Homily for Sunday, March 26, 2017
Preached by Fr. Miller at Bethany Convent, the Order of St. Anne, Arlington, MA
I’ve heard it said that, in the East, “religion” is concerned with wisdom, and in the West, with sight. This morning’s Gospel – the story of Jesus healing the man born blind – is clearly of the West and our concern with sight.
But I don’t want to begin with sight. I want to begin rather with something we all experience, something that has on some level brought us here this morning, that has led us to be Christians, to “walk in the way of the cross” and to hope in resurrection. That something is suffering. And I want to look at suffering from the context of the early Church’s catechumenate, the process whereby candidates were prepared for Baptism. For the most part, this year’s Lenten lectionary is the same lectionary that was used by the early Church during Lent for the preparation of candidates for Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Candidates would have been in the catechumenate two or three years, and these final Sundays offered a final push of preparation for their Baptism. Taken as a whole, these Scriptures present in a nutshell the process of awakening to fuller life, of experiencing “resurrection.” To sum up: The candidates would have gone from being in the “wilderness” and discovering that Jesus had a wilderness experience, too (Lent 1); to being in the dark with Jesus, as was Nicodemus (Lent 2); to being in the light with Jesus, as was the woman at the well (Lent 3); to being able to “see” with the man born blind (today); to experiencing resurrection, as did Lazarus (next week).
Having experienced these first three Sundays, in today’s lessons the candidates would have been reminded of how Jesus “opened their eyes.” They would have been reminded by 1 Samuel that “the Lord does not see as mortals see… but the Lord looks on the heart.” They would have been reminded by Ephesians that, as Baptized Christians, they were to “live as children of light.” And the gospel lesson would likely have reminded them not only that their faith would put them at odds with the world around them, not only that Jesus was “the light of the world,” but also that awakening to new life – being able to “see” – was bodily, physical and messy (kind of like being born).
In this morning’s lesson Jesus’ healing of the blind man was physical – Jesus touched him. And not only did Jesus touch him, Jesus put mud on his eyes. And not only did Jesus put mud on his eyes, he put mud on his eyes that he had made with his own spit. The candidates’ healing, their receiving their sight, was a bodily, physical and probably messy experience.
Perhaps they, like Jesus in the gospel for Lent 1, had experienced significant “wilderness” in their lives, and perhaps they had been tempted sorely in that “wilderness.” Perhaps they, like Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night (Lent 2), perhaps they had come to Jesus during a period of “darkness” in their life, and with deep questions. Perhaps they, like the woman at the well (Lent 3), had found Jesus during a period of great shame (“you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband”) and had experienced absolutely no judgment from Jesus. Being a Christian is not adhering to a philosophy, nor is it holding a particular set of beliefs, nor is it maintaining a dogma. Being a Christian is something that, when we experience “wilderness” and know Jesus to be there, when we come to Jesus in our “darkness” or let him see us in the light, or when we let him draw near enough to touch us and maybe put “mud” on us in order to heal us – is a full-body experience. We have sacraments because Christianity is about the whole body. We emphasize good works because Christianity involves the whole body. We value gathering as a community because Christianity is about physical bodies. Christianity is a full-body experience.
Which means that the resurrection Jesus offers us is not metaphorical; it is not a dream or off-in-the-distance. The resurrection Jesus offers is now, in this life. It is a resurrection that we may not have the language to describe save for these stories we tell during these five weeks of Lent and into Easter. I think catechumens in the early Church could have related to these stories because they had known suffering and then, with Jesus, resurrection. I think we – were we to take the time to pray with these stories – can relate to these stories as well, for I have a hunch that we have known suffering and resurrection.
Looking back on our own conversion, we Christians know about wilderness. We know that we cannot avoid wilderness… but hopefully we have discovered how to find Jesus even in the wilderness. We know that we cannot avoid the dark… but hopefully we have learned to turn to Jesus even when we are in the dark. We cannot help but have our deeds exposed to the light… but when they are, hopefully we have acquired the fortitude not to run away and to let Jesus in close enough to heal. Hopefully we know how to see that Jesus is there. Hopefully we know that it is OK for him to come close and maybe make our lives a little “messy” before we can be healed. Hopefully we know that it is he who heals us; that it is he who is the light of the world; that it is he alone who is worthy of living our lives for.
And when we have this meaning, this in-sight, that our lives are simply better with him (as Pope Francis puts it), then we are likely to discover, like Viktor Frankl did in the concentration camps, that, even where there is suffering, it is possible to be human – to be giving and loving and generous. We are likely to discover that suffering in a strange way can be a teacher; that in suffering we have a choice as to how we respond, and that our response either builds us up or brings us down. And – to use specifically Christian language – we are likely to discover that the path of the cross is “none other than life and peace,” because if we walk with Jesus, we will come to see. If we journey with Him, our eyes will be opened to see not as mortals see but as God sees. And we will see: how much God loves us, how much good is in this world, how God is with us every step of the way; how, even now, even where there may be pain and death, we can – in a strange way, if we let Him in, and if we give Him time – know joy and peace.