Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!
The Great Forty Days of Pascha conclude next Wednesday, so by the time our next Post comes out, it will be all over. Oh… I’m not ready to give it up yet, but life moves on. So let’s go out with a holy bang:
Now, students, we are now going to play a sort of Third Grade game, but with a serious purpose. (Some of you who are new to this course may not remember this exercise from a few years ago.) So pay attention, and please do what I say.
First: Look around – forward, left, right, up, down – and take in and remember what you see.
Next: Close your eyes (wait, not yet!) and with your eyes shut do the same: look around – forward, left, right, up, down, and take in what you see, then open them again. Ready? NOW!
You’re back. Good! (At my age if I closed my eyes for even that long, I’d be asleep and you’d have to write the rest of this Post yourself.)
So, what did you see the second time? List your answers in this box: 
OK, that concludes our little game.
What’s this all about? To illustrate the fact that, though we we can see the material world, yet we are blind to another world which exists all around us.
According to the Scriptures and the Church, we are surrounded by a multitude of presences, just as numerous as the people normally around us. Your guardian angel is here beside you now, and sometimes other angels. You might see saints from time to time. And almost certainly you would see a demon or two lurking nearby, whose presence we can sometimes sense as they tempt us, but we cannot see them. I wish our guardian angels would push and prod at us more forcefully, but it’s their nature to be gentle.
Far more important, we can only see the beginning stage of our journey with Christ, the part with ends with our physical death. We are blind to What lies ahead of us.
Occasionally people get a quick glimpse into that other world. (If you have, and want to share the story, please comment below.) But be very careful. Remember that Satan also can produce dreams and imaginations and visions and even visible presences, designed to mislead us or terrify us. Saint Antony the Great in the desert left suffered many of these. Once he saw a glorious “being” who claimed to be Jesus Christ. It wasn’t.
I’m sure you can see where we’re going with this. Our Gospel reading this next Sunday is the story of the Man Born Blind.
Who is the Man Born Blind? You are. I am. Born into a world that has lost its spiritual sight – blind from birth. The Apostle John saw in him a symbol of our spiritual blindness. Like him we are in great danger. Walk around blindfolded and you’re likely to fall on your face. “When is it night, when is it day? My feet cannot endure striking against the stones. For I have neither seen the sun shining nor beheld the image of Him who fashioned me.” (Sticheron at Vespers of the Sunday of the Man Born Blind) Walk in darkness without a guide, and you might even step off the edge of a cliff.
Can anyone cure our blindness? restore our spiritual sight and give us light in this darkness? Yes: The One who declared “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12 “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5 Without Him the best we can do is to go tap-tap-tapping through life, hoping against hope that we can get to the end of the journey safely. Chances are not good.
Before we proceed, keep in mind that we use the words “light” and “see” in several ways. 1) Optical vision. 2) Symbolic vision: When Christ says He is the Light, He means that He guides us. 3) Super-sensual vision, such as we will have after we die and have left our bodily eyes behind. 4) There is also another kind of Light which has sometimes been seen – with physical eyes? or in some other way? The uncreated Light of God, God the Father who “dwells in inaccessible Light”, but which Christ manifested on earth at in His Transfiguration. Some saints have seen it. Some have even manifested it: Seraphim of Sarov, walking with his disciple at night, his face brilliant with light, illuminating the falling snowflakes. A few who use the Jesus Prayer have seen this “Uncreated Light”. And more.
Are we all confused now? Usually, we easily go back and forth between these kinds of “light” and “sight” without defining them, but knowing what we’re talking about. Maybe I should never have brought it up?
The Story of the Man Born Blind
This Sunday’s Gospel reading: John 9:1-38
Jesus and His disciples came upon a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked: “Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” To the Jews the answer was obvious: such disability was the result of his sin. (Jesus did not teach that. See, for example, Luke 13:4.)
To the larger question, there was another obvious answer: It was the fault of Adam and Eve, the parents of us all. When Mankind fell away from God we lost our spiritual sight.
But surprisingly Jesus gave neither of these answers. Instead He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but rather that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” What ever did He mean by that? that the whole fallen condition of mankind exists, so that God can save us? (I do not understand that answer.) He concluded “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.”
Jesus gave the man his sight in a very odd way. He spat on the ground, made clay, anointed the man’s eyes, and told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man came back seeing. It’s a symbol: Christ usually restores our spiritual sight, enlightens us, through material means. The sacraments (Holy Mysteries) require matter: water, oil, bread, wine, the touch of the hand in Confession. But don’t limit Him. He is God. He can work any way He wants.
The Dialog begins
Now, the Blind Man’s healing created quite a stir. First among the neighbors, who refused to believe it. Again, John shows his skills as a dramatist. It would be fun to turn this conversation into a short play. In what follows I paraphrase greatly to save space.
“This is the man born blind.” “No, it isn’t.” “Yes, it is.” “Yes, I am the man.” “Who did this?” “A man called Jesus.” “Where is He?” ” I don’t know.”
They took him to the Pharisees. Jesus had done this on the Sabbath, so here we go again: “How did he do it?” “He put clay on my eyes.” “He can’t be from God, because He broke the Sabbath.” “But how could a sinner heal someone like this?” To the Man Born Blind: “What do you say about Him?” “He is a prophet.”
Let’s ask his parents. “Is this your son?” “Yes.” “How does he now see?” They, afraid to get involved: “We don’t know. Ask him.” To the Man Born Blind: “Give God the praise. We know this Man [Jesus] is a sinner.” “That I don’t know. All I know is once I was blind. Now I see.”
“How did He do it?” The formerly Blind Man now is fed up: “I already told you. What? Do you want to become His disciples?” “We are Moses’ disciples. We know nothing about this man.” “Look. He opened my eyes. Everyone knows that God doesn’t listen to sinners. If He healed me, He must be of God.” “You were blind, born in sin. What can you teach us?” And they threw him out.
Now… this is probably the only Orthodox Blog ever to include the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Obviously it’s not part of our hymnody, and it’s overused, but it fits so well here.
The words, by the way, were written not by a fundamentalist but by an 18th century priest of the Church of England, a repentant slave holder whose eyes had been opened to the evil he had been doing, and to a lot more. The music may be mid-19th century southern American – or may not.
Before we jump in, how do Orthodox understand Grace? “The Church Fathers teach that Grace is the life that flows naturally and eternally from God. It is the true, life-bestowing power that brings us into communion with Him.” Fr Michael Shambour, 2015 That definitely is “amazing”, and we can certainly hear this hymn that way.
Listen carefully. What is the biggest difference between this and most of our Orthodox hymns? Other than the music, I mean. (The answer is below. * Don’t peek till you hear the hymn.)
First, Judy Collins and the Boys’ Choir of Harlem – with a short introduction. The music begins at .50.
Second, sung by Andrea Bocelli who is himself blind. If the video itself doesn’t appear, punch the “Watch on YouTube” line below, then (I hope) return to this Post.
- The answer: This and many Evangelical hymns are in first person singular – focusing on “me” and “my” spiritual experiences. Most Orthodox hymns are in second personal singular. “We” approach and find God primarily together, within the context of the Community, the Church.
Now, how this applies to us
When Christ begins to move in our lives, when we first begin to “see” Him, it can cause not only joy and great change for us, but sometimes considerable consternation around us. The Pharisees were greatly displeased, because they had everything all figured out. Their system did not allow people to see for themselves. Who are you to tell us anything?
The formerly Blind Man was bemused by all this. For he knew what had happened to him. He was now seeing not only with his outer eyes, but with his inner eyes he was seeing something that the Pharisees were not seeing. That always gets a person into trouble.
Today the conflict might be with the religious system: What do you mean, you want to join that “idol-worshiping sect?” Or with our secular system: Why don’t you want to get more stuff, a bigger TV, a larger house, or (dare I say it?) a bigger fancier church building? What’s this foolish talk about simplicity and spiritual riches? Or: “What? You want us to sympathize with those kind of people?”
Or to take a personal case: When I was first moving towards Orthodoxy, I felt as if I walking into the Light. That’s the only way I could describe it. But as I tried, in time I indeed got kicked out of my former denomination.
Or problems with our parents or spouses: “You want to stop eating what during Lent?” “Why are you going to church so much? You’re turning into a fanatic.” “How much do you want to give to that church?” or to charity? Even with some Orthodox parents: “Why ever would want to be ordained?!” or “become a nun and waste your life?” People close to us may not understand.
Or it might even bring us into conflict with the Orthodox “system”. There is one, you know. Shall I say more about that? No, I don’t think so…
When people think we’ve gone weird or overboard, all we can do is stand up to all this as the Blind Man did: “I was blind, but now I see.” But be careful: do so only if we are sure of what we have seen, of Who we have seen.
The Story continues.
Jesus heard about this, found the man, and asked: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” * “Who is He, Sir, that I may see Him?” “You have seen Him. It is He who speaks to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”, and fell down before Him.
- a Messianic title. See Daniel 7.
After the Blind Man’s eyes were opened, soon he saw the one thing, the One Person finally worth seeing. With his inner eyes He saw Him for Who He is. That is Christ’s purpose with each of us: to open our inner eyes so that we will know Him for ourselves. That begins the process by which we will see ever more of Him, for there is always more of Him to see. So that in the End finally we will be able to behold the One we already know, face to face: “the One Who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ“. 2 Corinthians 4:6
The story continues after today’s Gospel reading: Jesus says “I have come…so that those who do not see may see, and so those who see may become blind.” The Pharisees, overhearing, ask “Do you think we are blind?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” His answer is Yes, and it is evil to pretend to see when you do not, to claim you know God and His will when you do not. There has always been a lot of that in the world – even among Christians, even in the Church, I’m sorry to say. You and I also need to be careful of that. (I, especially, for Blogging can easily go to one’s head.)
So here stand the Pharisees who think they have Life and Religion all figured out – but they don’t. True Life and true Religion consist of seeing the fair glory of the Lord, opening our eyes and entering into that Glory. True Life consists not of conforming ourselves blindly to the established order. Conform when we can, of course. Don’t run around blindly disobeying your Bishop or civil law. But nor will just obeying and behaving yourself get you there. Life is intended to be a great journey, your great journey and mine, following Christ with eyes wide open, into the Mystery and Wonder and Beauty of the Kingdom of God.
Till finally, finally, finally at the End “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” 1 John 3:2
Next Week: Sunday after the Ascension – So where is Jesus now?
Week after next: Pentecost – a Beginners Introduction to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity