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Sunday, March 30, 2014

John 9:9 and the co-creation of light

Mary: I mean, we're just people. We're just human beings. You think you're God!

Isaac: I gotta model myself after someone.

(from Manhattan, by Woody Allen)

Between hearing the readings again today and reading John Shea’s commentary on them in his lovely book The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year A, from the “Spiritual Wisdom” trilogy, the things that really jumped out at me were the clear associations between the gospel about the man born blind and the creation story in Genesis. First, there is the whole provenance of light. The first act of creation in the narrative is the simple statement, “God said, ‘Light!’, and there was light.” Second, there is Jesus’s act of making mud paste with dirt and saliva, which recalls the act of the creation of adama (the human being) from the clay. The cure of the blind man happens, as has I’ve written about before, on the Sabbath, which makes us aware that whatever is going on here is about the meaning of God, about who God is, what God does, and what God wants. For John and for us, Jesus is the truth, revealing the true identity of God. God thus is light, healing, and life first and foremost, and not a cosmic plenipotentiary looking for praise and sacrifice from satraps and subjects, nor a judge looking for slavish adherence to human laws of rite and religion. There is continuity between the work of Jesus on humanity’s behalf in the world and the work of creation.

But the biggest surprise to me, and I might be making more of this than I ought to, was John 9:9.  When I heard the text it struck me:
His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said,
“Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?”
Some said, “It is, “
but others said, “No, he just looks like him.”
(The formerly blind man himself) said, “I am.”


Now, remember that this story is about God first and foremost (see where I’m going?) Remember that it is one of the seven signs in John’s gospel, and in a great line of sayings by Jesus that includes “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the sheepgate,” and, at the hour of his arrest, asked for his identity, just the words, “I am,” in Greek, ego eimi. Can it possibly be a coincidence in this gospel, so literary and careful in its construction, that here, touched by Jesus and part of new creation that Jesus came to begin, those words do not carry the full weight of God’s name? When this came to me, I looked it up in the Greek New Testament online. Even Jesus’s words above, ‘phos eimi tou kosmou,” “I am the light of the world,” do not as directly say what he says in other parts of the gospel. The words are emphatically stated here by the man himself: ego eimi, I AM, the words that represent the name of God in John. It struck me that the man born blind has become a visible sign of the invisible reality of God, that is, the man is now truth and light. It is he whose vision, both his inner vision and his sight, has been created again, and who embraces the truth of his experience and clings to it. “This is what is so amazing,” the blind man tells his interrogators, “that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does (God’s) will, (God) listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever  (me: that is, from the beginning of creation) opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”

I published last year, and retweeted last week, a piece about about the mystery of sin, and how the intention of the three scrutinies is to “gradually reveal” the mystery of sin. And that is true. But they also reveal the mystery of grace. They have the dual purpose of purification and enlightenment. I wrote about how sin is able to derail religion, to turn it into a joyless series of hoops to jump through and formulas disconnected with our reality. But this gospel teach us to trust our experiences of God. If it feels like we’ve been cured, look for the place that the cure came from, even if it’s not on your religious radar. It reminds me of Steve Earles’s amazing song about the American Taliban, “John Walker’s Blues.” Unlike the knee-jerk hatred of the right-wing, the artist tries to probe what it is that would make a middle-class American boy join radical Islamists on the other side of the world. His answer is that it was a necessity, an “existential imperative,” because of the (perceived) truth of his religious experience:
I'm just an American boy raised on MTV 

And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads 

But none of 'em looked like me 

So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim 

And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word 

Of Mohammed, peace be upon him. 

Obviously, there is more to be considered than just isolated experience of truth. There’s an aspect of discernment involved, and we believe that that discernment is a community project, not something one ordinarily undertakes on his own. As the proverb says, the person who acts has his own lawyer has a fool for a client; the same goes in spades for the spiritual life, at least insofar as the Catholic tradition sees it. Truth is communal, it’s not, generally speaking, the provenance of individuals. Revelation all too often turns out be conversing with strange aspects of the self, and involvement with others in a discernment can take some of the risk out of life. There might have been avenues other than violent revolution that Walker might have followed; the only point I’m trying to make is that experience matters, and that the truth of it is a powerful catalyst for action. And, as in the gospel story, sometimes community discernment can go awry when the community’s truth has been derailed by social structures that systematize sin.

Two final things struck me. One is that in all three of the scrutiny stories, it is divine initiative that gets the narrative rolling, divine initiative that a human being takes on, and at some kind of risk. Jesus asks for a drink from a woman in a hostile village; Jesus cures a blind man on a Sabbath against established religious law; Jesus defiles himself as he goes to the tomb of Lazarus when he is already under a death threat (John 11:8). None of this is our idea. But it would be good for us to keep awake to the offer of a better life whenever it comes, whether from an enemy, someone we can’t even see, or when we thought we were beyond the reach of life. The other thing is just that, as the light gets stronger, the shadows and darkness recede, but they deepen. That may just be a matter of perception: if physics can teach us anything about light, it’s that it is pretty much unstoppable, and that light particles penetrate just about anything. (Note to self - the theological problem posed by black holes will have to wait for another time and another thinker; it may be just a literary problem, a speed bump for the light metaphor.) But the man who was touched by Light was sent to wash in a pool called Sent. The man born blind saw light and became light, and his newly useful eyes became a gateway through which he was filled with the courage of truth, so that he could face the arrayed forces hostile to, or just ignorant of, the God of light, healing, and life. This is so true that John names him with the name of God: ego eimi. He is a sacrament of divine light, healing, and life. Just so might you and I be, sent to the pool of baptism, and sent from it as well, to be light for the world. Like Jesus, then, we are sent to bring that light, at great personal risk sometimes, to places of deepening darkness: nationalism and racism, religious fundamentalism, and the truth of human mortality. Thanks be to God, Jesus has preceded us and shown us that kenosis is life, and that the moment of risk is as full of the possibility of light and creation as the impossible singularity before the big bang.

Fiat lux. We “gotta model ourselves after someone.” He came looking for us, after all, and we can’t do better than God. As we prayed last week to be able to reach across the well and offer a drink to a thirsty stranger, let’s pray, with this week’s scrutiny, for the courage to look into the darkness, inside and outside of us, and, full of divine Spirit, walk into the darkness and declare, “Let there be light!”