Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
John’s gospel is shot through with imagery of light and darkness. In itself this imagery is open to being used in very facile ways, but John’s use of it is complex and paradoxical. In today’s reading, the man born blind receives his physical sight, but at a deeper level he also receives spiritual sight; whereas the Pharisees who thought they had spiritual sight become increasingly spiritually blind.
“I once was lost but now I’m found / Was blind but now I see,” says the hymn Amazing Grace. We sense something presumptuous about this; it seems rather too clear-cut. Are you sure there is no darkness in you still? In reality we see and don’t see. “I believe; help my unbelief!” cried the father of the child in Mark 9:24. In the story of Saint Paul’s conversion (Acts 9) the same paradox is evident. Paul did not leap up shouting joyfully, “Now I see!” Instead he was struck blind! Nor was it a case of being dazzled for a moment; he remained blind for three days. This mighty man had to be led by the hand like a child into Damascus and there he sat helpless, in darkness, for three days until someone else – a total stranger – restored his sight. Even then he did not go about shouting, “Now I see!” He went into the Arabian desert for three years. And even later, when he was in full spate, he could write, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 1:12).
Faith is knowledge, but it is dark knowledge. Its light is not a garish light but a dim light just sufficient to guide our path in humility. St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 332 A.D. – 395) wrote that John penetrated into the “luminous darkness,” and could say, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). Gregory delighted in this paradoxical expression, “luminous darkness”, and used many similar ones: “wise folly”, “sober inebriation”, “stationary movement”, “living death”…. Where could he have got the courage to use such expressions if not from the Gospel itself, which is full of paradox?
To claim to have more light than one has is a great sin against the light; it cheapens it for oneself and for others. “Now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains,” Jesus told the Pharisees. When we speak of the Faith we have to do so with humility and with respect for the darkness. Like the blind man in today’s reading we may have to be driven out of the company of those who think they see; and like Paul, led helpless by the hand along a humble path, or driven into the solitude of the desert – whatever it takes to rid us of our own brash light. God alone can penetrate the darkness. “Even darkness is not dark for you / And the night is as clear as the day” (Psalm 38).