26 March [Fourth Sunday of Lent]
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
John's gospel is shot through with imagery of light and darkness. In itself this imagery is open to being used in very facile ways, but John's use of it is complex and paradoxical. In today's reading, the man born blind receives his physical sight, but at a deeper level he also receives spiritual sight; whereas the Pharisees who thought they had spiritual sight become increasingly spiritually blind.
"I once was lost but now I'm found / Was blind but now I see," says the hymn Amazing Grace. We sense something presumptuous about this; it seems rather too clear-cut. Are you sure there is no darkness in you still? In reality we see and don’t see. "I believe; help my unbelief!" cried the father of the child in Mark 9:24. In the story of Saint Paul's conversion (Acts 9) the same paradox is evident. Paul did not leap up shouting joyfully, "Now I see!" Instead he was struck blind! Nor was it a case of being dazzled for a moment; he remained blind for three days. This mighty man had to be led by the hand like a child into Damascus and there he sat helpless, in darkness, for three days until someone else - a total stranger - restored his sight. Even then he did not go about shouting, "Now I see!" He went into the Arabian desert for three years. And even later, when he was in full spate, he could write, "Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Corinthians 1:12).
Faith is knowledge, but it is dark knowledge. Its light is not a garish light but a dim light just sufficient to guide our path in humility. St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 332 A.D. - 395) wrote that John penetrated into the "luminous darkness," and could say, "No one has ever seen God" (John 1:18). Gregory delighted in this paradoxical expression, "luminous darkness", and used many similar ones: "wise folly", "sober inebriation", "stationary movement", "living death"…. Where could he have got the courage to use such expressions if not from the Gospel itself, which is full of paradox?
To claim to have more light than one has is a great sin against the light; it cheapens it for oneself and for others. "Now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains," Jesus told the Pharisees. When we speak of the Faith we have to do so with humility and with respect for the darkness. Like the blind man in today's reading we may have to be driven out of the company of those who think they see; and like Paul, led helpless by the hand along a humble path, or driven into the solitude of the desert - whatever it takes to rid us of our own brash light. God alone can penetrate the darkness. "Even darkness is not dark for you / And the night is as clear as the day" (Psalm 38).
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