Seeing with the Light of the Lord

Fourth Sunday in Lent: 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41.

Today’s readings reveal to us how differently from us that the Lord sees, and how Jesus came to both reveal the blindness in us and reverse it through Himself. The dialectic of light vs. darkness is another way to understand good and evil, and allows us to examine our own senses in the process. Living “in the light,” we are told, is more a matter of the heart than sight. 

In the first reading, the Lord sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint the new king he has chosen from among Jesse’s eight sons. He warns Samuel, “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected [these ones].” God has more to say about seeing and judging, which we might call discernment: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” So we receive an important message, that God peers into the very hearts of people when he “looks,” something that we are unable to do. We require God’s help when it comes to true discernment.

Today’s passage also gives us many ways in which David prefigures Jesus. In scripture, we often encounter the “house of David” and the “Tree of Jesse” from which Jesus comes. It’s fascinating to dwell on today’s verses where God has chosen David. As we listen to the Word of God, who will be born to Mary in Bethlehem, who will be the Good Shepherd for the world, it’s interesting to hear that Jesse dwells in Bethlehem and David is out tending the sheep when the seven other sons are presented to Samuel for potential anointing. The Word is implanting prophecy about His eventual arrival. In this way David and the lineage of Jesse are a sign of the greater thing to come rather than Jesus fulfilling the human lineage that was so great in the past.

Root of Jesse icon, provenance unknown | Creative Commons, courtesy iconreader.wordpress.com. In Russian icons this is also known as the Tree of Jesse. Its inspiration comes from Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Is 11:1). St. Ambrose of Milan writes: “The root is the household of the Jews, the rod is Mary, the Flower of Mary is Christ. She is rightly called a rod, for she is of the royal lineage, of the house and family of David. Her Flower is Christ, Who destroyed the stench of worldly pollution and poured out the fragrance of eternal life. As He Himself said, ‘I am a flower of the plain, a lily of the valleys.'”

Transitioning to the second reading, I am always struck at how the Word of God works through St. Paul in such marvelous ways. Remember that Paul never met Christ before his death; he became an apostle through the Risen Christ appearing to him. And what an apostle! We have inherited so much knowledge, encouragement, and theological understanding from him. His conversion to Christ is a great example of what we shall see in the gospel reading: the light of Christ opens his eyes. He was spiritually blind and this blindness was rendered literally for him. We are told, “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:8-9). There is a sense of penance here, where Saul, on his way to becoming St. Paul, must go into the desert to fast and contemplate (like we do in Lent). But this is just the beginning for him, as he will soon pick up his cross and follow Christ in both suffering and spreading the message of salvation. The disciple Ananias is hesitant to cure his blindness as Christ bids him, but Christ tells him, “he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). Oh, the penance will continue! To whom much is given, much will be required (Lk 12:48), says the Lord. At Ananias’s touch, the blindness falls from his eyes “like scales,” he is baptized, and he is on his new path. 

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he must have been thinking of his own experience when he writes, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Note that he doesn’t say, you were once in darkness, but that they were darkness and now are light. He was, in fact, “darkness” in both spiritual sight and deed since he physically persecuted disciples of Christ before his own conversion. Thus Paul gives us another understanding of darkness and light not just being aspects of sight (either physical or spiritual), but also ways of being. He continues, “Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness.” Note how he conceives of light as “producing” goodness, not just revealing it. And how darkness produces fruitless works. Here we see Paul building the Church, providing instruction for fledgling communities of those baptized in Christ. Through their baptism, Christ has opened their eyes to spiritual light, and now Paul is deepening their understanding of that light. It is a light, he says, that is active and productive in the world. This is the Holy Spirit working through the Church, part and parcel of a baptism in Christ, who is the gateway to the divine essence, an essence that continually creates goodness in the world.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1600-1601), Caravaggio | Wikimedia Commons. There is much to say about this, one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces, from the striking use of light to the opening of St. Paul at the same time of blinding him, but let’s contemplate on what Caravaggio might be saying about the person Saul was at that point by giving us such a magnificent horse’s ass to look at!

This is a light that doesn’t just reveal truth but transforms the person. Today’s gospel from St. John is a masterpiece of depicting this revelation in the curing of the blind man. This morning, Bishop Robert Barron presents a great exposition of the gospel reading in his live-streamed daily mass and mentions how St. John’s writing is akin to icon writing, where you can look at every detail in an icon and see how rich it is in symbolism and tells another aspect of the story. The first detail to note is that the man is blind from birth — not from cataracts or disease, but fundamentally blind since he came into the world. Why is this important? St. Augustine tells us: “that blind man is the human race; for this blindness had place in the first man, through sin, from whom we all draw our origin, not only in respect of death, but also of unrighteousness. For if unbelief is blindness…” (Tractate 44 on John 9, 1). Recall God telling Samuel “not as man sees does God see,” and here we are given a story about how man (in general) cannot see.

Christ passes by this man, but when his disciples fruitlessly question who is at fault for the man’s blindness, he stops. He says, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” Again, this clues us in to the universal application of the story to all of mankind. Jesus adds, “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. … While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Jesus speaks here of the irresistible nature of the Spirit of the Lord, active in the world. He is compelled, he must do the works of God while here on earth. To that end, he sets about healing the blind man. He is not asked to do this, he does it gratuitously.

As a child, I always wondered about this next bit of the gospel. With other miracles, we hear Jesus say, “your faith has healed you,” or someone is healed just by touching the hem of his garment. But here we see something that seems like a magician’s ritual: “he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes.” Is this necessary? How is spitting and making clay related to Christ’s mission on earth? Nothing Jesus does is meaningless, and he certainly doesn’t need obscure rituals to heal people. So let’s examine this act and what it signifies. St. Augustine tells us plainly, “The Word is as it were the spittle, the Flesh is the earth” (Sermon 85 on the New Testament [CXXXV. Ben.], 1). Just as “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,” (Gen 2:7), we see Christ initiate a similar act of creation using the dust on the ground. This act of (re-)creation for humanity comes in the form of the uniting of the Word (his spittle) and humanity (the earth); in other words, Jesus Himself is the clay that is the unity of the river of life (spittle) and the earth. Jesus spreads Himself on the eyes of the blind man.

And Christ emphasizes the great mystical unity and energy that is the Trinity by telling him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam.” John helpfully tells us, “which means Sent,” so we can connect the dots. First, washing in the pool represents baptism. What is the baptism Christ offers us? St. John the Baptist tells us, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 3:16). So, Christ is pointing to the work of the Holy Spirit in this baptism in the Pool of Siloam. Second, the pool’s name means “Sent,” and Jesus has just said, “We have to do the works of the one who sent me.” Thus, the entire affair is done under the auspices of God the Father, who has sent Christ and sends the Holy Spirit. The life-giving water of the Holy Trinity, the overflowing love that characterizes the essence of our Three-in-One God, is the action that grants sight to the man blind from birth.

Healing of the Blind Man from Birth, unknown provenance | Creative Commons, courtesy johnsanidopoulos.com.

Let’s think more about this pool named Sent. After the man is cured of his blindness, he is asked many times by his neighbors and the Pharisees how this came about. His answer is simple: “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” But the more he is interrogated, the more he must contemplate this action and the more he must be the light (to recall the second reading from St. Paul). This man finally takes on the role of teacher to the Pharisees, a startling reversal for one who was a beggar: “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” He answers them with the ineffable logic of the truth and the light. And so this man sets the stage for several millennia of Christians who — once they accept the baptism and light offered by Christ — answer skeptics with clear logic. From St. Augustine through the medieval scholastics like St. Thomas Aquinas to contemporary popes, we hear similar explanations and the logic of apologetics as they evangelize in the light of Christ.

And so we can see how the man himself is sent from the pool by God, carrying a new message for the world. All of us who are baptized Christians both receive his mercy and love have been sent by God to give his mercy and love to the world.

This inevitably means that we will be rejected by those living in darkness. Christ finds the man after the Pharisees kick him out of the temple and reveals his true nature to him. He tells him, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” Here we find the double-edged sword that is the Truth: it not only saves us from spiritual blindness, but it condemns those who cling to their flawed human “sight.” God’s plan is to unite us to Him, and those who choose darkness over the light will be condemned to live in perpetual blindness.

The Old Guitarist (1903-1904), Pablo Picasso | Wikimedia Commons. Picasso painted this during his Blue Period, a time of depression and desolation after his good friend committed suicide. We see a resignation to death in this old, blind guitarist, clinging to life in the form of his guitar. When seen in the light of today’s gospel, we might see in this the blind clinging to their earthly pleasures and ways of knowing, pushing away the light offered by Christ and soon to be condemned to dwell for all eternity in that darkness unless they accept Christ.

This brings me back to St. Paul, who lived his life being sent by the Lord, being rejected by those in darkness. Yet he never failed in passing along this great impetus of being sent — his evangelization aimed to encourage others in spreading the faith, living the faith, being active, not stagnant. As he tells us today, “now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.”

2 Comments

  1. Andrew and Claire Bjelland

    Thank you again, Michael. We also”attended” Bishop Barron’s celebration. Your expanded and complementary thoughts on the readings are much appreciated.

    We hope you, Suzanne and family are doing well. Everything continues to be well with us.

    Andy

    • DiscerningDominican

      Thanks for the comment, Andy. Glad to hear you two are doing well in this time of quarantine. It’s also nice to hear that you’re finding something interesting or useful in the reflections. I get much personally from contemplating and writing them, and it’s even better to think that they might be received positively by someone else! These times of physical distancing due to the coronavirus can feel very isolating, as I’m sure you guys are well aware. Hooray for virtual communities (I never thought I’d say that).

      -Michael

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