March 26, 2017
“Then he went and washed and came back able to see.” (Jn 9:7)
The transformation is instant and astonishing. Not only can this man who has never seen, now see with his physical eyes, the narrative pushes us to the conclusion that he sees more clearly than those around him. He cuts through the factual confusion and prevarication of the crowd – is he? is he not? – with, “I am.” He cuts through the moral confusion and prevarication of the Pharisees – is he from God? is he not? – with, “ If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Jewish leaders interrogate him, intimidate his family, and eventually throw him out of the synagogue. Yet he stands firm with piercing clarity of thought, refusing to allow the waters to be muddied.
This scene reminds me of Sophie Scholl – The Final Days. The film shows the Nazi authorities using almost every conceivable means – constant questioning, reams of facts and figures, emotional manipulation, threats of violence, offers of release, public humiliation – to undermine the integrity of this young woman who stands for truth and human solidarity. Up until the final moment of execution, there is a noticeable absence of any physical violence, just as in John’s Gospel. The violence is verbal, the tension palpable. We are given the impression that Sophie Scholl’s inner strength and clarity of thought came through a family formation in religious faith and human values. Where did the blind man get it?
“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (Jn 9:1)
We do not know what the man’s parents taught him about his blindness and God’s plan for him. Perhaps there was some cultural guilt or shame in the family. But the rock-like confidence this man shows in the face of opposition and humiliation suggests that he was not brought up to despise himself or quiver before an angry God. Someone must have whispered into his darkness a word of love. In darkness this gift grew, like a seed, until the moment when it burst forth into visible reality.
Something goes wrong and we question: “Who is to blame?” or, “What did I do wrong?” To say flippantly that misfortunes are God’s will does not do justice to our pain and borders on blasphemy by suggesting that God does not care. But what if a loving God can choose to give a difficult gift, a painful gift?
In our day, we are realizing more and more clearly, with the help of Jean Vanier and L’Arche, Special Olympics and other such movements, that people with disabilities have their own gifts and the potential for a rich and meaningful life. We are beginning to see that we can learn from them what it means to be a child of God. We are also learning that our own disabilities – our emotional and psychological wounds – are not just liabilities, but ways in which God enters our life. The wound is a way in.
“He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (Jn 9:3)
What Jesus is saying is that blindness was God’s gift to this man and to those who would meet him. A painful gift. A difficult gift. But a gift of great value to all who could receive it. Jesus shares with the blind man the glory of his own vocation as the Son of Man – to be the revealer of God. It is those who refuse to see God’s revelation who are entirely in sin.
What is God’s difficult gift to me? What disability or what wound limits my possibilities and causes me pain or shame? Am I able to receive, through the door of that wound, a word of love? Can I let this word grow like a seed in dark earth? Could I stand firm in the face of opposition and humiliation through the strength of this word? Do I have the courage to let my life reveal God and so become a gift to others?
“Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.”
Image: Henri Matisse, The Fall of Icarus (composed with the aid of an assistant when he was confined to a wheelchair)