Fourth Sunday of Lent “Laetare Sunday” (Year A)
1Sm 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a;
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The mission of Christ-Light
“The Fourth Sunday of Lent is suffused with light, a light reflected on this ‘Laetare Sunday’ [‘Rejoice!’] by vestments of a lighter hue and the flowers that adorn the church” (Homiletic Directory no.73). In this context of joy for “the approaching Easter,” we heard the gospel of the healing of a man blind from birth. As noted in our previous commentary, together with the gospel passages of the Samaritan woman (last Sunday) and the resurrection of Lazarus (next Sunday), this forms the Lenten triptych for a (re)discovery of the gift of baptism, as emphasized in the liturgical commentaries. Thus, “the underlying theme of these three Sundays is how faith can be nurtured continually even in the face of sin (the Samaritan woman), ignorance (the blind man), and death (Lazarus). These are the ‘deserts’ through which we travel through life, and in which we discover that we are not alone, because God is with us” (Homiletic Directory, 69).
Once more, keeping in mind such a liturgical setting as well as the tremendous richness of today’s very long Gospel passage, let us go into just a few details that help us deepen our understanding of the mystery of Christ’s mission in order to revive our faith in Him and our missionary zeal, “following in His footsteps.”
We follow the tripartite structure of the story, which is presented as a three-act drama to masterfully describe the journey of the man blind from birth toward full sight: from recovering material sight to seeing and believing in Jesus as “Son of Man” and Lord. It is about the journey that we and all the baptized together with the catechumens are called to take, this Lent, to rediscover the essence of our faith and mission in Christ.
1. The “accidental” encounter with the blind man and the mysterious actions of Jesus the physician and “light of the world”
The whole story with the man born blind seems to begin with an “en passant” event. Indeed, as the evangelist relates, «[In the temple of Jerusalem] Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth». Nevertheless, as pointed out already in the commentary on the Samaritan woman episode, for Jesus and his missionary disciples everything happens according to God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. In their lives there will be nothing by chance. Every encounter with people will always be a propitious opportunity to get in touch with them and to convey the message of God’s love and the Gospel of Christ in the concrete situation in which they live. It will always be an opportune time (even with all the inconveniences of the situation!) for a deeper conversation about Christ’s mission and identity. The fundamental question for us, his modern disciples, is whether we have the same mission consciousness as Jesus, the same sense of responsibility for the salvation of the soul (indeed of all souls!) and the same courage of the proclamation and action.
In this perspective, the encounter with the man born blind will be the occasion, so that “the works of God might be made visible through him” by the concrete actions of Jesus, who thus reveals himself as a divine physician and giver of light to the blind. In this regard, the strange but significant peculiarities of Jesus’ actions should be noted and clarified. First of all, He “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes.” This particular gesture in the use of His own saliva actually reflects the practice of physicians at that time. Jesus also used it in healing a deaf-mute (cf. Mk 7:33: “[Jesus] spitting, touched his tongue”), or even in healing another blind man in Bethsaida (cf. Mk 8:23: “[Jesus] Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on him”). However, singular in our passage today is the “combination” of spittle with soil to obtain the “mud” to be put on the “patient’s” eyes. Without entering too much into the centuries-old debate about the possible material or spiritual meaning of such an action, we may wonder if we can glimpse here a subtle reference to the primordial “mud” in the creation of the first man. The man born blind becomes the eloquent image of the human being blinded because of the sin of “one” (Adam, literally meaning “man”); he is now going through with Jesus the process of the new creation to regain his God-given sight at the origin.
Moreover, compared to the other miracles, Jesus’ command to the blind man to complete the healing will also be unique and mysterious: “said to him, ‘Go wash in the Pool of Siloam.’” The hidden meaning of this command is suggested by the very evangelist himself who immediately explains “Sìloam – which means Sent.” Now, if Jesus is the Father’s “Sent” to save the world with the gift of “living water,” as we also heard in the Samaritan woman episode, will not the washing in the pool of Siloam be precisely the image of the washing in the “water” of Jesus, God’s “Sent”?
It should be emphasized that in order to complete the healing, the cooperation of the blind man himself, who had to go and wash at the specified pool, was crucial. Personally, I was struck by the man’s “blind” obedience to Jesus’ command, without grumbling or protesting about the possible difficulties of the route from the place of his meeting with Jesus to the pool of Siloam, especially for a blind man like him! (For those who have visited Jerusalem, this stretch of road from the Temple Mount to the Pool of Siloam is about a 30-minute walk and always downhill; this requires utmost care not to fall). With this in mind, the blind man’s obedient walk becomes a strong invitation to all of us to perform the same “heroic” act, overcoming the various adversities of life to arrive at or return to the source of new life, through immersion, that is, baptism, in the water of “Sìloam – which means Sent.”
2. The questioning of the Jews and the testimony of the healed blind man
Following the healing, a “trial” by the Pharisees/Jews of the healed blind man takes place, which the evangelist John recounts with a good deal of irony through various “comic” elements to bring out the embarrassing helplessness of the Pharisees/Jews at the time in the face of the blind man’s ascertainment of the fact and in the face of the wisdom-acuteness of his parents (“Ask him, he is of age”). Behind this telling, however, one can glimpse precisely the joyful aspect of Christian witness that is a simple confession of the new life given by Christ. The healed blind man, in fact, simply affirmed to the people what had happened to him: “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” He will repeat again to the Pharisees, “[Jesus] put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see”; and again, for the third time, to the Jews who accused Jesus as a sinner, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” After this final testimony, the blind man, probably amused, continued with an ironic question: “Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
Such a testimony of the blind man, of his truth, had an uncontroversial force, because it was made with sincerity and faithfulness; and this in spite of the still partial knowledge of the person of Jesus his healer. This is a journey of faith that the blind man took: from “seeing” Jesus as a man to thinking of Him as a prophet and, finally, to believing in Him as the Son of the man-Lord, culminating in the gesture of adoration-accession of faith, “he worshiped Him.” This will be the path to be retraced also by all of us, His disciples-missionaries, to be able, already on our way, to witness to others with simplicity what the Lord has done in our lives, like today’s healed blind man. “One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see Life with Jesus with His gift of full sight and life without knowing Him will never be the same. We remember in this regard the important words of Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate, the tenth anniversary of which is being celebrated these days:
All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others. Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing. The witness of faith that each Christian is called to offer leads us to say with Saint Paul: “Not that I have already obtained this, or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12-13). (Evangelii Gaudium 121)
3. Jesus’ final statements for a serious “eye” examination (i.e. of conscience)
What particularly strikes me is Jesus’ statement toward the end of the story. After revealing His identity to the man born blind (already healed) and receiving the latter’s homage, Jesus said that He came into this world, “so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” (Jn 9:39). This is obviously not about Jesus’ willingness to blind anyone (so much so that He did not hurt anyone!). It is the statement (in the manner of the prophets) of a sad fact: there are those who, though they have sight, do not “see” Jesus as the Son of God in their midst. As a result, they cannot clearly see God’s teaching to follow and their own sins to forsake. In fact, as later recounted in the Gospel, the Pharisees “heard this” from Jesus and “said to Him” ironically: “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” (Jn 9:40). To this Jesus responded with all seriousness, for it is indeed a matter of life and death of the soul: “If you were blind, you would have no sin;
but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” (Jn 9:41).
We are faced with a strong warning against the danger of spiritual blindness for those who boast of “seeing everything” but live, in reality, in perpetual darkness. This recalls an enigmatic saying of Jesus about the light of the eyes: “The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light;
but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be” (Mt 6:22-23). This is truly a great danger: you think you have light, but you live in darkness! In light of what has been noted, one can better understand Jesus’ seemingly “paradoxical” praise of the Father: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Mt 11:25; Lk 10:21). God wants to reveal to all things in Jesus, only that the “wise and learned” of the world (and unfortunately of all times!) in their pride do not want to see and welcome the “divine things” of and in Jesus. Only “the childlike” in their littleness joyfully welcome the new “sight” given by Him.
Therefore, one can glimpse a suggestion in the struggle against spiritual blindness: “acknowledge oneself blind” like the man born blind. What does this mean concretely? Perhaps we need to strip ourselves a little of pride in order to grow again in humility before God and Christ, always recognizing ourselves in need of spiritual purification. In this we can be helped by the Word of God itself, which offers a beautiful sincere and inspired prayer from the Psalmist to be repeated more frequently in these days: “[Oh God] Who can detect trespasses? / Cleanse me from my inadvertent sins. / Also from arrogant ones restrain your servant; / let them never control me. / Then shall I be blameless, / innocent of grave sin” (Ps 19,13-14).
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, [from sins] and Christ will give you light.” (Eph 5:14). Amen.