Seeing the Need for Salvation
Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Gregory Pearson preaches on the healing of Bartimaeus.
Brother Vincent, a much loved brother of our Order who died a few years ago, was born with very limited vision, and his sight deteriorated in the course of his life so that, by the time most of today’s friars knew him, he had been completely blind for many years. When he first joined the Order, though, he could still make out some distinction between light and shade, and he used to tell the story of the moment when he realised the last of his ability to see had gone. He was in the kitchen one evening washing up after dinner, and another brother came into the room and said, “Vincent, what are you doing in here in the dark?” It was only when someone else pointed out to him that there was no light in the room, a fact he hadn’t noticed, that he knew there was no ‘signal’ coming from his eyes any more. It was at that moment that his brain stopped generating any mental image, which up to that point it had been doing, presumably by compiling the limited information it was drawing from his other senses.
As well as giving some fascinating insights into neuropsychology, this experience of Brother Vincent can also help us think through the significance of blindness, and Christ’s healing of it, in today’s Gospel. Clearly, there would be plenty to say about the particular miracle and its context, but the words of Our Lord spoken as he restores Bartimaeus’ sight suggest that this episode can be understood also as a image of his work of salvation. He does not say, ‘your faith has given you your sight,’ or something like that, but rather, ‘your faith has saved you.’
So how can thinking about blindness, and the experience of Brother Vincent, help us to think about what it means for Jesus to save us, and how he goes about it?
Firstly, blindness is not simply the inability to see. We do not say that rocks, or plants, are blind, although clearly they do not have a sense of sight. Rather, it is the lack of a sense of sight in the kind of being that, ordinarily, might be able to see. When Christ gives Bartimaeus his sight, he doesn’t endow him with a unique superpower, but restores to him something which belongs to his life as a human being. Similarly, to speak of our salvation in Christ is to say something about the restoration, not the unnatural enhancement, of our humanity: we were made in God’s image and likeness, made for friendship with him, and in saving us, Christ is restoring to us the possibility of enjoying that friendship. Note that because friendship is mutual, it is always God’s gift – grace – and never something we can claim as a right, but the loss of the capacity for that friendship through sin is a loss of something proper to us as human beings, which Christ, in saving us, restores.
For Bartimaeus, the restoration of his sight is a clear and urgent desire. We see this from his persistence despite the reproaches of the crowd, and his circumstances give ample explanation for the urgency: he is living as a beggar because, presumably, he is unable to earn enough to live. In any case, though, the clear recognition of what he lacks is the precondition for his appealing to Christ as the one who can give him what he desires. He is able to come to the healing, the salvation, which Christ tells him his faith has wrought because he had a desire which, through faith, he believed Jesus could fulfil. Likewise, if we do not recognise that there is something we lack, if we do not desire for the wounds of sin to be healed, then we will not be able to recognise in Jesus the saviour in whom to place our trust, for the notion of salvation will be meaningless
In Brother Vincent’s story, one of the things that has always struck me is the role the other brother played in it. It was information he was able to communicate to Brother Vincent – the fact it was pitch black in the kitchen – which enabled Vincent to recognise the reality of his situation. In some ways, that made things harder for him – it made the complete lack of sight more obvious, depriving him of the hazy mental image he had retained until then – but it also meant that he no longer risked relying on an image which would eventually, and perhaps dangerously, have turned out to be false. It seems to me to be a helpful illustration of the way in which we can bring each other to a recognition of our situation which can prepare the way for us to be open to God’s promise of salvation: in other words, it is a way of thinking about what is sometimes called praeparatio evangelica, the preparing of the way for someone to be open to hearing the Gospel.
In restoring sight to Bartimaeus, Christ reveals his power over the created world, as he does in all his miracles, and as with all the miracles of healing, he shows that he exercises that power in kindness and love for humanity. More than that, though, in Christ’s words spoken to Bartimaeus we can see how this restoration of sight to a blind man is an image for us of the restoration to humanity of what we have lost through sin, that restoration of the fullness of our humanity which we call salvation.
Image: detail of a mosaic is by Fr Marko Rupnik SJ, in the chapel of the Mysteries of Light in the National Shrine of St John Paul II in Washington DC, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.