Laetare Sunday signifies the mid-point of Lent. So the Church lightens its Lenten demeanor today. Most noticeably, the Lenten purple is relieved by the use of rose-colored vestments.
Yet, even as we pause to rejoice at being half-way through Lent, we move right into Lent’s 2nd half - its distinctive tone set, in part, by the Gospel of John, which portrays Jesus performing a special series of miracles, which John tellingly calls “signs.” The specific “sign” in today’s Gospel [John 9:1-41] is a truly monumental miracle, for (as the formerly blind man himself testifies to the authorities) it was unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.
Just as the man blind from birth receives physical sight, so he is also given increasing insight into who Jesus is, culminating in his profession of faith, “I do believe, Lord.” Meanwhile, he receives his sight through a series of steps in which he participates (as instructed). Jesus spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay which he smears on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man goes, washes, and returns - able to see.
Meanwhile we watch this unnamed (hence universal) “Everyman” develop his insight into who Jesus is – a growth in faith that exactly parallels the increasing unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries. Certainly they can see (with their physical eyes), but spiritually they are blind – obstinately so. Physically, the Pharisees could certainly see, but spiritually they would not see, because they already knew with absolute certitude that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the man blind from birth, theirs was a willful choice not to see.
God, however, has his own way of acting – as the story of his surprising selection of an apparently insignificant shepherd named David as Israel’s new king illustrates [1 Samuel 16]. Not as we see does God see. What God does can come as a complete surprise. Likewise, what God wants of us may also be a surprise.
The blind man’s meeting with Jesus caused him literally to see everything in an altogether new light – all because he had first been seen by Jesus himself and had gone where Jesus had sent him, allowing something new and different to happen when Jesus entered his life.
So it’s easy to appreciate why the Church chose this Gospel story to express what happens when one turns one’s life around and obeys Jesus’ command to go and wash in the waters of baptism. What happens is a wonderfully new and bright outlook on life. At the same time, it is also an enormous challenge. Embracing belief in Christ opens one to a new life of faith and a new community of worship and fellowship, but it also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that may still seem at times to dominate the world. Saying “Yes” to Jesus inevitably means saying “No” to other options.
Lent is intended to be an especially transformative time for those preparing for Baptism at Easter. Just as the blind man’s encounter with Jesus proved totally transforming for him, so the new birth of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and communion with the Christ in the Church are fundamentally transformative experiences, intended to empower the baptized to live as children of light, producing every kind of goodness [Ephesians 5:8-9].
Lent, however, is for all of us, however long ago we were baptized, however long-term our membership in the Church. All of us are being challenged to continuing conversion our entire lives. Lent is our opportunity to be challenged, as were the Pharisees, to reject our own blind spots and to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to live in the light.
Baptism is but the first sacrament of conversion, the first sacramental remedy for sin. The challenge to live as children of light in fact and to keep on producing every kind of goodness remains an ongoing one. The conversion to which we are all called is a continuing challenge to say “Yes” to Christ and “No” to other options. That challenge continues throughout the entire course of life. It obviously does not cease with baptism, but rather begins anew. For us, who are already baptized, therefore, there is a second sacrament of forgiveness – what the early Church charmingly called “the second plank after shipwreck” – the sacrament of Penance, in which, through the ministry of the Church, we receive forgiveness from God for the sins committed after baptism and so may be repeatedly reconciled with God and with one another.
If we manage to do nothing else during this Lent, let us at least make it a point to do that.
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
April 3, 2011