As is the Church’s custom we mark this mid-Lent Sunday with rose vestments, traditional symbols of rejoicing, even as we push full speed ahead into the even more somber second half of Lent.
The Gospel According to John, which sets the tone for the second half of Lent, portrays Jesus performing a series of miracles, which John 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 gradually 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 with the saliva, smears it 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 man develop his insight into who Jesus is - a growth in faith which exactly parallels the increasing unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries, who can certainly see with their physical eyes but are spiritually blind - obstinately so. Physically the Pharisees could see, but spiritually they would not see, because of their obstinate certainty that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the blind man, theirs was a willful choice not to see.
God, however, has his own way of acting as the story of God’s surprising selection of an insignificant shepherd as Israel’s king [1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a] illustrates. 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 happen to him when Jesus entered his life. 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 worship, but also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that still seems to dominate the world. Saying “Yes” to Jesus inevitably means saying “No” to other options.
The Scrutiny ceremony which we celebrate today is specifically for the Elect in the final phase of preparation for baptism, for whom this Lenten season is intended to be an especially transformative time, just as the blind man’s encounter with Jesus proved totally transforming for him. The new birth of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and communion with Christ in the Eucharist are fundamentally transformative experiences [cf. CCC 1426], intended to empower the baptized to live as children of light, producing every kind of goodness [Ephesians 5:8-14].
But, as today’s Gospel reminds us, it is also a challenge. To counter the resistance from the old order of darkness, the Church anoints the elect with the Oil of Catechumens. The Oil of Catechumens is one of the three holy oils used in the Church’s sacramental life – along with the Sacred Chrism and the Oil of the Sick - all three of which were blessed for our use by the Bishop at the Chrism Mass last Holy Week. The Anointing with the Oil of Catechumens symbolizes the need for God’s help and strength so that, overcoming the opposition of the devil, the person to be baptized will be able forthrightly to profess the faith and hold fast to it unfalteringly.
Lent, however, is for all of us, all of whom need God’s help to strengthen us against opposition, whether that opposition comes from outside or from deep inside of us. Catechumens are the only ones in need of conversion. All of us are being challenged to continuing conversion throughout our entire lives.
And so we join with the elect today in praying to God for the grace to overcome the power of sin that still infects our own hearts. Lent is our opportunity to be changed, as was the blind man, and 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 alternatives, a challenge which continues throughout the entire course of life. It obviously does not cease with baptism. So, for us who are already baptized, we have 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 we commit after baptism and so may be repeatedly reconciled with God and with his Church.
The sacrament of penance is available all year, but is especially and more widely available in this Holy Year of Mercy, in which, as Pope Francis has said, we are enabled “to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with our own hands.”
So, even if we manage to do little or nothing else during this Lent, let us at least make it a point to do that.
Homily at the 2nd Scrutiny of the Elect and the Anointing with the Oil of Catechumens, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, the 4th Sunday of Lent, March 6, 2016.