“Why was he born blind?” The disciples of Jesus wonder about the cause of blindness in the man born blind, whom we read about in today’s gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Lent. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” These kinds of questions are not uncommon; they are similarly asked about those who suffer any kind of physical disability or ailment. What did X do that resulted in this unfortunate punishment? I myself have been faced with implicit questions of this sort. Was I born with muscular dystrophy simply because my parents must have done something wrong? In the Old Testament book of Job, Job’s friends ask him to confess whatever sins he must be hiding. Job is suffering so dreadfully because, as they erroneously conclude, he must have done something wrong and therefore God is punishing him for it. But it wasn’t because of any sin of Job’s. It was not the sin of the man born blind – – indeed, he couldn’t have even committed a personal sin before he was born, nor was it the man’s parents sin that caused him to be born blind. To say that somebody is suffering from a condition necessarily because of the personal sin of the one suffering or because of the personal sin of somebody close to the suffering person is to assume that God is vengeful and always out to punish. In the first place, suffering is not God’s invention. As we read in the book of wisdom, it was by the envy of the devil that death (and by extension, suffering) entered into the world. God allows suffering – – and yes sometimes he may allow it to get our attention – – but he does not cause it. Suffering is not always and everywhere simply a result of one’s own personal sin, incurred as a punishment. In the case of the man born blind, he was innocent, he was born blind. And no, by the way, there are no previous lives, no previous lifetimes, allowing for the possibility for someone to have done evil before they were born into the present world.
So for what cause was the man born blind? Jesus answers, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” God works wonders through those who suffer. He allows them to undergo suffering so that he can heal them completely, manifesting his power and goodness and mastery over his creation – – or he allows them to suffer so that he can more quietly manifest these things in and through the suffering person – – to show forth his love and strength in a mysterious yet tangible way. Physical suffering and affliction can be a tremendously effective force in healing one’s own and/or others’s spiritual sufferings and afflictions. I can testify to this. In every case, suffering is allowed “so that the works of God might be made visible…” Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, he works while it is day, he shines on those who walk in darkness, he opens the eyes of the blind and makes the deaf hear and causes the lame to walk. His works testify to his claim that he is sent by the Father, and even further, that he is God. He is the icon or image of the invisible God. It is of a very necessity that he makes the blind see – – physically and spiritually.
The entirety of the Gospel of John is full of a rich interplay between light and darkness, sight and blindness. Jesus is the Light that shines in the darkness. He is the Truth, the Light that illuminates every heart. To those who receive him – – who see him, he gives power of regeneration, to become children of God, children of the kingdom of light. But to those who do not receive him – – who cannot see him for who he is, remain in darkness. The Pharisees in today’s Gospel could not see, they were spiritually blind themselves, to Jesus, and to the man born blind. Blind to themselves: they could not see their own sinfulness and need for repentance. Blind to Jesus: they could not recognize that he was indeed the Messiah of Israel, a prophet, and more than a prophet, God himself come in the flesh. Blind to the blind man: they could not perceive his humanity, the fact that he was blind and now he could see, and that his cure attested to the power of the One who healed him. The detail about Jesus spitting on the ground and making a mud paste with his saliva is very telling. When God created man out of the dust of the earth, according to Jewish Tradition, he created him by spitting upon the ground and making mud clay. God uses matter to heal and to convey his grace. And so we see that Jesus puts mud over the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.
The man who was healed in today’s gospel was allowed to be born blind so that others’ eyes could be open to the marvelous light of the glory of God. He was changed because God touched him, so much so that people could hardly recognize him. Before baptism, there is something like a spiritual blindness in our souls – – the deprivation of grace due to what is called Original Sin. When we are baptized in the sanctifying waters, we are cured of this blindness and are changed into the likeness of God. The baptized put on Christ and resemble him as children of God. Sometimes this grace of baptism is renewed. When I had strayed from God because I did not understand why he allowed me to suffer, I lapsed into blindness. Eventually he led me back to himself, and in restoring my sight, he revealed to me that my physical suffering was intended to manifest the glory of God. In this spiritual healing, which culminated in the waters of Lourdes, reminiscent of my baptism, I became almost unrecognizable – – except for the wheelchair which no longer seemed to restrain me. It might have been said to me: “you are still you but there is something completely different about you.” When he is asked, “are you the same man who was blind?” the recipient of Christ’s healing responds, “I am.” How startling is this answer! “I AM” is the very name with which God revealed himself to Moses at the Burning Bush. Baptism is administered in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In baptism, we become partakers of the Divine Nature in Christ, children of God, and this name of God is in a way applied to us.
Everything, absolutely everything can be used for the glory of God, water, mud, blindness, and even suffering. If we can come to see this, we are blessed indeed. Lord, give us the eyes to see ourselves, and to see you as you are – – and in everyone around us especially the poor and suffering.