The story of the man born blind begins innocuously. Walking along the road on a Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples passed a man who had been blind from birth. Some of the disciples asked a question. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Most of us raise similar questions when we see a child or adult who was born with a severe physical challenge. We don’t usually ask who sinned, but we might ask, “Why did God allow this to happen?” In Jesus’ day illness was viewed as a punishment from God for a sin. Poverty was viewed in the same way. Jesus’ answer was simple; nobody sinned. Good answer. But he added, “It is so that the works of God may be made visible through him.” They must have just begun processing the statement when Jesus threw them totally off track with what must have seemed like a non-sequitur. “We have to do the work of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.” Then Jesus gave an even more confusing statement. “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” With that statement the conversation ended. Jesus went over to the blind man, spit on the ground, made some mud, and rubbed it on the blind man’s eyes. He then told him to go to the pool of Siloam and wash. He did as he was instructed and returned able to see!
Can you imagine the joy the man experienced?! But his joy was to be quickly frustrated because some people who knew him began to argue about him. Some recognized him as the blind beggar they had known, but others, incredulous, said he just looked like him. They listened to the story of his healing and asked him where they might find Jesus. He told them that he didn’t know. His answer frustrated them even more so they took him to the Pharisees who immediately politicized the healing and condemned Jesus for having broken the Sabbath rest. They asked the blind man what he had to say about Jesus. His answer infuriated them. “He is a prophet.”
Then they called in his parents. This is a tense and very sad part of the man’s story. The religious leaders had previously circulated a threat among the population that any followers of Jesus would be excommunicated from the synagogue. This meant segregation from the Jewish population, and the forfeiture of the Jewish exemption of offering incense to the Roman Emperor. This was a serious threat. The blind man’s parents broke under the threat and abandoned their son. When asked about the healing they told the Pharisees “We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he can speak for himself.”
The Pharisees called the blind man in again and began a second interrogation. Aggravated by their hounding him the blind man lashed out at them. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” With that, they pronounced him a sinner, threw him out of the synagogue and excommunicated him.
The conclusion of the story adds a wonderful dimension. When Jesus heard of the man’s excommunication he tracked him down to ask him a question. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man must have looked at him with puzzlement and fascination.
He had been sitting by the roadside begging, as he always did, when this man Jesus came over to him and initiated his cure. He was blind from the moment of his birth but in a few short minutes a healer put mud on his eyes, he washed in the Pool of Siloam, and could see the light of the sun for the first time. He could see the people along the road. He could see his parents!
But that same day, his parents abandoned him and he was removed from the safety net of the Jewish community. He could see, but he was alone. Jesus’ question offered him hope. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
Was this man, this prophet, the messiah? “Who is he, sir, that I might believe in him.” He looked into Jesus’ eyes. “You have seen him, the one speaking to you is he.” His response came from the depth of his heart. “I do believe.” And he worshiped him. At that moment the once blind beggar saw the Kingdom of God and hope filled his heart.
Like the moral at the conclusion of a Medieval Miracle Play Jesus gave an explanation of what had happened. “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 blind man represents each of us. Now and then God’s healing hand touches us. We’re asked to respond to that touch – to go to the Pool of Siloam – to wash the spiritual cataracts from our eyes. This may happen to the convert who is seeking God and a deeper life. This may happen to the believer whose faith has become insipid. It may happen to the person who is reeling from a trauma or personal tragedy. It may happen to the person who has simply lost the way.
This story of the man born blind reassures us that God is reaching out to heal us. When we respond to that gesture we will be healed. We’ll see the world differently and enjoy a more intimate experience of God. The story is also telling us that our healing doesn’t exempt up from the tribulations of life. The story is asking us to say yes to God’s healing so that we can bring the light and hope we have received to a blind world.
The whole thing started when Jesus asked a woman for a drink of water. It was high noon. The sun was intense. Jesus was tired. His disciples left him there alone so that they could buy provisions in the little town nearby. After a bit of time, a woman came to draw water. He didn’t have a bucket so he asked her to give him some water. She wasn’t nice at all. She snapped at him. “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink!?” A simple request ignited a long-standing hostility – Jews and Samaritans hated each other. He responded to her in a very strange way. “If you knew who I was you’d ask me for ‘living -water,’ and I would lead you to the spring of eternal life.”
Things got stranger. He asked her to call her husband. When she said she had none, he proceeded to tell her all about her life and the husbands she’d had. The reason she came alone to the well during the hottest time of the day was to avoid the other women of the town who were probably hostile towards her because of her life.
She gasped. “You’re a prophet!” But she quickly jumped back to the old antagonism. “You Jews condemned us for building our own temple.” He gently told her that a day was coming when everyone’s heart would be a temple, and then everyone would worship in spirit and truth.
Every time he spoke, something within her was consoled, something was healed.
She didn’t feel so isolated, so unwanted, so unacceptable. She got chills. Looking straight into his eyes she said, “When the Messiah comes he’ll teach us everything.” Could her hunch about this man be correct? He returned her gaze. “I am he.” She gasped.
His disciples returned at that very moment. She left him and ran back to town to tell everyone that she had found the Messiah. They returned with her and, when they saw him, believed what she had told them. They opened their hearts to him, “You’re the savior of the world!”
Today we share this story with our catechumens, the men and women who will be baptized and brought into the Church at Easter. They’ve been longing for that same “living water.” By our sharing the woman’s story with them today, we’re sharing our own stories as well. In our own way each of us met him during the heat of the day as we were searching, either consciously or subconsciously, for living water.
In our personal reflection today, let’s call to mind how we met him. What were the circumstances? Who were the people or events that led us to discover him? What spiritual blocks were removed so that we could let him into our lives? Even though we’ve been baptized we’re still searching for him. Every day is an opportunity to meet him in the heat of that day. Every day we have an opportunity to listen to his words of consolation and healing. Every day we can open our hearts to him. Every day we can point those who are thirsty and searching to the well of living water.
It’s interesting to see the way Jesus revealed himself to his disciples. It began when he brought them to Caesarea Philippi, an important place for Jews and non-Jews. The city’s central feature was a magnificent white marble temple dedicated to the emperor-god, Caesar. The Syrians had worshiped their god Baal there and some of their temples still remained. The Greeks believed the god Pan was born in a cave there. The Jews revered the place because the water that flowed from the spring in the cave was one of the sources of the Jordan river. So much of Jewish history was connected to the Jordan.
Immersed in this religious ambience Jesus asked the most important question he could ask: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Simon immediately gave him the answer he had hoped for: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus’ response was powerful and totally unexpected. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
This was an extraordinary moment for Simon Peter and the other disciples. But almost immediately, a crisis hit. Jesus told them that he was traveling on to Jerusalem. There he would be rejected by the religious leadership and killed. Peter jumped on him over the comment. Jesus retaliated. “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are not thinking as God does, but as humans do!”
Without missing a beat, he turned to all the disciples. He shocked them all by telling them the price they would have to pay to be his disciple. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
In a few short moments Jesus had anointed Peter as the “rock of the church,” told him to “get behind me,” called him a “Satan,” and challenged each of them to “take up his cross and follow him.” There was probably very little talking after that short altercation. But there was more to come.
Six days later Jesus chose three from the group, Peter, James and John “and led them to a high mountain by themselves where he was transfigured before them.”
It was no accident that Jesus chose to bring the witnesses of his transfiguration to a mountain top. Sacred places were often elevated. Think of Moses going to Mount Sinai to receive the Law, the Mayan pyramids, the temple mount in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill, or even the churches on the Upper East Side with grand staircases lifting the worshipers up from the street level. Jesus was lifting them up from the earth physically and spiritually. The vision was clear. He took on the divine light. He revealed himself glorified in heaven in conversation with two heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah.
Elijah was the prophet who was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. It’s still common belief among Jews that Elijah will return to inaugurate the Messianic Time. Moses was the charismatic leader and law-giver during the Jewish Exodus. Luke adds in his account of the Transfiguration that Jesus, Elijah and Moses were speaking about Jesus’ personal exodus from this world back to the Father.
Peter, frightened and bewildered by what he saw, tried to somehow normalize the event – to bring it back down to earth. “I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he was interrupted by the overshadowing of the shekinah, the cloud of divine glory. This was the cloud that descended upon Mount Sinai when Moses was given the commandments. That day God spoke in thunder and lightning. At the Transfiguration God spoke clearly and directly. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
At hearing the voice, the three collapsed with terror. A terrifying silence followed. Then each of them felt the touch of a gentle, reassuring hand.
“Rise, and do not be afraid.” Everything was back to normal. Or was it? “As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, ‘Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’”
Why are we asked to contemplate this passage at the beginning of every Lent? Because it’s essential that we look beyond the Jesus we so easily know, the first century rabbi, healer and mystic, to the Christ, the crucified and resurrected Lord. The transfigured Christ blinds our earthly eyes so that we can see him through the eyes of our soul – the eyes that see the path that leads us through the Paschal Mystery.
The Prologue to John’s Gospel puts this into a context for us. “To those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The Transfiguration is an invitation for us to be reborn, to experience the mystery of Christ. Paul puts it this way: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14) Clothing symbolizes the person. He’s asking us to become, not Jesus, but the transfigured Christ. When Jesus told Peter, James and John not to speak of the vision until he had been resurrected, he was telling them that he was walking the path of the Paschal Mystery but he had not yet completed his personal Passover. Though we look at the transfigured Christ, we have not yet entered fully into his Paschal Mystery.
During Lent we’re asked to contemplate our participation in Christ’s Paschal Mystery. We asked to ponder our life, death and resurrection. We’re challenged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
A few days ago we w e r e marked with the dual sign of sinfulness and redemption – the cross.
We carried it in quiet witness onto the trading floor as Wall Street bought and sold. In the crowded subways and busses we declared its presence over and over as our heads bobbed and we stood and sat and squirmed our way in and out. Sex workers, addicts, the lost and homeless left the churches of Times Square signed with the mark of the crucified. The cross was everywhere.
It’s awe inspiring, on this one day of the year, to see the multitude of crosses infiltrate the city. Ash Wednesday is the one day when the cross dominates this secular society of ours. I often wonder what the smudged cross means to the people who carry it. The attraction to receive this cross is powerful. More people come to the church on Ash Wednesday than Christmas or Easter. What is it that draws so many to that cross?
In the course of the day I spent close to eight hours imposing ashes. I haven’t used the traditional formula, “Remember, man, that thou are dust and unto dust that shalt return,” for several years. I made the decision to do so after years of imposing ashes on the foreheads of the children I work with every day. I often wondered what those words meant to these innocent grade school children. Why was I reminding them of the certainty of death? They were just beginning to live! I wondered what Jesus said to the children who came to him, the children whose heads he touched with the hands that would one day be nailed to a cross. I decided to use a phrase they could understand. “Remember, God loves you.” The first Ash Wednesday I began using this new formula proved to me that my choice was a good one.
An elderly man came up to me to receive the ashes. As I always do, I looked into his eyes as I said the words, “Remember, God loves you.” Then I placed my hand on his head for a moment. His reaction was a bit startling. He began to cry and said, “No one’s ever said that to me before.” My spontaneous response was, “It’s true, you know.” He hugged me and then walked down the aisle and knelt in a pew for a while before leaving. Later on, a well-dressed woman came forward. I did the same thing. She grabbed my hand and burst into tears. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!”
Over and over again I said the words, “Remember, God loves you.” I watched each person walk to a pew afterward and kneel down. I would wonder what those words meant to that person. Some people stayed for a minute, others longer. Almost everyone lit a candle before they left the church – a little sentinel to stand witness to their prayer. Many people came back to me before they left the church to say a simple, “Thanks, Father.”
From that day on Ash Wednesday has been a solemn day of remembrance for me. I see it as the day when we Christians become living banners celebrating God’s love.
Walking down the street, shopping, washing dishes in the back room of a restaurant, picking up the garbage, patrolling the streets, tending to the sick in hospitals, walking through Grand Central, picking up the kids at school we carry the banner: “Remember, God loves you!”
This Lent, let’s hope and pray that people begin to believe us.