4TH SUNDAY IN LENT – MARCH 25, 1990 – ST. PHILIP NERI, WABAN
As we move closer and closer to Easter, the Liturgy brings us ever deeper into the great Mystery which was realized in the death and resurrection of Christ and which became the mystery of our lives in our baptism. In today’s readings, we are invited into one of the great Easter themes: the dawning of light at the resurrection of Jesus and its shining forth into our transformed lives.
The symbolism is put to great effect in the reading from St. Paul: “There was a time when you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Well, then, live as children of light.” Here Paul uses the symbolism to describe what Christian conversion once implied: an utter transformation of the self, a movement from one world to another, a choice that could involve radical changes in one’s life, one’s associations, one’s fortunes. And these are sensed when at the end he invokes, it seems, an early Christian hymn: “Awake, O sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Christians are enlightened when, imitating Christ, they arise from the death of their sins.
Light is, of course, one of the most elemental of all religious symbols. Its power probably has its roots deep within our psyches, where the associations of darkness with uncertainty, loneliness, and fear undergird the contrasting experiences of knowledge, communion, and joy associated with light. We have perhaps lost something of a sense of those primitive dichotomies, now in our age when light is only a switch away. Perhaps we only sense them when we have to reassure a child afraid of the dark or when a sudden blackout leaves us temporarily powerless. (No pun intended!)
That is where the Gospel may come to our aid. For here the underlying symbol is that permanent darkness called blindness. I once had a student at Catholic University who one day startled us by talking about his blindness. “You know,” he said, “people think darkness, blindness, is somewhat like just closing your eyes, when you ‘see’ darkness. It’s not like that: it’s nothing; there’s nothing there to see, no object to be seen, but also no sense of seeing. It’s the absence of sight. It’s a nothingness. Nothing seen, and no seeing.” That’s what blindness is: the absence of a world, because of the absence of a faculty which can mediate the world. Think of it: the absence of color, of shape, of design, of contrast, of visual beauty.
This is the metaphor, the powerful symbol. And Jesus stoops, moistens dirt with his spittle, and rubs the mud on the blind man’s eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool at Siloam. “So the man went off and washed, and came back able to see.” The early Church, probably faithful here to the Evangelist’s meaning in this story, saw in that pool a symbol of baptism, at that time, of course, administered by immersion. And it was this story, along with other NT symbols, which led the early Church to call baptism itself: the Enlightening. Our baptism is the moment in which we are enabled to see a whole world which our blindness had prevented us from seeing: the world as God sees it, with colors and a shape and a beauty we had not even suspected to exist.
But in the interrogation of the man which followed his healing, and in the final words of Jesus to the man himself, we see also the deep psychological insights that underlie this elemental symbolism. It came into this world,” Jesus says, “to make the sightless see and the seeing blind.” And when the Pharisees object that they are not blind, he says, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We can see,’ so your sin remains.” Blindness is bad enough, he is saying; but worst of all is a blindness so complete that it is not noticed, that it is denied, that it is even considered to be sight. There is the sin: in a perverse refusal to believe that the world can be other than we think it to be, that we can be other than we experience ourselves to be. That is what is irremediable: the voluntary closing of oneself off from the light and the world it can reveal.
A powerful challenge, this, and a permanent one. The great evangelical hymn, “Amazing Grace,” has the line: “I once was blind, but now I see.” And similar poetry down through the ages has expressed the same joyful revelation experienced in Christian conversion. If the symbolism doesn’t strike us with the same power and joy, perhaps it is because we are too used to being Christian, or because we make too little of what the revelation of Christ can and should mean, of what a genuine faith in him should imply. Perhaps, however, we might be able to look at some experiences in our lives that can help us begin to recover a sense of being Enlightened. Can we point to experiences or developments in our lives, perhaps dramatic perhaps not, at the end of which we can say that we now see things differently than we did before, see things that we didn’t know existed before? Can we remember when we did not care about, have any interest in, certain things, certain ideas, certain ambitions, certain persons, certain values? Well, are these not like experiences of enlightenment, of having new worlds unveiled to our eyes, of having our eyes opened?
And, if so, could it not be that there are still dimensions of the world, of our selves, of one another, of God, that we are still blind to? And is this not what Jesus in the Gospel asks of us today: that we not confuse our present sense of ourselves and of the world with perfect sight, that we at least admit the possibility that we are blind to vast dimensions of the world as God has created it, of ourselves as God has called us to be? If we are not able at least to admit this much, then we are the ones Jesus condemns for thinking that their blindness is sight. The most necessary and most simple prayer that we should be making in response to this Gospel is precisely this: “Lord, help me to see. Do not let me confuse darkness with light. Show me where I am blind, and open my eyes. Let me see the world as you have made it. Let me know the self you wish me to become. Lord, heal my blindness.” That is a Lenten prayer for which a glorious Easter is prepared. FOURTH SUNDAY OF
LENT – MARCH 10, 2002 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The New Testament texts today center around one of the most primitive and elemental of human symbols, employed almost universally in religious imagery, the symbolism of darkness and light. Experiences of darkness, absolute darkness, leave us disoriented; we cease to know what is up and what is down; what is left or right; we lose our bearings; we lose our security; we feel a primordial fear or even dread rise up within us. A blind student once told me that people think of blindness as if it is what they “see” when they close their eyes–which is something like blackness–but we think at least that we see it–No, he said, blindness is the absence of the sense of light and color; it is a nothingness where sighted people see something. It is not blackness; it is absence, void. There are other animals that appear to have senses that we humans don’t have, like sharks that navigate somehow by electrical waves that we don’t sense–I suppose that it is what being blind is like. Think of trying to describe a color to a person who has never seen.
The evangelist exploits these primitive feelings when he sets out the drama of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind by the pool of Siloam. On one level, the story turns around the healing of his physical blindness, but before the end, the story has shifted to a worse kind of blindness, and we hear those awful words of Jesus: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind” The Pharisees object: “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” and once again his terrible words: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” What is worse, and almost beyond healing, is that someone should think that he can see when in fact he is blind. Jesus effects a judgement, a discrimination: the blind are given sight, and the sighted are made blind. Blind in this sense–the light has appeared among them, and they have denied that it was there; they have been blind to it, but not knowing they are blind they continue to think that they see.
Have we not all had some experience of this? Don’t we use expressions in ordinary life, such as: “How could I have been so blind?” Can we not measure at least important progress in our life in terms of what we, perhaps slowly, gradually, perhaps suddenly, were given to see that we had never noticed before? Isn’t there a sense in which love gives us new eyes? When people fall in love, or when a couple has a child, does not the world seem different? These are analogies for what can happen when finally someone lets the light that Jesus can bring into his world, opens her eyes, discovers what the world looks like if what Jesus said is true, if what Jesus did matters ultimately; and it may be that we have already had religious experiences that enable us to say with the former slave-trader, John Newton: “I once was blind, but now I see.”
I cannot end these remarks without a word about the second reading and words that seem particularly providential for us Catholics in the US in these difficult days: St. Paul says: “Try to live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth…Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret.” We have been hearing almost every day new revelations of shameful things done in secret, things that ought not to have been done by the children of light, and things that ought to have been exposed. I think all Catholics feel ashamed at many of the things we have heard about; I know priests especially feel ashamed at what their fellow-priests have done, as I have heard from many of them. We worry about our own credibility, about whether people will trust any of us any more, about whether anyone will be interested in following us into the ministry. We see major failures in church-leadership at very high points of church authority, and we wonder whether any moral authority on the part of church leaders is not at risk.
I don’t have much more to say about this than what you already know: that horrible things were done by priests and bishops, and horrible things were done by their superiors. I am sure that you share my horror. And all I can do is to urge that we pray that this darkness may be lifted from the Church by the light of Christ; that the darkness of pain and betrayal that has been inflicted on so many people in so many ways may not blind them to the light that Christ is; that they will be able to find him despite the caricature of his face that they have been given to see; that we will as a Church be able to pass through this frightful darkness with some hope of brighter days in the grace of Christ. I think we can apply to the Church the primitive Christian hymn that St. Paul quotes at the end of today’s passage: “Arise, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Amen. Amen.
Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 6, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
This powerful chapter of St. John’s Gospel has always been an important reading for the Lenten season. It was taken to be particularly symbolic of the baptism toward which catechumens (candidates for reception into the Church) were heading, of the baptism which members of the Church could recall as their own integration into the community of faith.
The healing of the man born blind takes place at the pool of Siloam, which would naturally evoke the waters of baptism, particularly when this was still done mainly by total immersion into the water. But the symbolism also focused on the fact that the blind man had been enabled to see, and this fit so nicely because in the early Church “Illumination” was actually one of the names for the rite of baptism: Baptism was the moment at which one was enabled to see the universe as God had created and redeemed it, and this was expressed in the rite by the primitive form of the creed to which the person being baptized gave a threefold response of “I believe,” as we do when we renew our baptismal vows.
It is that symbolism of being enlightened that is the key to the story as John the Evangelist tells it. As usual in his Gospel, the narrative is working simultaneously at two levels, as the various conversations reveal. The man born blind is healed physically, but that healing, that being given sight, is symbolic of another, deeper meaning. This meaning is uncovered by the frame within which the story develops. Jesus, at the beginning of the chapter, says, “I am the light of the world.” And at the end he has two almost brutal statements: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those do see might become blind”: and then the other, to the Pharisees protesting that he might think them blind: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but you say you see, and so your sin remains.”
There are two dimensions to this illumining, enlightening, sight-giving, sign. The objective one is that Jesus has come as the light of the world, the light that makes it possible to see the world as God sees it: to know God himself and his creative and re-creative plan; to know what this means for an understanding of the origin and goal of humanity; to know of the possibility of a life already begun here and now but destined to survive even death. That is the light that Jesus brings, that Jesus is. To everyone who encounters him, he stands over and against that person, challenging him to enter the world Jesus reveals.
But there is a subjective dimension as well. Like the physical eyes of the man born blind, the inner eyes (as Augustine called them) need to be opened in order to perceive, to see for oneself, the world opened up by Jesus. The early Fathers of the Church used to say that the fact that a blind man cannot see it does not mean that the sun is not shining. New eyes are needed in order to see the new light. And it is this dimension that is stressed when Jesus says that he has come for judgment: that is, for decision, and the decision turns on whether those who hear him can see the light he brings. Those who do are like the blind man who has been given his sight. The others are like the people on whom fall the words of Jesus: what could be worse than to be blind and yet think that one sees, not to know that one is blind, not to recognize that there is a whole world of meaning and value there to be seen, to be entered, if only one could call out, as another blind man in another story in the Gospels cried out: “Lord, enable me to see!”
That’s the prayer suggested by today’s Gospel, the challenge set before us: to acknowledge Christ as the light of the world, as the light of our own lives, and to ask for our eyes to be opened ever further, to ask that we be enabled to see things to which we may still be blind, things from which perhaps we deliberately turn our eyes away. We should not presume that we already see all that there is to be seen in God’s good and beautiful world, and, acknowledging this, it should be natural for us to pray: “Lord, enable me to see. Where I am blind, open my eyes. To whatever I am blind, open my eyes. Show me who you are; show me who I am; show me who I might become. Show me the world revealed, illumined by Christ, the light of the world. Lord, enable me to see.”
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, appreciation of the world that he opens for us to see and enjoy, appreciation of the new selves that he enables us to dare to be.