If a blind man gaining sight Jn 9:1-41 isn’t an eye opener, listen to that conflict building between Jesus and the Pharisees. In the healing of the “Man born blind” there are two story lines taking place. One is of Jesus heling that man, and the other is the Pharisees accusing Jesus of going against the laws of the Sabbath for preforming that miracle. The man healed says little, he occasionally answers some questions presented before him. The story tells little about the wonderful experience of vision, it mentions little about seeing the world for the first time. The majority of the story is prosecutor and defense. There is a question that is asked at the beginning of the narrative and it would be a shame to let that question to become lost in the argument. The question the disciples asked Jesus is: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That question contains some important details. The first is that the man’s blindness us the result of sin, the question wants to determine where the burden of sin lies. Is it from the parent, or the son? The question was not unusual for the time period, infirmaries were commonly considered to be a curse from God. It was a retribution for a sinful act. If this writer recalls correctly, according to the Torah a parent’s sin was not passed on to the children. According to the law if someone bore the curse from sin, it was through their own fault. That is not the answer Jesus gives. His answer is an emphatic neither, the blindness is not the result of a sin committed. To Jesus it is not even a curse. That might not seem to be a bold statement in the light of today’s medical advancements, but in the first century it went against a fundamental structure of society. People would have stood back in puzzlement. Religious leaders would have a furrow in their brow, they would have been challenged by the response. Jesus response would have been met with disapproval. The problem is that Jesus healed the man born blind, the gauntlet was thrown to the ground. Now there is a duel.
In the narrative a lot of detail is presented describing the scene. The first bit of evidence is the mechanism by which this man regains sight, but first notice the man does not ask to be healed. Why? I assume since he never knew sight, he accepted his handicap. But Jesus does open his eyes, and here is the quote on how: When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes,” I know in the bible there are a few references to ointments for the eyes but in that quote one thing stands out. Jesus spit on the ground and made clay. Jesus made something out of dirt or clay, and he infused it with something of his own. He formed it with the dirt of the earth and his spittle. The description sounds awfully crude, but how were we formed? God formed us from clay, and infused us with his breath. Man and the ointment are both ordinary dirt and something divine. Call it a divine breath or sacred spittle, they are the same.
Is it difficult to miss that connection between God and man? Suddenly the God of the Old Testament gets much closer, or was the LORD ever that far away? There is a change in perception that happens here. Eyes were opened in more way than one. Jesus certainly does challenge the Old Testaments view of the relationship between God and Man. Jesus opens the eyes of many, but he also places anger in the eyes of quite a few. He is challenging the teachers, and they question his authority.
Jesus challenges the teachings of the authorities, and this places the anger in their eyes. Don’t forget the initial question about whose sin was responsible for the man’s blindness, and don’t forget Jesus response. Jesus said the blindness was not caused by sin. Jesus did tell the man to wash in the pool of Siloam, and those pools frequently were used for ritual cleaning. The Pharisees did not marvel at how the pool of Siloam cured the man, they were angered that the LORD healed that blind man on the Sabbath. They knew the source of the cure, and that angered them. Most of the rest if the argument is an attempt to discredit Jesus. They try to discredit him for healing in the Sabbath. They suggest that the blind man was in collusion with Jesus, and finally they suggest that the man was never blind. All of their attempts are discredited.
The blind man healed does see Christ differently than the authorities, at first he sees Jesus as a prophet. Jesus engages that man about who Jesus is. Jesus 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.” Throughout the narrative Jesus gives hint of His nature, and of His mission. Here Jesus say’s I am the light of the world. In other parts if the discussion Jesus states “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” As that blind man gains his vision, a vision of Jesus Christ also begins to appear. This causes rejoicing among some, and they become disciples. While some rejoice, anger builds up in the eyes of others. They preach and plot and malign themselves against the Lord Jesus Christ.
It can be called anger in their eyes, or delusion, or a lie. It is not the truth. I see the same thing today, it is a conflict that continues. Some see that light of Christ clearly and follow His way. Ohers, they cannot accept His Good-News for whatever reason, and journey towards a darkness. Some follow fads that sometimes glitter on the horizon. Today it is a commonplace New-Age philosophy. Others, weakened by their own frailties, fail to accept His forgiveness. Stubbornly they continue on their own way. They fail to heed his advice and bathe in that pool of water, the pool of forgiveness. That man born blind? He welcomed the LORDS intercession and gladly accepted His action. That blind man realized who the Christ was, and what he had done. That blind man was thankful for that light he had received, and then let that same light guide him on his way. The contrast between the man born blind and the Pharisees is as clear as night and day. The man born blind clearly enjoyed basking in that light of day, Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.
Live as children of light,
for light produces every kind of goodness
and righteousness and truth.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Click, click, click of the typewriter keys on the third Sunday of Lent. Today’s reading has to be one of the longest narratives in the New Testament Jn 4:5-42 . When Jesus gets into a discussion with that Samaritan woman at the well, it is a lengthy and long drawn out dialogue. That is particularly notable because the ill feelings between the Jews of Jerusalem and the people of Samaria. They would have avoided each other at all costs. Even more peculiar was that the conversation was between a Jewish male and a Samaritan woman. To converse presented some cultural peculiarities for sure. This cast of characters is but one portion of this dialogue.
As the first reading Ex 17:3-7 suggests the story has as much to do about water as it does the conversation. In the OT reading the people are complaining during the exodus. To quench the building doubt and anger the LORD has Moses bang his staff against a rock to so that water might flow from it. In the NT reading the woman is drawing water from a cistern, it is Jacobs well. The third mention of water is when Jesus tells the woman that he can bring her “living water” so that she might never thirst again. Living water has a specific meaning in Judaism, it is the water that can make one ritually clean. Its requirements are that it be unconstrained and free flowing. The water from the rock could be considered living water, it flowed freely when the rock was struck. The water from a cistern is not living water, it is stagnant and contained. An example of living water is a stream with fish, and fish are prominent in Lent. Those are just a few notes on water. Think of all the other accounts of water in the Gospel, baptism, holy water, the flood, the red sea. It has the dual purpose of destruction and cleansing. Water both takes and restores life. In baptism one dies in the water and rises in Christ. John the Baptist baptized in a water of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus does much the same at this well. He draws much out of the woman as is evident by the lengthy conversation, and He offers the living water that is Jesus Christ. Confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
The theme of water, living versus stagnant comes into play in another way. Living water is free flowing. It is not contained. Notice how Jesus is not constrained by social conventions. He freely crosses into Samaria ignoring and destroying a boundary. He speaks to the woman and accepts her, and that destroys yet another boundary. Finally in offering her that living water he offers her an unconditional forgiveness and welcomes her back. At that well Jesus broke every barrier that stood between that woman and salvation. At the end of the dialogue she is truly free.
The conversation speaks on a number of different levels. For the personal, baptism and confession (Jesus does draw a confession from this woman by asking about her husband) certainly enter the discussion. It also speaks on an international level, Jesus and the woman at the start of the conversation are from different countries. The conversation has an ecumenical dimension also. In society isn’t there also an effort to destigmatize also, Didn’t Jesus ask her for a glass of water? Didn’t He ignore the stigma of associating with a woman who was at the fringes of society? Jesus shows that Gods live and mercy have no bounds, it cannot be contained by any invention of man.
I have not even begun to talk about when the Apostles return, that is another discussion
The transfiguration is always an interesting reading with many details that each individually tell a subtly different emphasis to that transfiguration of Christ witnessed by those apostles on that mountaintop. It can be the placement of the story within the gospel that gives emphasis to a journey and also a learning curve. It can be the mention of pitching the tents, and the meaning of tents within the Jewish tradition. It can emphasize the epiphany and those words spoken, “this is my beloved Son.” Every detail, and every line of that testament is rich with meaning. Mt 17:1-9
Sometimes it is rewarding to look at that story at its most simple element. It is the Transfiguration of Jesus where the Apostle’s witness Jesus as divine and hear him announced as the Son of God. It is an epiphany. It is interesting to look at that gospel account, and also to look at where that gospel is being proclaimed. It is the gospel reading being proclaimed at Mass during the liturgy of the word. It is also proclaimed half way through the biblical gospel . It is proclaimed on the second Sunday of Lent, a few weeks before the Easter feast. It is proclaimed on a mountain top, after an ascent and before a decent. What makes that interesting is that proclamation can be taken as part of a timeline, it concludes the first half of the liturgy.
Following that part of the liturgy is that liturgy of the Eucharist where bread and wine is transfigured, or more properly the transubstantiation into the body and blood of Christ. In looking at that transfiguration on a mountaintop in the context of the Mass, one can view that event not simply as a historical account but rather as something we also witness within the Mass. We take that journey as the Mass processes from beginning to conclusion, and we can envision those tents through the tabernacle and more importantly within ourselves. We hear those words, “this is my beloved Son” as “behold, the Body of Christ.” This is Jesus who takes away the sins of the world.” Upon reception of communion, we walk with Christ to continue that journey.
In a historical context, the Transfiguration occurs prior to the Passion events. It often is described as an event that builds the faith of the disciples so that they might endure the crucifixion of the LORD. The road they walk is difficult, and it is about to become treacherous. The transfiguration gives them strength, as the transubstantiation of the Eucharist does for us. For an instant they get a glimpse of Christ’s divinity.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah gives the disciples the link to their faith, they serve as witness to this event. It is a reminder of where they have travelled from. The Mass does not simply read from the Gospel of the New Testament, that New Testament is related to the Old. A simple reminder, and the touch of Jesus a reminder that their journey is not yet complete. They have been enlightened and nourished but they must continue their walk. Moses face also glows in the presence of God, he descends with the tablets. Jesus with the Apostles. An important point on a journey, but not the journey’s end.
When the disciples hear “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” they fall prostrate afraid, but Jesus touches them and says “Rise and be not afraid.” And He says tell no one until he is raised from the dead. The touch and the command are common in Jesus healings. Jesus frequently heals those around him, but tells them to tell no one. This time though He tells them to wait until after He is raised from the dead. When do they speak and tell of what they saw? Later Thomas will touch His wounds. Touch is important, it heals.
Lent like Advent is a season of preparation. Both seasons remind us often what we must do to prepare for the LORD. Lent is full of devotionals that we participate in to better prepare ourselves for Easter. Its trio of Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving come quickly to mind. This gospel isn’t so much about what we have to do, but it is about what we have to get through trials. They are the gifts Jesus Christ left us. Like the Apostles and disciples we walk with Christ on a journey, and along that journey Christ has given us gifts to help us along the way. They are his Church, and the successors to the Apostles. They are the scriptures, the gospels. They are the prayers and the sacraments, and they are the Mass. They are the same gifts that guided the Apostles as they walked with the LORD even if they did not always recognize them.
(this is an expanded version of an earlier post)
Second Sunday of Lent
Four days with a dash of ash on my head, but why is it there? For some, and I think this has been emphasized over the past few years, the cross of ash is a symbol of faith. To many it has become a proclamation and public display of faith. That is not what the priest says when placing ashes on a forehead. The priest says (or should say) that we come from ashes and to ashes we return.* They can also say repent and remember the gospel. The first saying is a reminder of that first reading of Genesis Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7 where God forms man from a ball of clay, we gain life through the breath of God. The second phrase comes from the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent in the garden. In that story they fall to temptation and out of God’s grace. That action is man’s original sin. The ashes remind us of who created us, and of our frail human nature, and our path to salvation. While that reading of our birth and fall from Genesis chronicles our human nature and frailties, the reading of Jesus’s temptation Mt 4:1-11 by the same devil emphasizes HIS divinity. Jesus does not fall to temptation. He leads us back on that path towards the garden. Jesus leads us to salvation. The ashes are a poignant reminder of who we are, and who Jesus is.
The ashes are a reminder of our sinful nature, and that first couple was not the only of our kind to sin. Ashes are a reminder of the traditional Old Testament signs of repentance. In that Old Testament man acknowledged their sins by covering their heads in ashes and their bodies in sackcloth. In the ancient Christian traditions, ashes were sprinkled on the penitents as they lie on rough cloth. Penance then was strict, with those sinners standing outside the Church until their penitential acts were completed. Sometimes it is helpful to know traditions of both the Old and New Testaments over time in order to understand traditions of today.
Today, often one only considers themselves a penitent if a Big Sin was committed, and even then the sin is only admitted reluctantly. Those Big Sins are named mortal sins because the break a link to God, they are the sins that kill the soul. The truth is that there are many times per day a person has the occasion to sin. There are 86,400 seconds per day, and each one of them an opportunity to fall. Every choice is an opportunity to do right or wrong. Every second is the chance to do something we should not have, or forget to do something we should have. Before that first couple were guided by the snake, man only knew the grace of God. Our inheritance is the choice between good and evil. We don’t always choose “good”, that is for certain.
While the reading of Genesis documents our fall, the reading from Mathew tells of what was done to save us. It also gives hint at what we are to do this season. The Gospel is the Good News, and that news tells us to pick up our cross and follow him. Gospel tells us how to deal with those temptations as Jesus did. The gospel explains how to say no to the serpent in the desert. The season that is derived from that gospel, Lent, has three concise tools to aid us on our path. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer reminds that there is indeed something greater than us, it also is a path to call for help and ask for strength. Fasting also focuses on something greater than our immediate needs. It builds strength and character. Almsgiving is an act of charity of love. It is a reminder of a God that loves us. It is a reminder to do the same to others, it is also a reminder of the abundant blessings we have received.
How would I explain these readings of the first Sunday of Lent, how would I explain the past four days? It and they are a road map for a journey that is about to begin. They are a reminder of where we are starting from, where we are headed too, and a summary of what we need to get there. The first name for the Church that Jesus the Christ founded was “The Way.” Might this day be the first road post along that Way?
*”Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”