The Mystery, As We Live It

Friday in the 1st Week of Advent: Isaiah 29:17-24, Matthew 9:27-31.

Today’s readings juxtapose more of Isaiah’s brilliant prophecy of Christ’s entrance into human history with St. Matthew’s deceptively concise illustration of how we can meet this great mystery in our lives: the healing of two blind men. In many ways, I feel that we are more aligned with blind men today than the Jews and Gentiles in the Apostolic Age. We encounter endless perspectives, philosophies and ideologies today, and a high cultural premium is attached to “choosing” an ideology to define oneself (at least for a time). In fact, Pope Francis just published an op-ed in the New York Times about who we are in the time of the COVID pandemic and he writes, “It is all too easy for some to take an idea — in this case, for example, personal freedom — and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.” Thus, not only do we resemble blind people groping about in life for something solid, for an identity, we also turn our very personal freedom to choose into an ideology that rules us, further divorcing us from encountering the mystery of God. In this vein, I think St. Matthew’s concise gospel story has much significance today.

Let’s remind ourselves of this three-verse story:

As Jesus passed by, two blind men followed him, crying out,
“Son of David, have pity on us!” 
When he entered the house,
the blind men approached him and Jesus said to them,
“Do you believe that I can do this?” 
“Yes, Lord,” they said to him. 
Then he touched their eyes and said,
“Let it be done for you according to your faith.” 
And their eyes were opened. 
Jesus warned them sternly,
“See that no one knows about this.” 
But they went out and spread word of him through all that land.

“Healing of a Blind Man,” detail from the bronze Bernward Column in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany, around 1020 | Photo taken by Genevra Kornbluth.

This episode occurs in the immediate eddy of the raising of Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Recall that a sequence of important events happen in chapter 9 of Matthew’s gospel: He heals a paralytic by forgiving his sins; He calls Matthew as a disciple then dines with sinners and tax collectors; a leader of the synagogue, Jairus, asks Him to resurrect his daughter, and on the way a woman with 12 years of hemorrhages was healed by touching his cloak; He raises the daughter of Jairus; He heals the two blind men; He heals the mute man; and finally He sets about in all the villages doing this work and telling His disciples, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” This may seem like a laundry list of miraculous miscellany, but there is a deep logic to these events that Matthew presents to us. God is the Creator who orders all things. This includes the mystery of Christ-come-to-earth as it unfolds. This chapter speaks to the inherent ordering of the work of Christ in marrying Himself to us in the Church. The Spirit truly guides the hand of St. Matthew as he relates these events. Just for the big perspective’s sake, let’s consider the step-wise establishment of Christ’s mission in just this one chapter:

  • healing the paralytic ⇒ enabling the movement of the Spirit in our lifetimes where there was once inactivity.
  • calling Matthew ⇒ establishing Apostolic Fathers of the Church
  • dining with sinners ⇒ the feast of the Bridegroom with his Bride the Church
  • Jairus comes to him ⇒ the Jewish nation, God’s Chosen People, accept Christ as Messiah
  • hemorrhages healed ⇒ the long-time rift between humanity and God is healed through Christ
  • Jairus’s daughter is raised ⇒ death is finally overcome by Christ
  • blind men are healed ⇒ the life of faith in a nutshell
  • mute man is healed ⇒ our mouths are open to spread the Good News of Christ

Seen at this 50,000-foot level, this is pretty remarkable. The evangelists needed to somehow encapsulate the miraculous mission and works of Christ, which must have ranged in the thousands of examples. With the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit, they not only gave us startlingly intimate stories with precise details, but infused the work with a subtle but persistent meta-narrative of salvation history unfolding through Christ’s emergence on earth as a man. As Fr. “Simeon” Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes, “Jesus does not just perform isolated ‘miracles’ for the undeniable benefit of individuals. At each step of his journey, the Word is building up his Church” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. I, 485).

For today’s reading of the blind men being healed, I’d like to use Fr. Leiva-Merikakis as our guide as we look at this miniature masterpiece detailing the life of faith. Formerly a professor of Literature and Theology at the University of San Francisco and now a Trappist monk, Leiva-Merikakis is someone I greatly admire and a person I’ve quoted at length previously in this blog. He meditates on the gospel of St. Matthew, verse by verse, in his three-volume Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word. I will be drawing from the first volume of his work here.

The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (1889), Edwin Longsden Long | Image from iconsandimagery.blogspot.com.

So, how does it start? Truthfully, it follows immediately after the raising of Jairus’s daughter: “he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district. As Jesus passed by, two blind men followed him, crying out.” It’s important to recall that news of His miracle working was already running ahead of him like wildfire. And not just any miracle working, but actual resurrection from death. This is something only God-among-us could accomplish and we can just imagine what thrill and awe swept through Capernaum as the footfalls of God graced the streets. Leiva-Merikakis conjures the imagery of the Benedictus (the Canticle of Zechariah from Luke’s gospel), which we sing during Morning Prayer each morning: In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace (Lk 1:78-79). He elaborates: “Jesus traversed the streets of Palestine on human feet with the same tireless exactitude and fecund splendor with which the fiery sun pursues his daily circuit. … Like a pair of light-hungry sunflowers, the two blind men follow Jesus’ orbit in unison” (477). I love the way Leiva-Merikakis brings his rich faith to his gospel reflections, fleshing out the concise words of the evangelist with the great mystery of Christ alive on the earth. In even this simple sentence of reportage, “As Jesus passed by, two blind men followed him,” Leiva-Merikakis teaches us that much more is going on. He elaborates: “Like a thermosensitive plant in the night, stretching out its tendrils to the imminent sun, they begin to follow Jesus in the late afternoon” (479).

Is this not how each of us is awakened to the light of faith? The Spirit draws us with a palpable warmth to follow where it leads. We learn that it dwells in Christ, and we follow Him, seeking meaning, seeking more than just sin and death on this earth.

Next, we read that the two men shout “Son of David, have pity on us!” This is the moment of acknowledgment. And it’s a bit odd that our lectionary translates this as “pity” because the original Greek is Ἐλέησον (Eleison). These are the words the Church will echo at the beginning of the holy liturgy for centuries to come: Kyrie Eleison! It serves a similar purpose for us in the Mass as it does for the blind men: an acknowledgment that Christ is indeed the Son of God, the anointed one, and in reverence and obeisance we ask for His mercy. Leiva-Merikakis describes the import of them calling Him Son of David:

To proclaim Jesus to be the Son of David amounts to broadcasting God’s accomplished fidelity to his promise to have mercy on David and his line of descendants forever. … The whole Gospel stands or falls, not only on the truth of Jesus’ divine sonship, but likewise on the truth of his royal, fleshly descent from David. If Jesus is the Son of David, then the messianic era prophesied by Isaiah has already dawned, and even before the Passion and Resurrection his presence in the world must begin to bear the fruits of God’s burning mercy. (481)

The Gospel insists on Christ’s earthly lineage through the line of David not for simply historical believability, but because it reveals how God kept His promise. Jesus isn’t just another miracle worker, model human or spiritual guru. The physical historicity of Christ as coming from the line of David is proof of God’s fidelity to His Chosen People. When the blind men acknowledge this, they have opened themselves to the truth and reality of salvation history. This is an important part of our faith journey, too.

Next, Jesus enters the house and they approach Him there. Simple, right? Well, this building, presumably the one where He dined the night before with tax collectors and sinners, is one that He has already sanctified. That episode the night before can be likened to the wedding feast of the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church. So, this is no ordinary following of a man into a building – it is two men of faith entering a church to encounter Christ. They follow the warmth and radiance of the Son of God, and, as Leiva-Merikakis writes, “God reciprocates such keen expectation by leading them into the house of the Church, where their eyes are opened at the very threshold, reminding us that φωτισμός (‘illumination’) was the other name for baptism in the early Church” (485). Leiva-Merikakis continues by examining the “liturgical flavor” of the episode, specifically the ritual movements of the blind men, following the great High Priest after the Kyrie eleison profession. This connection makes a lot of sense to me and again is an integral step in our faith journey as Christians – sacramental baptism and the importance of the sacred space.

The liturgical call-and-response intensifies in the exchange where Christ asks “Do you believe I have the power to do this?” and they respond “yes.” The parallel to our Eucharistic sacrament is clear: The Body of Christ – Amen. This is the same question and assent in which we participate at every Mass. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes in Introduction to Christianity, “The Christian attitude of belief is expressed in the little word ‘Amen’, in which the meanings trust, entrust, fidelity, firmness, firm ground, stand, truth all interpenetrate each other” (76) – I’ve previously explored the deep connection between the Logos and Amen in the post Amen, The Logos is the Great I AM. The broader implications of the blind men assenting to Christ’s power to heal and save is that it is the archetype for our faith life. All Christians enact this same assent, stand on this same firm ground, over and over as we invite Him into our beings to heal and transform us.

St. Bruno (1764), Jean Bernard Restout | Creative Commons, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Then, we encounter the detail that “he touched their eyes.” This is not a ritualistic magic or witchcraft. He does not necessarily need to touch their eyes in order to heal them, but he does. And this emphasis on touch – He takes Jairus’s daughter by the hand, the woman with hemorrhages touches His cloak, and here He touches their eyes – reminds us that God is, in fact, incarnate. Here God walks with feet that leave impressions in the ground, He can be touched and can touch others. The irrefutable carnality of our Messiah is something we cannot avoid. We are asked not just to embrace Him as an idea and a lofty spiritual Savior, but to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. This means that Christians cannot dissociate ourselves from our bodies and this world. We are called to live in it while we are here, and live with Christ as our guide for how to be a human. He was real so that He could show us the path to salvation while also being flesh and blood ourselves. 

Jesus tells them, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.” On the heels of yesterday’s reflection, we can recall that faith more properly means fidelity to God, faithfulness to His Word and law. Again, it is not the modern meaning “believing in something where there is no proof.” These blind men have demonstrated their faith by following the Spirit and Person of God the Son into the house of the Church, by proclaiming Him to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to the line of David, by asking for His mercy and by assenting to His sacramental, transformative power. This is their faith, not a collection of vague ideas in their head. Again, we can see here the same life of faith in which we participate and Christ’s response to us. If we truly believe in the promise of God that is present in Christ, we follow Him into His Church, give Him reverence, and ritually assent to His power, then His healing touch is the response. This same touch stanches flowing wounds, opens eyes, heals disease, and dispels death. 

Once again, St. Matthew seems to give us a reporter’s account of what happened: “And their eyes were opened.” But there is genius in Matthew’s concise and precise prose. It might be tough to get through a gospel that was endlessly poetic with the eschatological reverberations of every moment during Christ’s ministry. Matthew gives us words that are pregnant with significance, and it is our prayerful study of scripture that allows the Word of God to speak to us. In this instance, we have the levels of physical healing, spiritual healing, and new life as a being seeing the world anew. St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians comes to mind: “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness” (1 Th 5:4-5). This is fundamental to our understanding of our life of faith: Christ re-creates us (He is a Person of God, the Creator, always), He transforms us in the sacraments and grace He gives us. Do we realize that we are renewed “children of light” when we finish each Mass? More importantly, do we act in a way faithful to God, in Whom we have put our trust? Is our faith demonstrated to Christ in a way that is hand-in-hand with our assent to have Him transform us? These are questions far more important than whether we take Eucharist by hand or by mouth, how many Hail Marys we say each day, or (especially!) for which candidate we voted.

The penultimate action in this episode is the seemingly incongruous warning from Jesus. “Jesus warned them sternly,
‘See that no one knows about this.'” What are we to make of this abrupt change of tone? We know that Jesus wasn’t bipolar, so something else must be going on here. Part of the problem, I think, is the troublesome translation of the Greek. The verb that is translated as “warned them sternly” is ἐνεβριμήθη (enebrimēthē), which comes from the main form embrimaomai. I have reflected previously at length on this term (in the post, See the Glory of God) as it is used right before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. In short, I believe it has a meaning closer to “a gut-like surge of divine passion.” Other translations state “strictly charged” or “strictly instructed” instead of “warned them sternly.” Again, the strictness or sternness of this verb is attached to divine works and belief in the Gospels. It seems that Jesus is stirring a certain reverence in them about what has happened. So why stir up a warning of reverence? Leiva-Merikakis provides an answer: “To retain from this rich texture of converging mysteries only the material fact of the physiological healing would be tantamount to ‘giving a holy thing to the dogs’ and to reducing Jesus’ recreative power as Word to that of a magician, and his disciples’ faith to a conspiracy of mercenaries, anxious to ‘market’ their ringleader’s powers. It is against this tendency in man to reduce the divine that Jesus is thundering” (501). I like this explanation – it is very consonant with our scriptural understanding of God to protect the sacred, and Christ’s passionate instruction is that they do not cheapen their life of faith by spreading words simply about physical healing.

Jesus Healing the Blind Man (2008), Brian Jekel. | Image from christian.art.

The actual warning, too, loses much in translation. There are simply three emphatic words in the Greek: Ὁρᾶτε μηδεὶς γινωσκέτω (Horate mēdeis ginōsketō), which more correctly translated would be “See! And let no one know it.” Leiva-Merikakis explains, “[These words] have the ring of a ritual formula. And they contain a serious pun: ‘See!’ is the perfect liturgical command to accompany the enlightenment of faith and the gesture of touching the eyes” (502). But does he really want to stifle the work of evangelization? Just verses later Matthew reports that He encourages His disciples in spreading the Good News: “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Let’s remember that his passionate instruction is one that is concerned with a facile, cheapened message of physical healing in the face of something much deeper that is going on. Thus, “let know one know” can be interpreted as a warning against a shortcut in a faith life, a warning not to spread a type of false “knowledge.” His instruction is to “See!” which is a type of inner transformation. How does one share inner transformation? This is beyond words. “This living contact comes first; then the healing; and last of all the knowledge; and nothing can short-circuit this structure of the total act of faith” (502), writes Leiva-Merikakis.

So, how do we take the final sentence, “But they went out and spread word of him through all that land”? Did they disobey him? The little conjunction “But” seems to imply this. Leiva-Merikakis dissents from this reading, however: “The explosion of thrill and joy conveyed … implies that the two men exactly abided by the intention of Jesus’ command. They did not go out and coolly ‘inform’ this interested party or that about what had happened, cluing them in to Jesus as a potential reservoir to be tapped. Rather … the indiscriminate energy of their new way of life bespeaks a joy at now being in the light and an inability to hide that light under a prudent bushel basket” (504). Leiva-Merikakis imagines them praising God rightfully as they dance through the streets with their newfound sight, encouraging others to go find Christ and begin their own life of faith. Let’s also note that what happens next is that a demoniacally possessed person who is mute is cured by Christ. This bolsters Leiva-Merikakis’s reading that Christ is, in fact, looking for rightly aligned speech, not necessarily silence. First, a person must be sanctified and healed by Christ, and then they can speak rightly, proclaiming the Good News.

In closing, today’s gospel is simply astounding when read deeply, in the light of faith. I am so glad to have found spiritual teachers like Fr. Leiva-Merikakis, Fr. Jacques Corbon, and so many popes and saints to help me in my journey of lectio divina. We are blessed by the Spirit to have two thousand years of holy writings helping us plumb the never-ending depths of our sacred scripture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.