Fourth Sunday of Lent. Today’s readings: 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
In the run-up to the upcoming coronation of King Charles III on May 6, it has been said that the ceremony will be “rooted in long-standing traditions” while also “reflect[ing] the monarch’s role today and look towards the future”.
Whatever one’s views on the British monarchy, nobody could deny that this is a tall order, albeit a necessary one. The Church, too, is rooted in long-standing traditions. But how is it to reflect its role meaningfully today while looking towards the future?
On reflecting on today’s gospel, I was struck afresh by how rich in baptismal symbolism and undertones is the story of the man born blind. After all, is not the whole of Lent about renewing our baptismal calling?
Recall how the first Sunday of Lent started with Jesus going to the desert after having been baptised by John in the River Jordan. On Holy Saturday, we hold up our candles lit from the Easter candle, representing the Risen Christ. We are sprinkled with holy water, an act reminiscent of our baptism, and we solemnly repeat our baptismal vows.
Every word of today’s gospel takes us back to that life-defining moment of our baptism.
On seeing a man born blind, Jesus makes some “clay” with his saliva and asks him to go and bathe in the pool of Siloam, which means ‘sent’. This seemingly esoteric gesture of Jesus is a powerful baptismal catechesis in its own right. The clay recalls the creation of the first man in the Garden of Eden from mud, and the spittle, which was believed to be the “liquid breath” of the person, represents God’s breathing new life into him. The blind man is to immerse himself in water, a very important element in the Gospel of John which recalls the living water that is Jesus himself. Finally, this baptism dynamic is set in motion only insofar as he is sent to and for others.
Thus, Jesus is not merely working a healing miracle of restoring sight to a blind man, for he was born blind; neither is he simply giving physical sight to the man. Underlying this miracle is a strong reference to adopting an entirely new vision of oneself and of the world.
Underlying this miracle is a strong reference to adopting an entirely new vision of oneself and of the world
The man is radically changed in his being. Now that he has seen reality in a new way there is no turning back. Historically we find this pre-shadowed in some way by Plato’s cave-dwellers, in the Republic, who once they escape and see the light would not return to darkness to be held down by the shackles, observing only mere shadows and make-believe.
A similar line is found in the Autobiography of St Ignatius of Loyola, where he comments on how, during a period of convalescence, he notices deep within him joy when he thinks of things of the Lord, and sadness and dryness when he thinks of worldly things that pass. He hardly gave any notice to this difference “until one day the eyes of his soul were opened”.
What follows in the story of the man born blind is the result of the radical change in awareness. His very own parents refuse to associate themselves with him and he is even thrown out of the circle of faithful in the synagogue. For those who allow the baptismal dynamic to work in them, half-measures are a no-no.
We can gauge how fruitful Lent has been for us by examining how radically we are living our baptism. The Synodal Document for the Continental Stage speaks of the rediscovery of the baptismal dimension of all faithful. This translates into taking an active role in the Church and assuming co-responsibility as passionate team players rather than passive spectators.
If we allow the baptismal dynamic to function within us we can be sure that the Church’s role will remain meaningful today and in the future, without forgoing its rootedness in Christ.
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