Light from darkness through Christ

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s Readings :- This Lent we have been following Jesus through, from the Temptations and the start of his ministry, to the Transfiguration and a glimpse of exactly who he is. Last week’s Reading of the encounter with the Samaritan woman took us into foreign territory, literally and metaphorically cutting loose from Judaism, to a point today (John 9:1-41) where we see things come to a head, things which will ultimately take Jesus and ourselves to the cross.

I think we have to see this account of the healing of the man born blind as part of John’s story of Jesus and the development of the Christian Church separate from Judaism. John has, I suspect, taken an earlier account of a healing by Jesus and developed it for his purposes, just as Matthew will have Jesus involved in ever increasingly bitter and acrimonious disputes with the scribes and Pharisees. John was probably writing in the late 80’s-90’s CE, so after the failed Jewish Revolt and Civil War (66-70) and their horrendous consequences. By his time, the temple had been destroyed, Jerusalem was a pagan city dedicated to Capitoline Jupiter, and Jews not massacred or enslaved dispersed to the countryside. Christians had not fought in the War, and quite clearly the gulf between the two had become immense and permanent. Jesus’ conversations on the significance of ‘blindness’ resonate at so many different levels.

Day and night, light and darkness, are frequently used themes in John, as metaphors for those who follow Jesus and those who reject him. There was quite simply no room for compromise in Johannine Christianity, and one gets the feeling that he was pretty dismissive even of pro-Jewish Christianity. This is carefully etched out in small matters such as the original instruction to the healed man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam, as any good Jew would; only to have this faithfulness to Judaism smashed aside in the tragic-comic account of the man’s reception first by neighbours, some of whom deny that he is the man born blind, whilst this serves to precipitate the reaction of the Pharisees, who flatly dismiss both the healing and the validity of Jesus’ authority (as a new great prophet-healer like Elijah, prophet of the eschaton or even the promised messiah) quite simply on the grounds that he infringes the Sabbath rule against work!

What we have is a brilliant picture of the parting of the ways. First the man is rejected by his neighbours, who have known him since childhood; then by the representatives of the Jewish law the Pharisees, and then and finally, and most sadly, by his own parents. Just imagine, if you will, if you had a child disabled from birth, how you would feel if this child were miraculously healed. What rejoicing you would expect to occur, what thanks and praise for the giver of such healing, what abundant joy in the community. But no, everyone turns resolutely away from the healed man! His parents are too afraid of the reaction of the authorities and turn their backs on their son. We are then left with the man who, empowered by being given sight, turns out to be quite a feisty defender of Christ, and takes on the Pharisees. They hurl abuse at him, ‘We are disciples of Moses’. He responds by inviting them to jettison their beliefs in favour of Jesus and his way. The upshot of the dialogue is that the Pharisees ‘drove’ the man away. He has become an outcast for Christ, the gulf between Judaism and Christianity is graphically drawn out. Jesus welcomes the now ‘sighted’ man, and condemns the Pharisees for their blatant refusal to consider the nature of the miracle and its bringer with the chilling words ‘Your guilt/sin remains’. This powerful account of a single miracle and its aftermath serves then to describe the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity, and St John writing from Ephesus to a largely and increasingly pagan community will understand that gap as irrevocable and final. For us too, it must raise some painful and awkward questions about the meaning of our faith in a largely unbelieving world.

I suppose this also helps to explain why we have as our Old Testament reading the account of Samuel’s choice of David. (1 Sam 16:6-7.10-13). It is when we look at what is going on that we are confronted by the radical nature of the events here and the changes they promise. First of all, Israel already had a King, Saul, who was to be rejected. Samuel’s choice of someone else was therefore highly subversive and literally revolutionary; it was an act of treason. Given that, one would have expected him to choose the eldest son of Jesse, yet this understanding of appropriateness is also firmly rejected all the way down till we reach the runt of the litter. This is a disturbing and dangerous story, one that should shock to the core, one in which the overthrow of the social order is not simply planned, but executed; and like John’s story of the healing of the man born blind and the rejection of Judaism, it is meant to be deeply disturbing.

How fitting then that our Second Reading ( Ephesians :5:8-14) is of Paul’s encouraging words to the Christians of Ephesus ‘You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord.’ It is their and our story of the great change wrought in all our lives by the Christ event, and something we are invited to consider this Lent as we follow Jesus to his Passion. For those themes of light and dark will loom large all the way through to the great enlightening of Easter. We should watch for each and every one of these moments, exploring them as they are presented to us, as opportunities to unite us ever more deeply with the Jesus whom we are coming to know and serve.