You were once in darkness: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 9:1–41 :

As Jesus passed by 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 he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam”—which means Sent—. So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath. So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” His parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”

So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him. Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

There are none so blind as those who will not see. This famous axiom from John Heywood in the 16th century plays out in today’s Gospel. However, Heywood got it from the scriptures himself — from Jeremiah, whose warnings about destruction and prophesies about salvation echo throughout Jesus’ ministry. “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people,” Jeremiah declared before the fall of Jerusalem, “who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.” Centuries later, Jeremiah’s warnings had become prophecy again, but this time it would be final.

Jeremiah tried to warn the leaders of Judah and especially Jerusalem of the coming destruction of the city. At that time, those leaders believed that the Lord would not allow the temple to fall into the hands of anyone but His own chosen people. They treated the temple as a kind of idol in itself, and by implication assumed they could hold the Lord hostage against their own folly. Jeremiah warned of this hubris and God’s anger for betraying him, to little avail. Jerusalem and Judah had grown blind and deaf to the Lord, and not until the Babylonians had sacked the city and temple and enslaved the Judeans did Jeremiah’s words have any effect.

We see a parallel here in this miraculous healing of the blind man. Jesus heals the blindness of a poor beggar as a sign, a sign which the Pharisees — the temple authorities of that time — reject. Rather than have their own eyes opened to testimony of the healed beggar, they rely on their own authority as “disciples of Moses” to reject Jesus as a prophet. The blind man has been given his sight, but by the same action, those who were tasked with sight have blinded themselves by their own hubris.

What does this portend? Jesus warns the Pharisees and scribes at the temple itself that His temple will be rebuilt in three days after its destruction, which is meant as a warning more than a prophecy. Jesus echoes Jeremiah in these passages, preaching that the temple is not the key to faith or to God’s presence, but that the human heart is the true temple. This is, as it was in Jeremiah’s time, an attack on the power structure of the temple and its blindness in assuming that their interpretation superseded the Lord’s true message of freedom and salvation.

“I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind,” Jesus tells the healed man. It is a reversal of temporal authority that we see over and over again throughout salvation history. We erect human leadership that eventually becomes more concerned with its self-perpetuation than its charge to be instruments of God’s will.

Paul writes to the Ephesians in our second reading today with a theme of light and darkness to emphasize a similar point:

You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

What leads us into darkness and blinds us? Living solely for our own worldly advancement. What brings us into the light? Working for the Lord and conforming ourselves to His will. The longer we do the former, the more blind and deaf we become, until prophets of truth confound us rather than illuminate our lives. Instead of embracing truth and emerging from the darkness, we reject the light and those who bring it to us, just as Jeremiah and Jesus knew would happen.

And yet, Jesus fulfilled His sacrifice for us, unworthy though we are, so that at some point we would be illuminated by truth. That allows us to enter once again the temples of our hearts, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, no matter how much our blindness has damaged us. All we need to do to restore our sight, as Paul poetically writes, is to awaken ourselves to His love.


The front page image is a detail of “Healing of the Blind Man” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1308, on display at the National Gallery in the UK. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.