Sunday, May 10, 2015

On the Man Born Blind

Healing of the man born blind
from Codex Egberti, Fol 50, between  980 and 993 A.D.
Jesus spit upon the ground, made mud, and spread the mud on the eyes of a man born blind (John 9). How peculiar! – even, by today’s customs, vaguely disgusting. And also in Jesus’ time and place, spitting was not considered a complementary act. In the Torah, spitting on someone is a mark of shame (Num 12:14; Deut 25:9) and in Job spitting signifies derision and disdain (17:6, 30:10). But Jesus is not bound by our etiquette. He who will heal on the Sabbath will surely go against the grain in a lesser matter.

Still, why would Jesus do this? It’s not the expected reaction to seeing a blind man. Jesus doesn’t even speak to the man first, He just sees the blind man, speaks with his disciples about him then immediately spits on the ground and spreads the mud on the man’s eyes. If one of us were to try this, we would likely be accosted or arrested for abusing the disabled – (unless and until, I suppose, we had thus restored sight to blind). Seemingly, this is not the only way that Jesus could heal this man. Often, he heals by his word alone. For example, according to Luke, a blind man near Jericho calls out to Jesus, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" And they speak. And Jesus says to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well." And immediately he receives his sight and follows him, glorifying God” (Luke 18:38, 42-43a). In this account, Jesus does not touch the man at all. Rather, He heals by the creative power of his word. Jesus says “be healed” and we are healed.

This calls to my mind the creation of the world, because God creates by the power of his word. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1). God says, “Let there be light” and there is light. And everything of which he says “let it be” has being – by the power of his word. He says, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.” And, by the power of his word, God thus creates humanity, male and female, in his image, which the blind cannot see.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God… and the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus Christ is the word present at creation. And through him the Father creates. As we say in the creed, “I believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ… through whom all things are made.”

So, God creates by his word, and he recreates by his word.

Giving sight to a man born blind is not simply an act of healing, it is an act of creation! – because it is the giving of a new gift – not the restoration of a lost gift. We might say that Jesus creates sight for the man born blind rather than that he “heals” him. Jesus is our creator and our re-creator. He makes all things and he makes all things new – as he does today for the man born blind, so he does for us.  

But for the man born blind, he doesn’t create simply by the power of the word, does he? No, first he spits upon the ground, makes mud, spreads it on the man’s eyes and sends him to wash in the pool named Siloam, which means “sent,” or, “one who is sent”.

This also recalls the creation of man, which is at least one reason why Jesus uses mud. Remember that our father Adam is made of the earth. His name means “dust man.” In Genesis 2, “The Lord God formed a man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” We are earth with God breathed in. Which quickly becomes clear when we die – because when that breath leaves us, a bit of earth is all that remains. As the Lord says, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Our bodies are earth mixed with water. So the mud that Jesus makes reflects his process of creation. It is earth mixed with the living water from the mouth of God, used to create sight for the man born blind.

Ambrose writes of this miracle, “The only reason for his mixing clay with the spittle and smearing it on the eyes of the blind man was to remind you that he who restored the man to health by anointing his eyes with clay is the very one who fashioned the first man out of clay” (Letter 80. 1-5: PL 16, 1326-1327). So, by this action, he shows himself to be our creator as well as our healer.

We owe our lives to Jesus. He creates us! And he sustains us in being. When we are broken, he restores us. When we sin and by his grace we repent, he forgives us. When we fall, he lifts us up. When we are sick, he heals us. When we die, he raises us from the dead.

His means of creation and recreation and healing are manifold. He is the source of our lives and he is in our lives at every step – notably punctuated by the holy mysteries.

There is something strongly sacramental about Jesus’ healing of the man born blind. In the sacraments, God works through his creatures – through men and women, through oil and water, through bread and wine – through these his simple creations, God unites us to himself. We are healed. We partake of the divine nature. Though the sacraments do not limit God and he can reach out to us at any time, through anyone, by any means. As, for example, he reached out to the man born blind through spit, through mud, and through the water of Siloam. Ambrose says that this action symbolizes baptism.

The water of the pool, the cleansing and the healing that it brings, especially evokes baptism. Have you noticed all the water in the gospels of the Paschal Sundays? This is no accident. The Paralytic Man was healed by the water of the sheep pool. The Samaritan woman receives the living water by the well of Jacob. And today, Jesus gives sight to the Man born blind through water of Siloam. All of these images evoke Baptism.

Ambrose writes of today’s Gospel, “this clay that is our flesh can receive the light of eternal life through the sacrament of baptism. You, too, should come to Siloam, that is, to him who was sent by the Father (as he says in the gospel, My teaching is not my own, it comes from him who sent me). Let Christ wash you and you will then see” (ibid.). 

We are recreated and united to Christ – through whom we are created – by baptism. We must not forget that even the unbaptized are his creatures. He is the creator of the cosmos. He creates every person. He creates our families and our friends, he also creates our enemies. I think we sometimes forget this - and that his creation is very good. But then, by baptism, he recreates us. That which sin damaged in us is restored – that is we no more shall die – though we die, we shall live, for Christ is risen!  

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