May I speak in the name of God, Creating, Redeeming, Sustaining.
As a boy in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by lamplighters, exclaiming one night ‘Look! That man is punching holes in the darkness!’ Light punching holes in darkness! A striking image.
Paul’s words to the community in Ephesus – ‘You were formerly in darkness but now in the Lord you are light.’ Not, be like light, but ‘you are light’ are similarly striking. Light enables us to see, to connect, to understand, to encounter the other. And in today’s gospel we read of someone becoming light.
The gospel words we heard were exactly as we would have heard had the Gospel been read as normal. But this passage works like a one act play, with a large cast and great drama. It’s noticeable that the confidence and articulacy of the different characters alter during this episode and worth noticing also where the ‘light’, or the life, lies.
One person is present throughout – the man born blind. Jesus is present at the beginning, with his disciples, and in his cure of the blind man, but then not throughout all the heated debate about the healing, his longest absence in the gospels. On his return, he and the man – who can now see – connect, understand, see one another – they encounter one another in the light.
The passage is a beautiful illustration of a movement from darkness to light. Prior to this event the man born blind has lived without rights, marginalised. But when we interrogate the text we discover that this man who seems to have nothing has something essential; he has clarity about what is true.
Seeing the man begging, the disciples ask Jesus whose sin has caused his suffering. The belief that sin causes suffering was common, and is still seen today. Responses to suffering though not using the word sin, frequently ask why an individual or a community suffers for example following illness, death, natural disaster, as though suffering is, in some way, God’s punishment. Jesus refutes any suggestion that God causes suffering, but shows that God does act to relieve suffering.
Seeing the man, the disciples see a theological question; by contrast Jesus, God incarnate, sees a person in need. His response? To ‘punch a hole in the darkness’, to act out of love to bring wholeness. He makes a paste with his saliva and some earth, rubs it onto the man’s eyes, and tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. In doing so the man receives the gift of sight.
Word gets out, and the neighbours wade in. They interrogate him, and he tells his story, but when asked where this man is, he can only answer ‘I do not know’. And so the interrogations continue; he is taken to the religious leaders, interrogated again, and repeats his story.
The story of this miracle is heard four times – the man born blind, who was previously invisible to those around him other than as a sign of sin, is now in everyone’s line of vision. He becomes a source of light himself shining throughout this passage with truth. But the truth, the miracle of his cure, which we might think would be cause for celebration, makes others insecure.
When we are so certain about something that we become rigid about what is true and false, we become closed off to the potential truth of challenges to these ‘immovable certainties’. Events or ideas that don’t fit with what we know become threatening, and new understandings are prevented by our stagnant certitude.
Pope Francis, in his 2020 Encyclical Fratelli Tutti writes very powerfully about human connection and disconnection, and of what he calls a ‘cool, comfortable and globalised indifference’, which leads to a cynicism of isolation and withdrawal.
We can recognise this attitude of closedness, blindness even, leading to clashes rather than encounter, in the religious leaders’ dialogue with the man born blind. Twice they confront the man; becoming increasingly determined that Jesus is a sinner, asking repeatedly what Jesus did, how he opened his eyes, in order to prove that this could not be of God. Their rigidity and fear had made them closed to hearing or seeing the good news of the miracle.
Pope Francis writes “there is a problem when doubts and fears condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed … In this way, fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other”.
We can see this tendency in social, political and media debate today. It seems that healthy encounters where ideas and beliefs are challenged and teased out to enable mutual growth in understanding is avoided. Instead the main aim becomes discreditation of the other to ‘win’ the argument.
Pope Francis continues, ‘In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.’
We become ever more distant from one another, leading to fragmentation, lack of connection, and loss of the ability to empathise.
Everyone in this central part of today’s gospel – the religious leaders, the parents of the now-sighted man, and the man himself – speak without encountering one another.
The man remains focused on the truth of the miracle and the more he is questioned, the greater his confidence in this transformative event. At first he simply affirms that he is the man born blind, that a man called Jesus put mud on his eyes and told him to wash, and now he sees. He does not know where Jesus is. He repeats his story again, this time indentifying Jesus as a prophet. For his third telling, he has grown in depth of understanding to be able to say that Jesus is a man from God who did the work of God. His transformation from a person in darkness to a person of light grows through this passage, and ultimately this is too threatening, so he is driven out.
Finally, Jesus and the man born blind meet, and an encounter takes place. The man is driven out, and Jesus, also excluded, comes to find him. The man does not immediately know Jesus for though he rubbed paste on his eyes, and told him to go and wash at the pool of Siloam, he’d gone when the man’s eyes were opened. But when Jesus speaks the man knows him.
Jesus asks the man whether he trusts in the Son of Man, and in this question we have not an interrogation but an invitation, a reaching out in order to build trust and relationship. The response ‘Lord I believe’ expresses his trust, and he immediately worships Jesus.
His physical cure has been transformed, through encounter and relationship, into healing and wholeness. He has become a child of light.
Jesus is revealed in this passage as the light of the world, the bringer of wholeness and flourishing, a revelation on this Mothering Sunday of the mothering nature of God – nurturing relationships founded on encounter, on love, and on desire for wholeness and wellbeing. God, Jesus, acts as one who, in the imagery of Robert Louis Stevenson, punches holes in the darkness, spreading light and truth. And this, our epistle tells us is also our calling today – to bring goodness, righteousness and truth; to … be … light. Amen