of Baptism. To be sent, is the purpose of Baptism. Baptism is about mission. No sooner are you baptised than you are sent to bear the fruit of God’s kingdom in the world. This man, who was at the margins, immediately finds himself the center of attention. He was pushed around by people, but he was okay with it, as long as he got a hand out. In Christ giving him new sight, he gets into all kind of trouble. For one, nobody is going to give him money anymore. Some people doubt that it is this man. He keeps telling them, I am he, I am he. The text, like a lot in this chapter, is comic and profound at the same time. In the Greek, he simply says I am – ego eimi – which is the construction of the divine Name. At one level of course, he is simply saying it is himself. But on another, he is using the divine name, I AM. In being healed by the second Adam, he has become, been made, something like Christ himself. This was, for the Fathers, the purpose of the incarnation. God became like us, that we might become like him.
Suddenly, he has found his identity; there is some substance to him, where there was none before. He is no longer passive, pushed around by others. The religious leaders demand a theological justification of Jesus’ action and his newfound sight. He can’t speak this language, but there is a simple clarity to his thought. It is testimony to the healing he has received. He can see, not just physically but spiritually. Converts, many a time, have a clarity about their new found faith, that is utterly simple and yet deeply profound. There is no confusion about what they believe. It is simple. It is joyful. And the religious leaders find that this man can no longer be pushed around; he gently but firmly stands his ground, to the point of even questioning the Pharisees as to whether they want to become Jesus’ disciples. This charade ends with him being thrown out of the synagogue, even the community of faith. And it is only now, Jesus finds him once again. Now, he asks him – unlike the first time – do you believe in the Son of Man? The word translated ‘believe’ echoes something of an active trust, of a lived faithfulness. Are you willing to put your trust in me? And he worships Jesus. This is what true sight leads to. Trust and right worship. It is in this active trust that we become everything God has created us to be.