Fourth Sunday of Lent – April 3, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
In the early centuries initiation into the Church by baptism was called “illumination,” an enlightening. The symbolism marked the sharp division, stark contrast, that baptism represented between the kind of life one lived before being converted and baptized and the new life one was now able to take up in the power of the Holy Spirit. “You were once darkness,” St. Paul tells the Ephesians today, “but now you are light in the Lord. Live, then, as children of the light. Avoid the kind of acts that people do in the dark, unseen.”
The symbolism is a natural one and, it seems, nearly universal in literature, both sacred and secular. We have probably all experienced it at some points in our lives, when being totally in the dark leaves us literally disoriented–not knowing where east is, or west, unable to get our bearings, startled by sudden or strange sounds, defenseless, and alone. A medieval poet, taking the account of Adam and Eve in the garden literally, wondered about their apprehensions and fears as the sun set on their first day on earth, and what their joy and delight must have been when the sun rose again the next morning.
Closely associated with the symbolism of darkness and light, of course, is that of blindness and sight: to be in utter darkness is to be blind, and we need light in order to see; and today’s Gospel introduces us into this twofold imagery. As is usual in the Fourth Gospel, there is a sign–here the healing of the man born blind–and an extended discussion–here between the man healed and the Pharisees, and then between them and Jesus–over the meaning of the sign, that is, what it says about Jesus. In the course of the exchanges, the man is brought to an increasing faith in Christ–becoming more and more able to see–while the Pharisees become blinder and blinder. At the end of the chapter, while the young man makes his full confession of faith, Jesus pronounces some of his sharpest words: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see might see, and those who see might become blind.” The Pharisees, knowing that this is aimed at them, protest: “Surely we are not also blind,” and Jesus replies: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”
It is a terrible indictment, isn’t it? To be blind to the light of the world! And not only that, to be blind to one’s own blindness! To think that one can see. When St. Augustine spoke of Christ as a physician, he noted that the only ones he couldn’t cure were those who didn’t know they were ill, who thought they were well. It is the same here: those who claim to see can’t be convinced of their blindness.
Do we not have some experience of this? It may be for a trivial matter, or for a very significant one, that we might exclaim: “How could I have been so blind!” We were blind without knowing it, that is, without realizing that there were things to notice, things to know, things to love, things to choose, things to do, that we were unaware of, perhaps even refused to see, closed our eyes to, because we didn’t want to see certain things about ourselves or bring to light things better done in darkness. And we only recognize how blind we were when we are able to see so much we had overlooked before.
Or, more positively, perhaps it is an experience of new love, when the focus of our seeing, our thinking, our dreaming, our planning, shifts from the first person singular–I and me–to the first person plural–we and us. It’s no longer what will I do this weekend?, but what will we do? It’s as if there is a new self, with new eyes, able to see a new world, suffused with a new light. The world looks different to someone who loves than it does to someone who does not.
Such experiences of change, transformation, would have come naturally to the early Christians when most baptisms were of adults, and the condition for baptism was a major life-conversion. “You were once darkness,” recall the Apostle saying, “but now you are light in the Lord.” That dramatic difference between darkness and light, blindness and sight, may still be felt by those who are preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil this year. But for many of us, the symbolism may have lost much of its power, much indeed of its light. This may be because our own Christian life has lost a good deal of its vigor, of its joyfulness, so there is not much light in it. Or perhaps it is simply that we take the light of our faith as much for granted as we do the sun’s light. In either case, Lent can be a good time for us to regain a grateful appreciation of all that God has enabled us to see because of Christ, of the world that he opens for us to see and enjoy, of the new selves that he enables us to dare to be.