Fourth Sunday of Lent
Catholic Center Chapel
Sunday, March 22, 2020
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Please do not blame the deacon. There is a shorter version of today’s Gospel, but I insisted that he read the uncut version. Let me explain why.
Since the fourth century, the story of the healing of the blind man in the Gospel of John has been associated with the preparation of those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. This year, the Archdiocese of Newark has 384 Catechumens, who certainly deserve to hear this story in its entirety. I am thinking also of the 39 persons who were baptized in other Christian churches, but now wish to enter full communion in our community, as well as the 518 baptized Catholics who are preparing to complete their sacramental initiation through the reception of confirmation and holy eucharist. These brothers and sisters, catechumens and candidates nearly 1,000 strong, were recognized in the Cathedral on the first weekend of Lent, Feb. 29 and March 1. Together with their godparents, sponsors and catechists, they deserve to hear the whole story.
So, do we, because the story may tell us more than we expect. You see, the story of the man born blind is more than a cure. You see, the miracle isn’t the point. If it were, Deacon Asterio could have stopped after just seven verses. Let’s see if we see.
The miracle is told in seven verses. You remember the punchline: “So he went and washed and came back able to see.” Before the punchline, we hear the first of a number of wrong-headed questions: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus urgently invites them to think beyond the miracle he is about to perform. Why? Jesus tells them and us why we should listen up:
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.
Imagine that! Jesus speaks about his disciples as partners in his “work.” Secondly, an attempt to live in a world without Jesus is to choose to live in darkness.
That fundamental choice and its consequences are really what is at stake after the miracle. On the one hand, the man who was born blind comes to see much more than he ever expected. On the other hand, the religious leaders – the Pharisees – who arrogantly believe that they see, choose an increasingly horrific blindness.
The Pharisees repeatedly ask the man to recount the physical facts of his cure. Thinking that he may not really have been blind from birth, they drag in the fellow’s parents. When the fact of his cure has been established beyond doubt, they seize on one detail: it happened on a sabbath. They reach their conclusion: the one who worked the cure had to be a sinner. Furthermore, they had no knowledge of his spiritual pedigree, his origins. They were disciples of Moses. They knew how God acted.
The man was not content with the fact of his cure. Much more important to him would be his journey of belief regarding who cured him. First, he can only identify him as “the man called Jesus” and, no, he did not know where he was. Pressed by the Pharisees, the man goes further, identifying him as “a prophet.” Finally, and only with the help of Jesus, he comes to know him as the “Son of Man,” the one who would definitely make God known in the human story. The man born blind knows where Jesus comes from. His final words tell us how far he has come in the journey of belief: “he said, ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him.”
The story has a lot to say to us today. Do you remember how we began Lent three weeks ago? Every year on the First Sunday of Lent the Church listens to the story of the temptations of Jesus. Temptations that did not happen once and for all in the desert but rather occurred throughout his ministry. Temptations that can be ours as well.
Temptations to demand something spectacular from God, like turning stones into bread, or divine assistance to catch him after he hurls himself off the roof of the Temple. Demands for the spectacular without a humble submission to God’s plans.
The demand for the spectacular can tempt us today as we chafe at the restrictions imposed on us because of the pandemic. We can exclude ourselves from the constraints of social distancing, insisting that our worship has priority and will protect us from contamination. Doesn’t that sound like the dive Satan suggests Jesus make?
Wherever we are on the journey of belief, if our lives are leading us to Jesus, then we are walking away from the deepest darkness, an attempt to create a world without Jesus. Reading the story of the blind man in the reality of the pandemic, it seems to me that the question we should ask is: How can we walk in the light and not get within six feet of each other? Here are two recommendations.
The first one comes directly from Pope Francis. Earlier today he suggested to the suffering people of Rome that they read the entire ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, where the story of the man born blind is told. He said that the text is so beautiful, it will do us good to read it again or even twice. The wonders that Jesus does are not spectacular gestures but are meant to lead to faith through a path of inner transformation.
The second suggestion recognizes the desire of so many of us to stay connected, especially with the frightened, anxious or abandoned. I am thinking especially of priests, deacons and bishops, who may be suffering from a sort of pastoral “cabin fever.” We all have cell phones. We all know people who need encouragement. As part of our regime, let’s make 10 phone calls each day aimed at sharing the light of Christ.
Let me ask another bishop to have the last word. St. Augustine had his own journey to faith, and it wasn’t always a straight line. He eventually was embraced by the light of Christ and spent the rest of his life trying to reflect that light. His experience can help us better understand what we heard today:
The Lord tells us: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life. In these few words he gives a command and makes a promise. Let us do what he commands so that we may not blush to covet what he promises and to hear him say on the day of judgment: “I laid down certain conditions for obtaining my promises. Have you fulfilled them?” If you say: “What did you command, Lord our God?” he will tell you: “I commanded you to follow me. You asked for advice on how to enter life. What life, if not the life about which it is written: With you is the fountain of life?”
We are partners in the work of Jesus, who is the light of the world. Let us obey his command to follow him, so that we can claim his promise.
Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Archbishop of Newark