The first eleven chapters (more or less), of John’s Gospel are a detailed catechesis about Baptism. Those who assume that the wedding feast at Cana is a reference to the Sacrament of Matrimony might be surprised to learn that it is actually a reference to Baptism. The major clue to the meaning of the miracle of the water turned to wine is the presence of “six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings.” (John 2:6) The “Jewish ceremonial washings” were the precursor to Christian Baptism.
The healing of the man born blind is the penultimate of seven miraculous events in the first section of John’s Gospel; each of the seven events, or “signs,” highlights an aspect of the new life offered to us in Baptism. This event of the healing of a blind man is a reference to the possibility of a renewed vision of human existence. I had an experience on Monday of this past week that made me very sympathetic to the plight of the man born blind.
In the early hours of Monday morning a failure occurred in one of the electrical transformers that provide electricity to the parish campus. I was awakened by the sound of all the electronic devices in the rectory beeping due to a loss of electrical power. The beeping was followed by an ominous-sounding explosion nearby.
When I arrived at church for the morning Mass I could tell something was very wrong. Some of the lights in the church building were on, and couldn’t be turned off; other lights were off, and couldn’t be turned on. Those issues were only the beginning of the tragic revelations that were about to unfold.
After Mass I went into the Parish Office, and turned on my computer with the intention of reading the morning news. The computer powered on, the monitor lit up, the browser window opened, but nothing appeared on the screen. One of the Twenty-first century’s most tragic events had occurred: I had no internet connection.
I rubbed my eyes, and refreshed the browser window, but nothing appeared except an indecipherable message about proxy servers and failed connectivity. I wasn’t blind like the man in the Gospel story, but neither was I seeing what should have been there. Although I wasn’t suffering from the sort of burdensome handicap that afflicted the man in the story, I felt some kinship with him. I’m sure he had thoughts similar to mine on that Monday morning, namely, that there has to be more than what I was experiencing.
The man born blind represents every person’s experience. We look at the world; we look at our lives, and think: there must be more than this.
There is quite a lot of detail, and multiple conversations, contained in this healing story. Unlike other healing miracles in the Gospels, this one is rather complicated; the healed man takes a long, circuitous route to faith in Jesus. There is a reason for the complex interchanges between the man, his friends, his parents, the Pharisees and, ultimately, Jesus. Baptism offers the possibility of a new vision of the world, but it remains the responsibility of each baptized person to choose where to look.
After having being healed at the Pool of Siloam (a play on words referring to the ‘washing administered by the Apostles’), the first thing the man saw was his neighbors’ incredulity. They asked, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” (John 9:8) Next he saw the jealousy and judgmentalism of the Jerusalem Pharisees who accused Jesus of being a public sinner. (John 9:16) He also saw his parents’ fears and confusion. (John 9:20-21)
It wasn’t until he was expelled from the company of the fearful that he came face to face with Jesus. Only then did he see the healer of souls and the source of renewed faith. (John 9:38)
Throughout his many conversations after being healed the man had the capacity to see anew, but what he actually saw was determined by where he looked. When he finally looked at the one who had healed him, he saw a new possibility for his life.
In our Baptism we were given the possibility of renewed vision, but what we see is the result of what we choose. We look at the flawed nature of our world and the burdens we bear in life, and it is understandable to think: there must be more than this.
It is inherent in our human nature that we expect to see more goodness, more reason to hope, more cause for joy than is readily apparent. Baptism makes it possible to see more than the suffering and injustice that is apparent to everyone, but we have to choose wisely where to look.
The man born blind found what he was looking for, but not in the company of the cynical, the judgmental or the fearful. Eventually, he saw what he suspected should have been there all along. He saw faith, salvation and hope for the future, but only when he placed himself in Jesus’ company.
Baptism, and the other Sacraments, guarantee a new possibility for human life, but that possibility can be realized only as a result of our effort – our cooperation with God’s will. This sixth of the Gospel’s seven lessons about Baptism is a reference to the absolute necessity of maintaining an active connection with the Church. The “washing administered by the Apostles,” that is, Baptism, has its intended effects only in the presence of the community founded by the Apostles. On our own, separate from a worshiping community, we are most likely to see a world that is unfaithful, judgmental and fearful. In the presence of fellow believers we are able to see Jesus, the healer of souls.