Loving others is a spiritual force drawing us to union with God; indeed, one who does not love others ‘walks in the darkness’ (1 Jn 2:11) and ‘does not know God’ (1 Jn 4:8). Benedict XVI has said that ‘closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God,’ and that love is, in the end, the only light which ‘can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working.’. . .whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God. If we want to advance in the spiritual life, then, we must constantly be missionaries. — Pope Francis, “The Joy of the Gospel”
In the opening words of his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis writes of encountering Christ: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. . . .I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy.”
The story of the man born blind is one of an encounter with Christ and conversion. It is a story of coming to understand who Christ is. It is a story that helps us see a person before and then after an encounter with Christ. It is not like the conversion of Paul who got knocked off of a horse. This is much more a story of our own conversions. It is subtle, and it takes time.
There are dynamics in this story which may be familiar. We all know people who have had something dramatic or traumatic occur in their lives that became life-changing, or people who have met a person that they say changed their lives. When we notice the change, we ask, “What happened that led you to make this change in your life?” Often the response is, “I really cannot say. I really cannot put what happened into words. I don’t know that I fully understand it yet.” Later, the very same person, when speaking of the event, will make an obvious connection between the event and God. They might well say, “I had an encounter with God.”
This is the story of a man born blind. To be born blind means that the man never could see, and this is far different from those Jesus cured from ailments of the eyes. To have never seen and then to see changes everything rather than merely restoring a person to something he had been previously. Important to note too is that the blind man never asked to see. Jesus simply acted. Such chance encounters are often life-changers in our own lives.
Like the woman at the well we read of last Sunday, the blind man did not know who Jesus was, nor did he come to a quick understanding of who Jesus was. It is insightful that Pope Francis writes, “If we want to advance in the spiritual life, then, we must constantly be missionaries.” This is how the man came to understand who Jesus was; he had to teach others.
We can see in the interrogation by the Pharisees how the man grew in his understanding. At first, the one who gave the man sight was “the man called Jesus.” Upon further interrogation, the man said “He is a prophet.” Further on, exasperated by the constant questions, the man says that “this man” was from God. Through constantly explaining Jesus to others, he found his own understanding of who Jesus was and, in so doing, he came to faith. Precisely as Pope Francis wrote, through his witness to his encounter with Jesus (evangelizing), the man who could now see grew in understanding and faith.
Our readings about light and seeing are about changing our human perspective to God’s perspective. We read of a man born blind at birth being given sight, but one of the biggest concerns the Pharisee interrogators had was not about what had never before happened. The Pharisees, not really commenting on the miracle, were concerned that Jesus did this on a Sabbath! In one sentence we see not only how petty the Pharisees were, but also how petty we can be.
We would never blame handicapped people for their handicaps, but the people of Jesus’ time did. So Jesus cured a blind man to make us examine the nature of sin and how we do the same that the Pharisees did. We don’t blame the handicapped for their plight although many of us do blame the poor for their plight, saying, “If they just got a job they would not be poor.” What blindness keeps us from seeing with the compassionate eyes of God? The miracle for the blind man was not that he could now see; it was that he could now see the presence of God standing before him in the person of Christ. He could see truth. This is a sign that encountering Christ is an occasion of truth and joy.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.