Sunday of the Man born Blind, 2020

Christ is risen! Христос воскресе! Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Hristos a înviat!

Just before the story of the healing of the blind man, there is an exchange between Jesus and his disciples. Why was he born blind, the disciples ask? Because of his sin, or that of his parents? There is just one similar occasion in the Gospels (that I can recall), in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus and his disciples hear about some Galileans who had been killed—executed by the Romans or killed in some affray—whose blood had been mixed with the sacrifices: adding blasphemy to their violent deaths. Jesus’ comment makes it clear that the disciples and those who told them about the Galileans had been wondering among themselves why? Why had they suffered this terrible fate? Jesus, divining this, tells them not to think that these men suffered like this, because they were among the worst of the Galileans: ‘No, I tell you, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13: 1–3). So here, seeing the man born blind they wonder whose fault it was—who is to blame? the man or his parents. Jesus’ response is puzzling: ‘Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God might be manifest in him’ (John 9: 3). Again, Jesus tells them not to ask who is to blame, but to ask a different question: How are the works of God manifest, even in this man born blind? It seems to be a deeply rooted human tendency, when things go wrong, or when confronted with unfortunate, or plain evil, events, to look round for someone to blame. So on both these occasions in the Gospels: in both cases the disciples cast around for someone to blame. As if, once we have blamed someone, it makes it better. And so, indeed now, who is to blame for the Coronavirus? or if not the virus itself, for its spreading so rapidly that we have had, in effect, to shut down? With something so vast in its effects as Covid-19, we look for some correspondingly extensive explanation. Hence the conspiracy theories that are rife today—it is all down to some attempt, masterminded by the forces of evil, and using the immense wealth and consequent power of people like Bill Gates, to gain control of the world. But this seems to me to be fundamentally wrong: to explain everything in terms of the tentacles of evil. Why? ultimately because our belief in God as ‘Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible’ must mean that any ultimate explanation must go back to God who created us and loves us. But there is, it seems to me, another reason: looking for someone to blame, crediting (and spreading) conspiracy theories, really assumes that there is reason for things that doesn’t involve us, that we are really victims of some impersonal fate, or some kind of determinism, in which the past determines the future. And that is flat contrary to what we believe as Christians! As the Lord said to his disciples about the reason for the ghastly fate of the Galileans: ‘unless you repent…’ For repentance cuts through this seemingly inexorable chain of fate; repentance means that things can change in this world, and are not the inevitable consequence of what has happened in the past—the working out of some kind of karma—and that we can do something, not by scheming, or imagining world-wide conspiracies, but by repentance, acknowledging what is wrong in our own lives—in each of our lives—and seeking God’s forgiveness. And so, on this occasion, the Lord sees in the blind man an opportunity for the works of God to be manifest.

But, one might think, is that not a strange thing to say: that this man’s blindness is to be regarded as an opportunity for the manifestation of God’s power through healing? But the way Jesus heals this man’s blindness gives us a clue as to how we are to understand this. For the Lord spits on the ground and mixes a bit of mud from his spittle and the earth; he then anoints the eyes of the blind man with the mud, and tells to go off and wash in the pool of Siloam. Which he does—and comes back able to see. Jesus’ spitting on the ground and making mud recalls the story of the creation of man in Genesis, where God takes dust from the ground and from it fashions Adam and breathes life into him (Gen. 2: 7)—it recalls it, because Jesus is, in healing the blind man, imitating the creation of the human. It is as creator, that Jesus heals the blind man. In healing the blind man, the ‘works of God are manifest’—which doesn’t mean that the blind man’s blindness was contrived, so that Jesus could heal it, but rather that in seeing the healing of the blind man, which cannot be denied (much of the rest of the chapter turns on the undeniability of healing), God’s working is manifest—his working that is manifest in every living human being, because each one of us has been fashioned by God, only we don’t notice it, we think it normal: only when it takes place in one case, and then only healing of sight, not the creation of a whole human being—in this case, we notice it, and say ‘Glory to God’. But everywhere we look we find signs of the creative presence of God, but we treat this as ‘normal’, and fail to notice. That is why we should say ‘Glory to God for everything’—Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκα—as St John Chrysostom is said to have repeated daily.

Just before healing the blind man, the Lord says, ‘It is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me while it is still day. Night comes when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world’ (John 9: 4–5). One of the stichera for vespers takes up this theme:

The man born blind reasoned within himself, Was it because of the sin of my parents that I was born with unseeing eyes, or was I born to be an indictment against the unbelief of the nations? I cannot tell whether it is night or day. My feet cannot detect the unevenness of the stones I walk on. For I do not see the sun shining, nor the one who fashioned me in his image. But I beseech you, Christ God, Look on me and have mercy on me.

The man born blind has become a parable of the human condition—in the dark, but why? unable to tell night (in which no one can work) from day! unable to see the ground on which he walks, so that the cobblestones become stumbling blocks! Unable to see the sun and its light, nor the one who stands before me, who made me in his image! And so he cries out, Look on me and have mercy on me. And the Lord looks on him and has mercy on him, anoints his eyes with mud, tells him to wash—and he now sees. He is now in the day, and can see, and can work. But what about everyone else? What about us? We see, or think we can. The rest of the Gospel we have just heard is about those who can see, but do not, or dare not, acknowledge what they see. The parents, who cannot deny the evidence of their eyes, but know that acknowledging it might get them into trouble with the authorities. Others, similarly, do not know what to make of the evidence of their own eyes, or indeed reject the evidence of their eyes, and reject the testimony of the now-seeing blind man. For often enough we don’t want to credit our eyes, we prefer to stick with what we think we know, and think we understand. In the verses that follow immediately on from our Gospel, Jesus proclaims that he has come into the world to judge the world, ‘so that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind’. Some of the Pharisees who are with him say to him: ‘Surely we are not blind?’ To which the Lord replies: ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin; but now you say that we see, your sin abides’ (John 9: 39–41). Invincible ignorance is an excuse; the claim to see brings responsibility. In that sense, Jesus’ coming into the world—into our lives—is judgment.

Right at the end of the sacrament of Baptism there is this exclamation: ‘You have been baptized, you have been enlightened, you have been anointed, you have been sanctified, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!’ You—we—have been enlightened. We walk in the light; we follow the Light of the World. Let us be like the blind man who sees, not like those who will not acknowledge what we see, who refuse to see the works of God, and are blind!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

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