“Here is an astonishing thing!”
The man born blind says that in the iconic story from John’s account of the Gospel, which many Christians heard in church this week (John 9:1-41). Jesus grants that man sight and the man then exclaims his astonishment to a bunch of religious leaders who care more about the rules of their religion than the amazing gift he had just received.
The whole story is rather astonishing, actually: it addresses the connection between sin and health (there isn’t any); it raises the perennial puzzle about human suffering; and it prompts all sorts of questions about God’s action in the world. It’s an ancient story but it captures perfectly the impatience so many people today have with religion: why in the world would religious leaders refuse to see a miracle just because it violates their religious customs?
But we need to pause right there and name directly that this story has been used over the centuries as one of the tools for Christian anti-Semitism. There is a long and ugly history of that in the Church, and the deeper we travel into Lent and toward Holy Week, the more frequent these problematic texts surface in our lectionary.
As Good Friday approaches, Christians must never forget our own shameful history of calling Jews “Christ killers.” We must remain vigilant about this; it is far too easy to causally or inadvertently repeat violence in our worship. (A former colleague of mine, a priest and church historian, has done extensive work on this; this short piece of his is a good place to start thinking on these matters.)
The “religious leaders” I just noted above, for example, are of course Jewish leaders. And the story from John has been interpreted by some in the past, and still today, as a story about how these religious leaders were blinded to the very presence of God standing among them.
Now, it is likely true, as some biblical scholars have suggested, that John’s account of the Gospel emerged from an early Jewish-Christian community that had been expelled from its local synagogue. In many of these gospel stories we can see traces of that ancient conflict, of a religious sibling rivalry. The story of the man born blind and granted sight is a prime example of this—an early follower of Jesus is expelled from his synagogue!
Thankfully, there is more to be said about these texts. John himself and some later interpreters took these stories of religious conflict as occasions to reflect much more broadly on the human condition itself, and who God is among us, and what God is calling us to do for the sake of healing and to help our communities flourish.
We might wonder about blindness, for example, and what prevents us from seeing the presence of God at work in the world. How have we prioritized institutional structures at the expense of divine grace and creaturely flourishing?
As many interpreters of this story have noted over the centuries, those with physical sight often cannot see what truly matters; and those who are physically blind sometimes have the clearest vision. How might we distinguish between outward sight and interior illumination?
As John Chrysostom noted back in the fourth century, this story from John features Pharisees, the most prominent leaders of that first-century religious community. He does this, Chrysostom supposed, to underscore an uncomfortable truth about religion itself in every century: it provides no guaranteed access to spiritual awakening.
Surely this is a cautionary tale for every religious institution, and about human institutions of any kind, especially when their primary goal becomes merely survival rather than mission. When power and influence are threatened, institutions become defensive, isolated, even blind; and sometimes, willfully and intentionally blind.
A prime example of this is almost daily in the news: in the state of Florida today, textbook publishers are scrambling to comply with so-called “anti-woke legislation.” The writers of these textbooks are struggling, for example, to figure out how to write about Rosa Parks without mentioning race, or that she was Black, or why she was told to stand up on that bus when all she wanted to do was sit down.
This is ludicrous. Let’s remind ourselves and our neighbors that the term “woke” first appeared way back in the 1960s as street slang for being fully aware, for seeing the world as it actually is—to be aware of the need for racial healing and reconciliation; aware of the need for social and economic justice; and today, aware of the peril our planet faces from global climate chaos. (Not surprisingly, there are complexities attached to this word and it’s worth noting its more recent evolutions and convolutions.)
To “be woke” is “to see” as clearly as we can, and the lectionary for this fourth Sunday in Lent even paired John’s story with a first-century version of being “woke” from the letter to the Ephesians: “Live as children of light,” that letter-writer says, and expose unfruitful, shameful works. “Sleeper, awake, and rise from the dead!”
To see the world as it really is, in all its irreducible complexity—broken and beautiful, lively and wounded—to see this is like waking up from a very long dream, as if coming back to life.
I’m particularly intrigued by how often ancient interpreters of John’s story invite an earthy Christian faith—an item to add to the “woke” list for a planet in peril.
Consider the fourth-century deacon Ephrem of Edessa. The blind man’s eyes were opened with dust, he noted, the very stuff from which he was made at the beginning of creation. Remember that you are dust, we said at the beginning of this Lenten season; and perhaps we should add this: “with the dust of earth you will be healed.”
Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century proposed that the ground is law and saliva is grace. The law without grace is parched and arid land from which no life can come. “So,” Caesarius says, “let the saliva of Christ go down to the ground and gather together earth. Let the one who made earth remake it, and the one who created it recreate it.”
Ambrose of Milan, going back to the fourth century, urged us to notice that Jesus tells this blind man, whose face is now covered in mud, to go and wash in a pool of water; this is the font of Holy Baptism, where we are cleansed from the stains of sin, like washing mud from our face to see!
John seems to love earthy symbols to portray the mystery of God’s presence among us, and in us, and around us. In this story of the man born blind and sighted, the symbol is earth itself, the soil, and it becomes the symbol of God’s healing presence when mixed with water—and with our own human saliva!
(Fun fact to share at your next cocktail party: some centuries ago the Church decided that if emergency baptism were required, you could use your own spit.)
There are some things that once we see them, we can never “un-see” them; they change our lives and how we live. The whole season of Lent is supposed to be like that, every single year—ongoing, lifelong conversion to the Gospel, a process of seeing everything altered, new and fresh.
This iconic story from John really gives us far too many things to see, all at once: the Creator of light giving sight to the blind; the creature of dirt being healed with mud; the waters of baptism pooling in our own mouths.
Here’s what I hope to see better, and what we all need to see together: earth as healing and also the healing of Earth—with all her peoples and all her many creatures. This is the great work to which God is always calling us, now more than ever.
To see this truly, the world would look different, and we would live differently; it would be like waking up; it would feel like rising from the dead.