St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
We have just passed the mid-point in Lent. Easter Sunday is now closer than Ash Wednesday. Today and next Sunday we hear of sight overcoming blindness and resurrection overcoming death. Our eyes are being fixed on what we will celebrate at Easter. What profound messages are hidden in this story of a man born blind who both gets his sight and acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah, while all around him who can see can't make sense of what is happening before their eyes?
Firstly, the central sentence in this story is Jesus' question to the once-blind man – 'do you believe in the Son of Man?' For this man, the question is nor merely a nice theoretical issue where he can say that he believes in Jesus. We see a man who descends into progressive loneliness as he struggles to make sense of what he knows has happened to him – but that everybody else mocks. His neighbours doubt that it is the man born blind. His parents are afraid to stand up for him for fear of the religious authorities who say that no-one could be cured on the Sabbath. And then he is turned out by these religious authorities. For many people, the journey to know and trust God has not been an easy one. Mary and Joseph had to face all sorts of obstacles. St Patrick discovered God in his loneliness on Slemish. And lots of saints went through personal crises on the journey to saying "Lord, I believe." At the heart of faith is not merely a belief that God exists but a belief in who Jesus is. Faith is not just doing the right thing. It is about looking honestly at our own personal experience, however painful that may have been, and saying, 'Yes, Jesus, I trust that you are the one who makes sense of what I cannot make sense of'. The recovering addict knows what it is to acknowledge a higher power. The Lenten journey invites us to strip away so many things that we thought we could lean on – and then, like the man born blind, let Jesus discover us when we think we have lost everything. Unless Lent contains an element of deepening our faith, it may just be a pious ritual that brings us no further forward into a healing encounter with Jesus.
Secondly, this journey challenges our confidence in our own wisdom. The Pharisees have a narrative about the Sabbath that blinds them to the truth before their eyes. In our first reading we hear about God choosing, not the eldest and strongest son of Jesse – but the youngest, David. When it came to the first revelations about abuse in church, many people could not believe it was possible. The story we told about a heroic church blinded us to the clear evidence. Thus, Church renewal is not simply about some changes in church power structures. Renewal will come through discovering that Jesus is easier to find when we accept that we are in a mess and need him. Crisis is a time of renewal and not of defeat. Renewal challenges us to ask whether we are preoccupied about sharing out the power in a different way among ourselves – or whether we accept our weakness and stop our strength getting in the way of truth. Arrogant Pharisees and arrogance in church – both lay and clerical – are born of a blindness that is afraid of the truth. We are at our strongest when we are overcome by our weakness and recognise our need of Jesus who stands by us on our search. Simplistic solutions can seem attractive. But they are often born more of Pharisaic blindness that of a painful search for the truth. The man born blind, the outsider, the unlikely evangelist, is a model for the pain that is involved in discovering the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Blindness born of fear of losing power is a terrible disability for people of faith. Lent challenges us to not fear the blinding light that comes from faith in Jesus.
Thirdly, when we have learned the lessons of blindness in church, we can dare to point out the blindness that afflicts our own society. It is clear that so many young people are disorientated in life because they constantly hear that what you are told you should want is what you need. And despite all the evidence that this directionless consumerism is killing too many people, we are told that we must demand yet more opportunities to make up our own little world with no sense that truth or meaning exist. The role for church in modern Ireland is not to dream of being in power again. That was a time of much hidden sin and blindness. This is a time for us to speak with honest clarity about what is happening in our society. Jesus stood by the lepers and the outcasts, the tax collectors and the man born blind – because they revealed a truth that the strong did not want to hear as they blindly championed their own agendas. Amid a widespread lack of wise public leadership, politics risks being reduced to an adolescent power game with little ultimate relevance. Christ's followers have the chance to stand on the side-lines of power and lovingly and consistently call out the self-serving blindness that crushes too many little ones.
The man born blind will never be the same again. He has been brought from the blindness that he knew and from the fact that he never knew what sight was. He has been born again. Lent is often portrayed as a useless relic of the past. But today's Gospel suggests that the Lenten journey is a life-long one that does not end on Easter Sunday. For people of faith, following Jesus involves a constant encounter with the uncomfortable truths that we cling to. That lies at the heart of our whole synodal process. When, like the Pharisees, we get too comfortable with our faith, we become blind to what God has in store for us. When we are strong, we risk depending on our own strengths and failing to let Jesus open our eyes. We can be comfortable in our blindness. We can fail to understand the ministry of Jesus and his death. And we miss the shattering light of his resurrection. In these last three weeks till Easter Sunday, we still have the time to pray before the Crucifix and its obscene pain, to accompany Jesus in the Stations of the Cross and to acknowledge what makes us blind to uncomfortable truths. It entails hearing those words from our second reading where St Paul says Wake up from your sleep, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. We need to recognise our blindness so that we can encounter, Jesus the light of the world – and say from the bottom our hearts and the depths of our weakness, 'Yes, Lord, I believe'.
+ Donal McKeown
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