One of the dangers of familiarity with certain stories is that since they are so familiar, our ears can grow deaf to the small details within the narrative. I think that today’s Gospel is one of those familiar stories. And it is precisely one of the easy-to-miss details from today’s Gospel that gives us key insight into the Season of Lent, the process of conversion, and the Joy which the Church invites us into on this 4th Sunday of Lent.
Read again the first two sentences of the Gospel:
“As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
In between those two sentences is something important for us to pray with, especially during this season of penance and conversion.
Jesus is looking so intently at the man that the disciples notice. The gaze that Christ is looking at the man with must be familiar to the disciples, because they can already tell what Jesus is going to do. They ask Jesus about the sin that brought blindness on the man, which indicates that they are expecting Jesus to heal him. Think of the healing of the Paralytic: Jesus forgives his sins and he is healed.
The way Christ looks at the man is unique and telling. Surely the disciples recognize that same Gaze from the way Christ looked at each and every one of them as He called them to follow him.
I think that if St. Mark were recounting this story, he might have included the same description of Jesus’s gaze that he did when Jesus encountered the rich young man. St. Mark told us that Jesus “looked at him with Love.”
Jesus looks at this blind man before the blind man even knows he’s there. Jesus looks at him with love and the intention to heal him before the blind man even knows that healing, that sight, is possible.
The beginning of this man’s movement from blindness to sight has its beginning – not in the man crying out, not in the disciples bringing the man to Jesus or someone asking Jesus to prove Himself – no – the blind man’s movement from darkness to light begins with the tender gaze of Love which only the incarnate God can give.
Our joy as Christians comes from living in that Gaze – from being looked at by the God who cries out to each and every one of us: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead…”
Every movement toward the Light starts with God – God loved us first! Do we remember that Gaze? Do we spend time trying to just be there, in the tender gaze of Love that God looks at us with? Or do we run from that Gaze? Do we hide out of feelings of unworthiness or guilt?
The story of the blind man is somewhat easy to relate to, because it is the story of each one of us. The Church reminds us what that Gaze was like and calls us back to it, here in the middle of Lent and in this strange time of COVID-19.
The basic movements of the story are: the blind man encounters Jesus, Jesus acts decisively to begin his healing and sends him to Siloam, the man is healed and begins to testify, to witness to the people around him about his healing and the one who brought that healing about.
Each and every Christian has had some sort of encounter with Jesus. In even small and subtle ways each of us has felt his tender loving gaze break into our darkness, our sin, and give us a hope we did not have before. It’s possible that we don’t remember what is was like, maybe we haven’t felt that gaze in years, or maybe we think that the Lord has never looked at us like that. This time of silence and isolation is a perfect time to return to the Lord, spending time with Him to remember and feel that tender gaze of Love again, perhaps for the first time in an intentional way.
After that initial encounter, Jesus worked to remove our blindness – our self-absorption, our isolation, the loneness of our sin. And He called us to wash in a pool – a pool named “sent.” This pool that Jesus sends the blind man to has often been interpreted in the Tradition of the Church as a foreshadowing of Baptism. Jesus is the one who is sent from the Father – the man washes in the pool of the “Sent One,” we have washed in the waters of Baptism. Our eyes were opened, we were given the light which is Life in Christ.
After this encounter and healing, we went out to proclaim and witness to what Jesus did in our lives to a world which does not always accept and does not want to believe in Jesus.
And we are blessed even more to spiritually accompany the Catechumens of the Church on this very same journey during this time of Lent: they have encountered Christ, have felt his loving Gaze and have been sent by Him to the waters of Baptism – and even now, but more fully later – they give witness to what Jesus has done in their lives – and we thank God for that.
All of that being said, we all know too well how easy it can be to go back into the darkness – to become blinded again. And this is what we are invited to reflect on during Lent. Because in our lives we can often be the blind man again – and so Jesus continues to invite us back – to send us again to Baptismal purity through the Sacrament of Penance. And we begin again to proclaim Him.
This is certainly a source of great joy! That God’s mercy is not just extended once, but extended to us every time we are willing to allow Jesus to work in our lives – over and over until we no longer want to return to the darkness and blindness of our sin, but simply desire to sit and live in that tender and loving Gaze with which He looks at each one of us (this is truly the joy of Heaven).
So today, we are invited to return to that first and crucial moment in our lives of faith. The tender gaze of Christ is the foundation of our entire lives as Christians. And it must be this gaze, the love of God, that motivates and purifies every aspect of our lives! All of our penance, all of our good works and prayer find their true source in that experience of Love, which enlightens and heals us, which brings us into Light.
This strange time that we live in is also a blessed opportunity to spend time praying with God about the way he looks at you. Pray about that moment you first felt His tender gaze calling you to Himself, and the ways in which you experience that gaze here and now. Rooted in that tender, powerful gaze, we will be able to see clearly what God asks of us, what in our lives gets in the way or tries to darken our vision of Him and we will learn the Joy which is properly Christian, the Joy of knowing and experiencing a God who loves us more than we could possibly know.