Fourth Sunday of Lent | Fr Timothy Radcliffe helps us to see the goodness of creation in our fellow ‘earthlings’
The healing of the man born blind begins in an unusual silence. The man does not ask to be healed and nor does Jesus ask him if he wants to be. The man is not yet ready to speak or to be spoken to. At that time, a blind person was seen an unfinished work of God. Jesus moulds clay, which in Hebrew is ‘adamah’, from which ‘Adam’ comes. ‘Human’ comes from humus. Jesus is completing the work of creating this ‘earthling’ and so it is appropriate that it is done on the Sabbath, when God rested after completing creation.
He is unfinished work not just because he is blind, but because he is passive and voiceless. He just sits there. When his eyes are opened, he also slowly acquires a voice. The Pharisees talk about him as if he was not really human; he is an object of conversation but not a subject. His parents refuse to consent to this annihilation of his humanity. He can speak for himself. He is of age. His first words are ‘I am’, implicitly the divine name revealed to Moses when he must lead his people into freedom. Think of all the people in our society who struggle to be heard and seen. The ‘yellow vest’ protests, whatever you think of the rightness of their cause, express that desire to be: high visibility jackets!
Once the blind man gets going it is impossible to stop him. He even teaches the Pharisees, much to their fury. So he is transformed from an inert beggar into a bold interlocutor with the religious authorities who refuses to be silenced.
So there is a subtle interplay in the text between seeing and speaking. He speaks in his own voice, standing on his own feet rather than lying by the pool, because he sees. He sees who the Pharisees are, in all their tricky evasiveness and so challenges them. He sees Jesus, and speaks the words that are the climax of the story, ‘I believe’ and worships. The renewed human being is the one who is freed to worship.
Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewess who died in Auschwitz, wrote: ‘A desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling.’ Dorothy Day noted in her diary that ‘one day, I saw Mrs. Barrett at her prayers, kneeling by her bed at ten in the morning, in the bedroom off the kitchen, and suddenly the grandeur of that act of worship.’ (sic).
This task of acting as God’s agent and bring creation to completion is ours too. His first words to the disciples are, ‘We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is still day.’ We help each other to attain the fullness of life. We help each other to stand on our feet and also to kneel in adoration. We help each other to find a voice and to say ‘I am.’
The English Province was blessed to have had a brother called Vincent Cooke who was born blind. He never saw a human face, though when he was young he could tell whether the lights were on or not. Yet he was able to teach us to see each other, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the brethren, the latent gifts. When we can see another’s fragile humanity and hidden goodness, we can help them to find a voice and become strong and free and let others liberate us too.
The clay that we put on each other’s eyes are words that open each other eyes to the goodness of creation, and that release us from seeing others with contempt. St Paul writes to the Ephesians: ‘Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.’(4.29) Faced with each other’s incompletion, do we, like the Pharisees in this story, speak words that ridicule and undermine, or words that give life and strength?
Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a | Eph 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a painting of ‘Christ Healing the Blind’ by El Greco, c.1570, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
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A beautiful and inspiring sermon. Thank you.
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