This year I graduated from what my mother would have called “dime store glasses” to actual prescription glasses. I noticed over the summer at the General Convention of our Church in Baltimore that I could no longer make out the faces of those speaking at the mic: not just faces, but hardly anything else at a distance was in focus. This is no good, so I needed help: whether you’re in church or not, you need to know who’s speaking, especially if you disagree.
I’m not sure if fuzziness at a church meeting qualifies as “spiritual blindness” or not, but this is precisely what Jesus is taking aim at in our Gospel today. The healing of the man born blind appears to be a story of physical healing, but in fact it is much more than that. It’s a story of spiritual vision and of spiritual blindness: of the capacity to see Jesus for who he is, and the corresponding inability to recognize him.
In our reading, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles, the harvest festival held in the fall of the year. During the celebration of the feast, the priests fetched water every morning from the pool of Siloam for purification. While the procession of priests moved to the pool, the choristers sang this verse from the prophet Isaiah, “You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation” (Is. 12:3). Then, with the return to the Temple, the water was poured out on the altar as a sacrificial offering.
As our Gospel tells us, Jesus encounters a man born blind and sends him to Siloam to wash. The man washes and returns from the pool, suddenly able to see. Jesus has restored his sight! But the verse from Isaiah lets us know that there is more involved here than physical healing. Jesus has done more than give the man back his sense of sight. He’s actually revealed to him and to us a panoramic vision of who he is and what he means for the salvation of the world.
Jesus says earlier, during the celebration of the festival, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jo. 8:12). This brings us back to the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, to “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jo. 1:5). Jesus is the light that darkness cannot overcome, the glory of the Lord that enlightens everyone, as it says in the first chapter of John.
The light shines so that people can see; so that they can know Jesus for who he is. The invitation in John’s Gospel is always, “Come and see” (Jo. 1:30, 1:46, 4:29): as Philip says to Nathanael in chapter one, and as the Samaritan woman at the well says to her friends in the city. Come and see Jesus, that is.
Similarly, when some Greeks in Jerusalem come to Philip, in the twelfth chapter, they ask, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (Jo. 12:21). And as Jesus himself says, at the end of that chapter, “Whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (Jo. 12:45). The point of the panoramic vision is belief and faith in Jesus as the Messiah. “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me” (Jo. 12:44), as Jesus says.
Belief, and failure to believe, in Jesus, is what our Gospel is all about. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (Jo. 9:35), Jesus asks the man born blind, at the end of their encounter. The man replies, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him” (Jo. 9:36). Then Jesus says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he” (Jo. 9:37). “Lord, I believe” (Jo. 9:38), the man says. In this case, the case of the man born blind, “seeing” is “believing.”
But it’s different for the Pharisees who interrogate him. They have seen what has taken place, as Jesus heals the man, but they do not believe. They are the ones who are really blind. They cannot discern the reality of Jesus, the truth of his identity. They are experts on sin, but they cannot see the one sent by God to take away the sin of the world. They are still stuck in the darkness. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes” (Jo.9:30), as the man says.
For a moment, place yourself in this story. The point is not to beat up on the Pharisees, and congratulate ourselves that we are able to see Jesus. Lent calls us to do something else, which is to look to our own spiritual vision. Are we able to take in the whole panorama, the full reality of Jesus himself? Are we able to see him in our friends and neighbors, and even our enemies? God is at work in the world, but sometimes we hardly even notice. We get stuck in our own blindness, and in the darkness that lies around us. As Jesus says in our Gospel, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do not see may become blind” (Jo. 9:39).
O God, open our eyes that we may see. Supply the vision we lack. May the brightness of your love heal us, and be a light on the path that brings us close to Jesus our Lord.