“They answered him, You were born in utter sin, and you would teach us? And they cast him out!”
The late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote about a man born blind whose sight was restored. This miracle occurred neither through prayer, nor through a concoction of dirt and divine saliva, but through a surgical correction of the patient’s eyes.
The blind man agreed eagerly to the surgery, experimental and delicate though it was. The operation went well, although the man’s eyes had to be bandaged for a time to let them heal, but at last the day came when the bandages could be removed. The surgical team, the man’s family, and others assembled as the nurses carefully unwound the dressings from the patient’s face. All were hushed, expectant.
For the first time in his life, the man opened his eyes and …
What were they expecting? What would you expect?
Jubilation! Joy! “Ah, color! Light! My wife’s sweet face, just as I’d always imagined it!”
But instead, the man turned his head from side to side to side. His expression was baffled and frightened.
“What’s wrong?” his doctor asked at last, and at the sound of his voice, the man turned in his direction.
“Oh, my God!” he said, his voice trembling. “I thought I was all alone.” And the man began to weep.
The man had been blind since birth. His brain knew only sound and touch, smell and taste; it had never received visual stimulation. It had never developed the neural pathways needed for processing visual images and had never created categories by which he might understand the data now crashing against his retinas on waves of light. Technically, his eyes worked — but he could not make sense of what he saw.
The heartbreaking thing was, he never could learn to make sense of it. His brain could not adjust to process vision, so the visible world never became comprehensible, let along beautiful, to this poor man. It was always a bright, confused madness hovering in front of him.
He became profoundly depressed and begged the doctors to re-blind him. When they would not, he could find relief only in blindfolding himself and living in darkness, artificially returning to the one world in which he could function.
Today we hear of the Jesus curing the man born blind, and particularly of the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees! St. John is the only evangelist to record this episode.
In today’s gospel passage, the Pharisees bring up the same accusation as they did when the paralyzed man was cured beside the pool: that Jesus has broken the Law because he cures the sick on the Sabbath. Christ had often taught that observance of the law of Sabbath rest was compatible with the duty to do good. Charity, done for the good of others, takes precedence over all the other commandments. If rules are given precedence in a blind sort of way over the inescapable obligations of justice and charity, the result is fanaticism. This always goes against the Gospel and even against right reason—as happens in this instance with the Pharisees. Their minds are so closed that they do not want to see God’s hand in something which simply could not be done without God’s divine power. The dilemma they pose themselves is this — is he a man of God, as his miracles imply; or a sinner, because he does not keep the Sabbath? Such a dilemma can only arise in people whose outlook is that of religious fanatics. Their mistaken interpretation of how certain precepts should be kept leads them to forget the essence of the Law—love of God and love of neighbor, for the love of God.
To avoid accepting Jesus’ divinity, the Pharisees reject the only possible correct interpretation of the miracle; whereas the blind man — who like all people open to the truth — finds solid grounds in the miracle Christ works as made manifest through the power of God.
The Pharisees response, “Give God the praise”: is a solemn declaration, like an oath, exhorting a person to tell the truth. But the Pharisees are not looking for the truth: they want to intimidate the man originally born blind to get him to withdraw his statement. They try to pressure him by warning him: “We know this man is a sinner”. St Augustine comments: “What they mean to say to the man born blind is, to deny what you have received. Clearly, this is not to give God the praise, but rather to blaspheme against God.”
This miracle by Jesus was so blatant and self-evident that not even his enemies could deny it. Our Lord worked many miracles during his public ministry, showing that he had complete power over everything, in other words that He was divine.
Rationalism, basing itself on an erroneous philosophical principle, refuses to accept that God can intervene in a supernatural way in this world; it therefore denies the possibility of miracles: but the Church has always taught that miracles do happen and that they serve a purpose: The first Vatican Council stated that “If any one shall say that miracles are impossible, and that therefore all the accounts regarding them, even those contained in Holy Scripture, are to be dismissed as fables or myths; or that miracles can never be known with certainty, and that the divine origin of Christianity cannot be proved by them — let him be cursed.”
Everyone saw the miracle, but the Pharisees are so stubborn that they will not accept the significance of the event, not even after questioning the man himself and his parents. “The sin of the Pharisees did not consist in not seeing God in Christ, but in voluntarily shutting themselves up within themselves, in not letting Jesus, who is the light, open their eyes.”
As this episode proceeds, the faith of the man born blind himself deepens. He begins by recognizing Jesus as a prophet and he ends up acknowledging his divinity; whereas over the same course of events the Pharisees become more and more obstinate — moving from doubt, through the blasphemous assertion that Jesus is a sinner, to eventually expelling the beggar — a useful warning about the danger of pride which can blind one to the obvious.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as Jesus explains in the wake of his restoring sight to the man born blind in today’s Gospel, the “light” that is Christ both which illuminates the humble — and blinds the proud. It reveals the love and mercy of God in our lives — but it can shine harshly on those elements of our lives we would prefer to keep in the shadows: such as our fears, our prejudices, and our selfishness. In the light of Christ, our un-Christ-like behaviors and attitudes are seen for what they are; our failing to “see” our lives through the eyes of Faith and against the backdrop of eternity!
Like the poor blind man, who the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote about in my opening story, what we “see” in the light of Christ can sometimes be confusing and difficult and scary for us to comprehend. But may we dare this Lent to embrace the light of Christ which allows us to see beyond labels, stereotypes, old scores and self-interests which illuminates the darkness of our sins, and heals our spiritual blindness but which also restores us to “see” all the love and mercy of God active in our lives.
Mary, Virgin most humble, pray for us!