Speaking of real art! Last year at the Art Institute of Chicago, they had that wonderful exhibit of Henri Matisse’s works, which featured, Bathers by a River. Only recently was it discovered how this influential, abstract painting from the early 20th C. had been made by him. Surprisingly, it evolved over many years of working and re-working it. Through a kind of X-ray technology they found Matisse had scratched off what he had painted, using washes and acids, and added something new, many times over. You can see the connection from the beginning of its life to the end, but it transformed into something completely different. The canvas is huge, and the physical work was demanding for him. He never admitted that it belonged in the Cubism movement of his time, and though it certainly evokes that, it is truly a style and a work all its own.
Jesus, in our gospel reading, is creating too: “Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with his saliva and spread it on the man’s eyes.” What we may miss with this crude gesture, is the more obvious connection to the creation stories of the first two chapters in Genesis. God also created humans from the earth, as a kind of clay. Or as the Psalmist and St Paul both noted, later on, God like a potter, forms us carefully and purposefully, as a clay jar, or earthen vessel. So when the blind man’s neighbors ask him “how his eyes were opened,” he says, “the man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, …then I went and washed, and received my sight.” Jesus is “working a work of God” in the blind man “while it is still day.”
The symbolism is rich indeed, in this story of the blind man from John’s gospel. Light and darkness, blind and seeing, beggar and believers, all point beyond themselves to God’s works.
In the catacombs in Rome, there are believed to be perhaps the earliest pictures of the gospel stories. And among them is the fresco of Jesus healing the blind man. The blind man is kneeling down and Jesus is seen spreading mud on his eyes. It is just one of the many saving stories portrayed there in the catacombs, along with Jonah and the whale, the healing of the woman with the flow of blood, and Jesus’ resurrection among others. The early Christians thought and believed in a multi-layered way, perceiving the power of God working on many levels throughout the cosmos. And there, in the darkness of the underground rooms, many believers worshiped “the light of the world.”
And so, from the early centuries of the church, all our gospel stories from John in this season of Lent – the man born blind, the woman at the well, Nicodemus, and the raising of Lazarus – were used as catechetical stories for baptismal candidates. The time of instruction in Lent culminated then, at the end of the 40 days, in a host of baptisms at the Great Easter Vigil.
The man born blind then is a perfect example of our journeying with Christ, and how each of us comes to faith in our lives, as we encounter the Messiah of God, and take up our baptismal callings. He comes into the world as a beggar, with nothing. He is like Adam and Eve, creatures who don’t ask to be born into this world, but are formed out of the dust of the ground and enlivened by God’s breath and spirit. And he is created like the first day of creation in which there was no light, only a watery chaos, until God said “let there be light,” and there was. We too receive faith as a gift, and we see. We do not ask for Jesus to come and rescue us or put mud in our eye! But like the blind man that Jesus healed, we are saved anyway! Many of us even were baptized as infants, without our permission, washed clean and claimed by God in Christ before we could speak for ourselves. At first we are beggars and don’t know how it is that we have come to believe, all we know is that we do. We learn to testify to the light that has come into our lives, however, just as the blind man did. He had to defend himself, and actually holds his own against the learned ones of his time. “Here is an astonishing thing,” he says to the religious leaders, “you do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” “If this man [Jesus] were not from God, he could do nothing.”
By the end, the man who was formerly blind, sees that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Judean leaders have become blind. The one who used to sit and beg has gone from darkness to light. Now his worship life is beginning! He confesses his belief in Jesus and worships him.
The Greek and Hebrew belief about seeing and blindness were so different compared to what we know about our vision today. The Greeks believed that there was a fire within, and that the pupil of the eye let the light through, like a lamp burning, which made sight possible. And for the Hebrews the light of life came from the heart, and the eye could see God’s goodness. But a man born blind, meant his heart was full of darkness. “Envy” was called “an evil eye.” So the disciples assumed that the blind man was a sinner. They just wondered who was responsible, the man himself, or his parents. And when Jesus said neither, they must have been confused, taken aback! “He was born blind,” Jesus said, “so that God’s works might be revealed through him.” For Jesus, blindness was an opportunity for healing and God’s wholeness to shine through, not another excuse to keep people in their preordained boxes of in and out, touchables and untouchables. Jesus is teaching us something new all the time – still! As we continue to worship Christ, we continue to develop our relationship with the incarnate God. Our eyes are opened, the potter’s wheel is spinning, and we are transformed more and more into the creatures God is making.
And so we are on the way, from darkness to light, and from blindness to belief. Everything we see is refocused through the lens of opportunity for the glory of God to shine through. Jesus is in the world, as the light of the world. And we are called to testify, having been washed in the pool of our baptisms, to go out in the world and work the works of the one who sends us. We are master painters like Matisse, working and re-working the canvass of our lives for the sake of the world. We are novice potters, dipping our hands in the clay and forming earthen vessels, co-creators with God, teaching others how to open their eyes to what God is doing. Once we were blind, but now we see.