Today’s Gospel passage is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind and the revelations that flow from the man’s healing. The passage begins with the disciples looking at this man and asking, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples see this man in this objectively difficult situation – with his blindness and disability and all the challenges that accompany that situation – and all they seem to be interested in doing is assigning blame – wanting to find out who’s at fault here. Jesus denies that either the man or his parents are to blame for his condition. There is more going on here than a cause and effect observation. Jesus proposes that this man’s condition is “so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” Jesus is inviting them not to judge simply on appearances but to look for a deeper meaning and purpose. What this innocent man is suffering is an opportunity for the presence of God to be revealed. He calls the disciples to participate in his work – the work of God. “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is still day.” Jesus then heals the man by spitting on the ground, making clay with the saliva, and smearing it on the man’s eyes. The man follows the instruction to “go wash” in the Pool of Siloam – in this mysterious way he is sent forth by Jesus (there is a clear allusion to Baptism here), and he comes back able to see. St. Augustine saw in the mud formed from the saliva – a coming together of Jesus’ liquid breath and the dust of the earth – a metaphor for the Incarnation – man being formed anew. It is an encounter with God come in the flesh that brings us healing and enables us to see.
In the face of the objectively difficult situation we are living in now, it is tempting, as some are doing, to try to assign blame, or to try to find a quick solution to the problem to live life as normally as possible given this disruption. But that approach only avoids the deeper question of what is God asking of us here. We can choose to live in fear, distract ourselves from the seriousness of these events, or seek a way to live this circumstance in a way that gives it meaning. What is the “work” God is asking us to do – that he has sent us to do as Christians? Do we believe that God is present – that God is at work here? And that we are invited to share in his work? That God wants to reveal himself to us in a deeper way in this circumstance? That he wants to open our eyes to him? It is easy to look at what we are going through – the social distancing and the isolation, the economic loss, and the shutting down of schools, workplaces, and even our houses of worship for public prayer – as a necessary evil or a just a tremendous inconvenience that has to be endured until the spread of the disease is under control. But the challenge – the real challenge for us, is to look at what is happening not just on the surface level – by appearances, but to look into our hearts, and like the man who regained his sight, judge what has happened to us through our encounter with Christ. It is amazing how certain the man is about who Jesus is for him, and how that certainty cannot be swayed by the doubts and fear of his own family members and the ridicule, insults, and rejection by the educated class and those in power. His certainty is rooted in the simple fact of how the encounter with Christ changed him. “One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” The fact that almost everything of normal life has come to a halt and all of our plans have been put on hold – like we have entered a Lent or an abstinence not of our own choosing – gives us the opportunity to embrace this Lenten sacrifice in a different way: to really slow down, to abandon ourselves to God, and to listen to his voice. Sometimes we take that change in us for granted because it happened a long time ago. We’ve forgotten the radical nature of the change. These circumstances, in a way, have given us more “free time” because of these restraints on our activity. What we do with this “free time” reveals what it is that we value most. When we were dispensed from the obligation to go to Mass last weekend, if we had no real health concerns for ourselves or others, did we still go to Mass? Now that the lay faithful cannot attend public Mass and receive the Eucharist, does our heart hunger all the more for God? Our faith comes not from the intellectual understanding of theological teachings or the following of a system of rules and laws but from the awareness of how the encounter with Christ has changed us – a change that does not come from ourselves. It is this experience of being loved in this unheard of way that opens our eyes to His merciful presence – a presence that enables us to face these circumstances without fear. As we hear in Psalm 23, “Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.” Recognizing his loving presence in our circumstances that changed us when we did not deserve it is what determines whether, in the face of this trial, we become harsher people or more sensitive people, more self-centered and indifferent or more compassionate to those who are suffering. Our “work” as Christians is to “live as children of light” – the light that was given to us in our baptism in which we were washed by Christ and sent to be his witnesses in the world. Facing our circumstances without fear sheds light on the presence of Christ in the world, the source of our hope. This is what invites others to see with “fresh eyes” – eyes that wonder and are moved to faith, like the man in the Gospel. If we have been “sleeping” through life, we must ask that these circumstances awaken us to our deep need for his presence. It is not true that “to have your health is to have everything.” The true danger that looms over our life is not the threat of death, but the possibility of living life without meaning, without it being directed toward a greater fullness of life and toward a greater salvation than health. On Friday night, in order to run a test to see if I could live-stream the Mass, I live-streamed myself praying Night Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. It is the prayer that priests and religious say before bed each night – it takes about 5 minutes. I recorded it and posted it at around 10:15 pm. I was shocked to see that within minutes, the video had 48 views. By the morning, it had over 600 views. Perhaps that is a sign that even in our world filled with all kinds of social networks, the connection we most need, the friend we most need, is the Lord. The current situations should remind us that we should always live like this, with a sensitivity to the drama of life, with an awareness of the fragility of life, and the faith that our life is not in our hands but in the hands of God. May this situation move us to pray always, “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.”