Sixth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Blind Man / St. John the Theologian / Acts 16.16-34; John 9.1-38
F/S/HS. Christ is Risen, brothers and sisters!
This past week during my morning prayers I experienced something I rarely experience, something very difficult to capture in words. I’ve only had one other similar experience. The experience was the presence of two currents streaming, washing through me. The one current was glorious. The other current entirely sobering and convicting. At one moment the glorious current was all I felt. At another moment the sobering current prevailed. And at times both currents were intermingled or comingled.
This experience happened for only about two minutes, as I was praying David’s great psalm of repentance. During those two minutes, glory streamed through me as I read particular words or phrases; words such as mercy and phrases such as the loving kindness of God. I felt keenly the multitude of His tender mercies. I felt washed and cleansed from my iniquity. I felt the presence of truth, and the presence of wisdom in my inward parts. I felt washed clean and made whiter than snow. I could hear joy and gladness, and experienced the presence of a clean heart and a steadfast spirit. I felt the joy of Your salvation, O Lord, and upheld by Your generous Spirit. My tongue sang aloud of Your righteousness, and my mouth shown forth Your praise. A glorious current indeed, streaming through my soul.
But then moments later, or even at the same time, was the current of utter sobriety. Here my transgressions, my iniquity nearly overwhelmed me; my sin was ever before me; I have done evil in Your sight, O Lord. You O God have broken my bones; Your face is hidden from my sins. I feel the guilt of bloodshed. My spirit feels nothing but broken and contrite.
The one other similar experience of these same two currents was at my baptism, including the events leading up to my baptism. With great sobriety I poured out the sins of my life before God, in my lifetime confession. At the Prayers of Exorcism, I grabbed hold of the reassurance that evil will have no final foothold on my life.
When I went down into and under those baptismal waters, my iniquity, my guilt, the evil I had committed in my life was being crucified in those waters, shed from my soul into those baptismal waters. And when I rose from those waters, when I put on that white baptismal gown and approached our Lord’s Chalice for the first time, O how I felt washed and made clean and whiter than snow, having now rose up in Christ’s glorious Resurrection.
My experience of these twin currents is not unique. St. John Chrysostom says that each of us experience them, in different ways and at different times in our lives. And that it was the blind man in this morning’s Gospel who experienced them at a most profound level, making him symbolic of all humanity. Each of us, with this blind man, experience the darkness and sin of this life, of our life; and each of us, now baptized, experience holy illumination by the One who illumines, who shines light into the darkness of this world, and into the darkness of our hearts.
No wonder, then, that the early church saw this Gospel story of the healing of the blind man as a picture of baptism, as a portrait of the Sacrament “holy illumination.” Which is why the ancient church read this story on the Saturday night of Easter, of Holy Pascha, when all of the catechumens were baptized. It is a story which reiterates the paschal themes of our iniquity, our sins being washed away, of our illumination, our healing, of the necessity for faith and conversion, and of our need for salvation, that we might see again and sing aloud of our Lord’s righteousness.
Which also helps us make sense of why mother church gives us so many themes related to water and healing and conversion in the weeks following Pascha. Two weeks ago a paralytic sits by water, waiting to be healed. Last week the woman at the well, Photini, yearns for the water that will leave her forever without thirst. Jesus then pours Himself, His Spirit, living water … a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life into her thirsty soul. She leaves Jesus’ presence a restored and new woman.
And now this morning’s story of the blind man—in many ways the culmination of these two other stories—where Jesus graphically sanctifies dirt by spitting water onto the ground and making it into mud and pasting it onto and into the eyes of the blind man, and telling him to (v. 7) Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.
Incidentally, Irenaeus—you who are getting married to your beloved Philippa only a few hours from now—I love the interpretation of your patron saint about one particular moment between Jesus and this blind man. St. Irenaeus sites Genesis 2.7: Then God formed man out of dust from the ground, and breathed in his face the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Man and woman, then fallen from Paradise, need restoration and healing. This blind man, a type of us—you and me sisters and brothers—Jesus spits out of Himself a mixture of His breath and water, comingles it with the dust of the earth, then rubs it in the man’s eyes, because He wants to restore and heal this man unto introducing into his life the current of mercy and joy and gladness, so that his lips might sing aloud of God’s righteousness and sing of His praises.
This blind man has lived all of his life immersed in the current of cultural belief, prevalent at that time, that his blindness was due either to his own iniquity or the iniquity of his parents. His sin has been ever before him; he or his parents have done evil in Your sight, O God.
But now he encounters Jesus. And as their encounter progresses, he begins to experience a current in his life that he’s never before experienced. He was likely within earshot when Jesus told His Disciples that his blindness was due neither to his or his parent’s sin, but instead (v. 3) that the works of God should be revealed in him.
Something is happening to me! Some new current is streaming deep within me. My face and my eyes have been touched by some kind of presence that I’ve never before known or experienced.
What a sight, what a spectacle it must have been to see this blind man then staggering across town, mud all over his face, bud balls stuck in his eye sockets, riding in the current of new possibility for his life as he heads towards to pool of Siloam, to wash in it. Is it possible that I might be washed clean and made whiter than snow by the mercy and loving kindness of the one who has just put spit and dust into my eyes? Is it possible that I might now experience the joy of Your salvation, O Lord; that my tongue might sing aloud of Your righteousness, and my mouth show forth your praise.
And so he washes in the pool of Siloam. And for the first time in his life he now sees the blue sky and green trees, and birds and flowers and colors. He sees the beautiful faces of those around him, for the first time. And he sees, for the first time, the face of his parents. And his tongue begins to sing aloud of God’s righteousness, showing forth praise for the One who has brought light into his hitherto darkness.
Which gets him in a world of trouble with the Pharisees, because he was healed on the Sabbath, and because he can’t stop praising the man who healed him. Nor will he back down in his praise. Which costs him mightily—chastised repeatedly, and named a sinner by the Pharisees, he gets thrown out of the temple.
Sisters and brothers, I find it endlessly compelling and disturbing, and a source of sober reflection, that it was not just the evil ways of the world that aroused our Lord’s wrath and judgment. Even more than these evil ways were the equally evil ways of certain religious and legal experts of Jesus’ time—the Pharisees in this morning’s story—that most aroused our Lord’s strongest rebuke and condemnation.
These Pharisees, they are not at all kind or loving to this blind man, in their attempt to ascertain how his sight was restored. They are rigid and legalistic. Their hearts are calloused and hard to new possibilities in life. They are unwilling and unable to amend their dogmatic beliefs about healing on the Sabbath, even in the face of a miracle that never before has happened in the history of the world—a blind man is made to now see.
These Pharisees, observe our church fathers and mothers, they are also symbolic of all of humanity; symbolic of me and of you. How easy for me to become legalistic and rigid, self-righteous and cold and calloused of heart; to so self-assuredly believe I’m right and they are wrong. I think I see. Yet I remain blind.
O Lord, blind that we are, open our hearts, pour the living water of Your Spirit into us, your loving kindness, that we may know the multitude of Your tender mercies; that truth and wisdom may adorn us; that we may be made to see, washed clean and made whiter than snow; that we may hear Your joy and gladness and experience a clean heart and steadfast spirit; that with the boldness of this blind man we too may sing aloud of Your righteousness and show forth your praise. F/S/HS