Monday, 3 April 2017

Lenten studies in Saint John’s
Gospel (3), John 9: 1-41:
‘blaming it all on the parents’

The Healing of the Man Born Blind (ca 1307/8-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (The National Gallery, London)

Patrick Comerford

Introduction:

The Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe, the Right Revd Dr Kenneth Kearon, has issued a Lent Challenge to this diocese. The challenge is to use a form of Daily Prayer every day during Lent this year [2017]. In the diocesan magazine, Newslink, he has provided an order for Daily Prayer, together with Daily Readings and Collects.

We are invited to find a quiet time each day in a comfortable chair, to pray and to read a Bible reading, either alone or with someone else.

The challenge began on Ash Wednesday [1 March 2017], with the lectionary reading for that day (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21), and has continued each day since, with readings from Saint John’s Gospel.

I have invited parishioners to the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, each Monday evening in Lent, to look at the bishop’s suggested Bible reading for that day, and to pray using his suggested form of prayer.

On our first Monday [6 March 2017] we looked at the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-12). On Monday 13 March 2017, we looked at the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4: 5-42. At our last evening [20 March 2017], we looked at John 7: 14-36, where the authority of Jesus was challenged.

We did not meet last week [27 March 2017] because this group of parishes was hosting the annual diocesan Lady Day service of the Mothers’ Union in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

This evening [Monday 3 April 2017], we are back in the Rectory in Askeaton and looking at the two readings suggested in the Bishop’s challenge for today and tomorrow, John 9: 1-17 (Monday) and 18-41 (Tuesday).

Together this Gospel reading was the Gospel reading provided in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the Sunday of last week [26 March 2017], the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Mothering Sunday.

The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam, James Tissot (1836-1902)

John 9: 1-41

1 Καὶ παράγων εἶδεν ἄνθρωπον τυφλὸν ἐκ γενετῆς. 2 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ λέγοντες, Ῥαββί, τίς ἥμαρτεν, οὗτος ἢ οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα τυφλὸς γεννηθῇ; 3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἀλλ' ἵνα φανερωθῇ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ. 4 ἡμᾶς δεῖ ἐργάζεσθαι τὰ ἔργα τοῦ πέμψαντός με ἕως ἡμέρα ἐστίν: ἔρχεται νὺξ ὅτε οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐργάζεσθαι. 5 ὅταν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ὦ, φῶς εἰμι τοῦ κόσμου. 6 ταῦτα εἰπὼν ἔπτυσεν χαμαὶ καὶ ἐποίησεν πηλὸν ἐκ τοῦ πτύσματος, καὶ ἐπέχρισεν αὐτοῦ τὸν πηλὸν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς 7 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Υπαγε νίψαι εἰς τὴν κολυμβήθραν τοῦ Σιλωάμ (ὃ ἑρμηνεύεται Ἀπεσταλμένος). ἀπῆλθεν οὖν καὶ ἐνίψατο, καὶ ἦλθεν βλέπων. 8 Οἱ οὖν γείτονες καὶ οἱ θεωροῦντες αὐτὸν τὸ πρότερον ὅτι προσαίτης ἦν ἔλεγον, Οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ καθήμενος καὶ προσαιτῶν; 9 ἄλλοι ἔλεγον ὅτι Οὗτός ἐστιν: ἄλλοι ἔλεγον, Οὐχί, ἀλλὰ ὅμοιος αὐτῷ ἐστιν. ἐκεῖνος ἔλεγεν ὅτι Ἐγώ εἰμι. 10 ἔλεγον οὖν αὐτῷ, Πῶς [οὖν] ἠνεῴχθησάν σου οἱ ὀφθαλμοί; 11 ἀπεκρίθη ἐκεῖνος, Ὁ ἄνθρωπος ὁ λεγόμενος Ἰησοῦς πηλὸν ἐποίησεν καὶ ἐπέχρισέν μου τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς καὶ εἶπέν μοι ὅτι Υπαγε εἰς τὸν Σιλωὰμ καὶ νίψαι: ἀπελθὼν οὖν καὶ νιψάμενος ἀνέβλεψα.12 καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ποῦ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνος; λέγει, Οὐκ οἶδα.

13 Ἄγουσιν αὐτὸν πρὸς τοὺς Φαρισαίους τόν ποτε τυφλόν. 14 ἦν δὲ σάββατον ἐν ἧ ἡμέρᾳ τὸν πηλὸν ἐποίησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἀνέῳξεν αὐτοῦ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς.15 πάλιν οὖν ἠρώτων αὐτὸν καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι πῶς ἀνέβλεψεν. ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πηλὸν ἐπέθηκέν μου ἐπὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς, καὶ ἐνιψάμην, καὶ βλέπω. 16 ἔλεγον οὖν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων τινές, Οὐκ ἔστιν οὗτος παρὰ θεοῦ ὁ ἄνθρωπος, ὅτι τὸ σάββατον οὐ τηρεῖ. ἄλλοι [δὲ] ἔλεγον, Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος ἁμαρτωλὸς τοιαῦτα σημεῖα ποιεῖν; καὶ σχίσμα ἦν ἐν αὐτοῖς. 17 λέγουσιν οὖν τῷ τυφλῷ πάλιν, Τί σὺ λέγεις περὶ αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἠνέῳξέν σου τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς; ὁ δὲ εἶπεν ὅτι Προφήτης ἐστίν.

18 Οὐκ ἐπίστευσαν οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι περὶ αὐτοῦ ὅτι ἦν τυφλὸς καὶ ἀνέβλεψεν, ἕως ὅτου ἐφώνησαν τοὺς γονεῖς αὐτοῦ τοῦ ἀναβλέψαντος 19 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτοὺς λέγοντες, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς ὑμῶν, ὃν ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι τυφλὸς ἐγεννήθη; πῶς οὖν βλέπει ἄρτι; 20 ἀπεκρίθησαν οὖν οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ καὶ εἶπαν, Οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁυἱὸς ἡμῶν καὶ ὅτι τυφλὸς ἐγεννήθη: 21 πῶς δὲ νῦν βλέπει οὐκ οἴδαμεν, ἢ τίς ἤνοιξεν αὐτοῦ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἡμεῖς οὐκ οἴδαμεν: αὐτὸν ἐρωτήσατε, ἡλικίαν ἔχει, αὐτὸς περὶ ἑαυτοῦ λαλήσει. 22 ταῦτα εἶπανοἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ ὅτι ἐφοβοῦντο τοὺς Ἰουδαίους, ἤδη γὰρ συνετέθειντο οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἵνα ἐάν τις αὐτὸν ὁμολογήσῃ Χριστόν, ἀποσυνάγωγος γένηται. 23 διὰ τοῦτο οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ εἶπαν ὅτι Ἡλικίαν ἔχει, αὐτὸν ἐπερωτήσατε.

24 Ἐφώνησαν οὖν τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἐκ δευτέρου ὃς ἦν τυφλὸς καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Δὸς δόξαν τῷ θεῷ: ἡμεῖς οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἁμαρτωλός ἐστιν. 25 ἀπεκρίθη οὖν ἐκεῖνος, Εἰ ἁμαρτωλός ἐστιν οὐκ οἶδα: ἓν οἶδα, ὅτι τυφλὸς ὢν ἄρτι βλέπω. 26 εἶπον οὖν αὐτῷ, Τί ἐποίησέν σοι; πῶς ἤνοιξέν σου τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς; 27 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς, Εἶπον ὑμῖν ἤδη καὶ οὐκ ἠκούσατε: τί πάλιν θέλετε ἀκούειν; μὴ καὶ ὑμεῖς θέλετε αὐτοῦ μαθηταὶ γενέσθαι; 28 καὶ ἐλοιδόρησαν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπον, Σὺ μαθητὴς εἶ ἐκείνου, ἡμεῖς δὲ τοῦ Μωϋσέως ἐσμὲν μαθηταί: 29 ἡμεῖς οἴδαμεν ὅτι Μωϋσεῖ λελάληκεν ὁ θεός, τοῦτον δὲ οὐκ οἴδαμεν πόθεν ἐστίν. 30 ἀπεκρίθη ὁ ἄνθρωπος καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἐν τούτῳ γὰρ τὸ θαυμαστόν ἐστιν, ὅτι ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε πόθεν ἐστίν, καὶ ἤνοιξέν μου τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς. 31 οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἁμαρτωλῶν ὁ θεὸς οὐκ ἀκούει, ἀλλ' ἐάν τις θεοσεβὴς ᾖ καὶ τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ ποιῇ τούτου ἀκούει. 32 ἐκ τοῦ αἰῶνος οὐκ ἠκούσθη ὅτι ἠνέῳξέν τις ὀφθαλμοὺς τυφλοῦ γεγεννημένου: 33 εἰ μὴ ἦν οὗτος παρὰ θεοῦ, οὐκ ἠδύνατο ποιεῖν οὐδέν. 34 ἀπεκρίθησαν καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ἐν ἁμαρτίαις σὺ ἐγεννήθης ὅλος, καὶ σὺ διδάσκεις ἡμᾶς; καὶ ἐξέβαλον αὐτὸν ἔξω.

35 Ἤκουσεν Ἰησοῦς ὅτι ἐξέβαλον αὐτὸν ἔξω, καὶ εὑρὼν αὐτὸν εἶπεν, Σὺ πιστεύεις εἰς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου; 36 ἀπεκρίθη ἐκεῖνος καὶ εἶπεν, Καὶ τίς ἐστιν, κύριε, ἵνα πιστεύσω εἰς αὐτόν; 37 εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Καὶ ἑώρακας αὐτὸν καὶ ὁ λαλῶν μετὰ σοῦ ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν. 38 ὁ δὲ ἔφη, Πιστεύω, κύριε: καὶ προσεκύνησεν αὐτῷ. 39 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Εἰς κρίμα ἐγὼ εἰς τὸν κόσμον τοῦτον ἦλθον, ἵνα οἱ μὴ βλέποντες βλέπωσιν καὶ οἱ βλέποντες τυφλοὶ γένωνται. 40 Ἤκουσαν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων ταῦτα οἱ μετ' αὐτοῦ ὄντες, καὶ εἶπον αὐτῷ, Μὴ καὶ ἡμεῖς τυφλοί ἐσμεν; 41 εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Εἰ τυφλοὶ ἦτε, οὐκ ἂνεἴχετε ἁμαρτίαν: νῦν δὲ λέγετε ὅτι Βλέπομεν: ἡ ἁμαρτία ὑμῶν μένει.

Translation (NRSV):

1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3 Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ 9 Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10 But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11 He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ 12 They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ 16 Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20 His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ 25 He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26 They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27 He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ 28 Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ 30 The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34 They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 36 He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37 Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38 He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39 Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41 Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’

Christ Heals the Man Born Blind (Source: Saint John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville PA)

Reading the Gospel story

By now, we are all familiar with the seven ‘I AM’ sayings in Saint John’s Gospel. The phrase ‘ego eimi’ is used with a nominative predicate seven times in this Gospel:

● I am the Bread of Life [John 6: 35, 41, 48-51];
● I am the Light of the World [John 8: 12, 9: 5];
● I am the Door of the Sheepfold [John 10: 7, 9];
● I am the Good Shepherd [John 10: 11, 14];
● I am the Resurrection and the Life [John 11: 25];
● I am the Way, the Truth and the Life [John 14: 6];
● I am the True Vine [John 15:1, 5].

In addition, there are Seven Signs. Some scholars, including Stephen Smalley, want to link the seven ‘I AM’ sayings to the seven signs, although it is not that simple. For example, he links the Water into Wine with ‘I am the true vine.’ However, different scholars associate different signs with different sayings.

In any case, the seven miracles in Saint John’s Gospel are referred to as ‘signs.’ These signs are given to confirm the deity of Christ. The seven signs in Saint John’s Gospel are:

● John 2: 1-11, water into wine
● John 4: 46-51, healing with a word
● John 5: 1-9, a crippled man at Bethesda
● John 6: 1-14, the feeding of 5,000
● John 6: 16-21, walking on water
● John 9: 1-7, the man born blind
● John 11: 1-46, the Raising of Lazarus.

In addition, some scholars talk about Seven Themes in this Gospel: Life, Truth, Faith, Light, Spirit, Judgment and Love.

So, this reading includes one of the ‘I AM’ sayings, I am the Light of the World (verse 5; see also John 8: 12) and tells us of the sixth of the seven signs, the healing of the man born blind. On the following Sunday [2 April 2017, the Fifth Sunday in Lent], we have the seventh sign, the Raising of Lazarus (John 11: 1-45).

The setting

The physical or geographical setting for this story is Jerusalem, near the pool of Siloam, a rock-cut pool on the southern slope of the City of David, outside the walls of the Old City, to the southeast. The Pool of Siloam is mentioned several times in the Bible – Isaiah 8: 6 mentions the pool’s waters; Isaiah 22: 9 ff. refers to the construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel.

As a fresh water reservoir, the Pool of Siloam was a major gathering place at the time of Christ for people making religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and the water from the pool was used for purification rituals in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles or Succoth. So this is a very public setting for a ‘sign,’ with many witnesses present.

The other setting that is important to take account of is the mindset of the people of the time – and not just the Pharisees – who believed that severe physical disablement was a natural and just consequence for the sins of the past, even the sins of past generations. In some way, we could explain the inexplicable way God had allowed other people to suffer was because of their sins or the sins of their ancestors.

Siloam is an interesting place for Christ to challenge this ‘received wisdom.’ Recall the story in Saint Luke’s Gospel, where Christ couples the execution of Galilean insurgents with the tragedy surrounding the collapse of the Tower of Siloam (Luke 13: 1-5). Many may have expected him to say that their deaths were punishment for their rebellious or collaborative behaviour. Instead, he taught that death comes to everyone, regardless of how sinful they are, regardless of birth, politics or social background, and went on to teach how we each need to repent.

Here too he rejects this traditional belief (see verse 3), but the story reaches its climax when we are told that spiritual blindness is a greater affliction than physical blindness, and that seeing the way but not following it is worse than not seeing the way at all.

Christ tells us at the beginning of this reading to be prepared to link this man’s congenital blindness to the revelation of God’s works. And once again he speaks of himself as the light of the world (verse 5; c.f. John 8: 12).

The healing:

How does the healing take place? And who initiates the healing?

Notice how the man does not ask for healing. It is Christ who sees him; it is impossible for him to see Christ, and so he does not ask Christfor healing; nor does Christ ask him what he wants. This is an act of pure compassion, not just for the man because of his physical disability, but stirred too by the social judgment that has been passed on him.

Nor does Christ ask the man about his faith or his beliefs. He is not asked to say he believes in God, nor is he asked to say who Jesus is.

Christ spits on the ground, makes a potion or a poultice, spreads in on the man’s eye, and tells him to go and wash in the pool. The man obeys, goes to the pool, washes, and comes back able to see.

Who are the witnesses to healing? Christ is not there. Nor are the Pharisees, nor the disciples, not even the man’s family or neighbours. Despite the Pool of Siloam being a very busy place, no-one asks for any witnesses who have actually seen the man washing himself in the waters. This makes another connection between seeing and believing, not seeing and refusing to believe.

He has not been asked to return, but like the one Samaritan among the Ten Lepers, he does come back. But by the time the man got back, Jesus has gone.

Those who see that he can now see include many who refuse to believe their own eyes. And when he speaks out, they refuse to believe their own ears. Our prejudices can be so ingrained that even in the face of incontrovertible evidence we can refuse to believe what we see and hear – and this is true particularly when it comes to our received and inherited social, political and religious prejudices.

The consequences and the lessons

What are the consequences of the healing: the man moves from being blind to having sight, from being a beggar to being free, from being dependent to being independent, from being regarded as a sinner to knowing that he is free of the sins that others have laid on his shoulders. Yet he is reviled and driven cast out.

In his first condition, people thought he suffered as a consequence God’s judgment on him and his past. Now he truly suffers because of what God has done to him.

We might ask whether he might been better off if he had never been healed? At least then he might have continued to have an income as a beggar, a place (albeit a not very desirable place) in society, and he would not have come to complete rejection.

Three questionings

A quieter man might have slipped away quietly, found a new job, and settled down nicely. But instead, this man comes back, and faces the consequences.

There are three series of questionings and interrogations that reveal the consequences for this man’s faith and belief?

First of all, he is brought before the Pharisees and he says Christ is a prophet (verse 17). It is interesting to note that this is a confrontation between the healed man and the Pharisees about Christ, and not a confrontation between the Pharisees and Christ about the healed man.

No-one believes the man, and so his parents are called. They too are not believed (verses 18-23), so the man is called in for interrogation a second time.

On second questioning, Christ and the blind man are linked together in the same fate as sinners, but he rebuffs the suggestion that Jesus is a sinner (verses 24-25). Then, in a deeply psychological way challenges them to think if they are not protesting too much: ‘Do you also want to become his disciples?’ (verses 25-27) Jungians would say he has pointed to the shadow side of their personalities.

Undeterred by the way he is being reviled, his own deep faith comes to life as he links true worship with obedience and discipleship, and confesses his faith that Christ is sent by God (verses 28-33).

Frustrated and angered by his resilience at this second questioning, his interrogators drive him out.

On reading this the Johannine community would have immediately drawn comparisons with those who were driven out of the synagogues in Asia Minor for their faith in Christ, and this story would have had many resonances for the Johannine Church.

The man faces a third set of questions when Christ, on hearing what has happened, searches him out and finds him (verses 35-41). When Christ reveals himself as the Son of Man, the once blind man confesses a simple faith: ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.

It is similar to Thomas’s confession on seeing the wounds of the Risen Christ: ‘My Lord and My God!’ (John 20: 28).

Healing on the Sabbath

Christ prepares the healing poultice late in the afternoon, and the healing takes place on the Sabbath.

By preparing and applying the poultice on a Saturday, he violated four rules about the Sabbath:

● ploughing: he rolled mud and spittle on the ground;
● kneading: he mixed them together to make the potion;
● anointing: he put the poultice on the man’s eyes;
● healing: this was not a life-threatening condition, yet he healed the man.

But as one of the seven signs in Saint John’s Gospel, the healing of the Blind Man at Siloam has more significance than the miracle itself.

The miracles follows the ‘I AM’ saying, ‘I am the light of the world’ (verse 5), and so serves to validate it. He brings light and sight not only to those who visibly and physically need them, but he brings it to all, even to those who do not realise that they sit in darkness.

Some conclusions:

Seeing and believing, blindness and revelation, are important themes running through the Fourth Gospel.

Think how, at the end of the Gospel, Thomas refuses to believe in what he hears until he sees for himself.

Christ tells us at the beginning of this reading to be prepared to link this man’s congenital blindness to the revelation of God’s works.

Notice too how Christ puts the poultice of saliva and mud on the man’s eyes on the Sabbath, when new life is about to begin and healing actually takes place. The blind man’s eyes are opened on the Sabbath itself (verse 13), before the new week, before a new life, before what is for him almost a Resurrection.

Compare this with the Johannine setting for the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and compare too the questioning of the man with the trial of Christ.

Reading this passage on Mothering Sunday:

We read this Gospel passage on Mothering Sunday [26 March 2017]. How did you respond in that context to this story?

How many mothers have adult children who have grown up with disabilities and have become a burden to these women as they grow old?

How many mothers in this situation have railed against God in their own silent, private place, wondering whether their burden is God’s response to something they did in the past?

How many mothers in this plight have been fobbed off by being told God only gives burdens to those who are able to shoulder them, and that they should see their adult child as a blessing?

How many mothers of adult children with disabilities are embarrassed by their children’s behaviour and conversation in public places, and know that they are not heard properly no matter how many times questions are put to them?

How many such mothers hearing this passage on Mothering Sunday would identify with the parents and their embarrassment, and have so often heard the judgmental responses we hear in this reading?

How many mothers, distressed by recent reports of the Tuam Mothers and Babies horror, and similar stories throughout Ireland in recent weeks, would compare the response they received from religious figures in the past with the voices of religious authority in this Gospel passage?

Some questions for discussion:

How do you relate this theme to the relationship between man who was healed and his family, or to how people judge us and what we inherit from our families?

How often do we say someone has got their ‘come-uppance’ or their ‘just desserts’?

How often do we think someone has brought their own plight on themselves?

Or how often do we pass by someone in real need and think that their plight has been exacerbated by their failure to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’?

How often do others seek evidence for our faith, but when presented with Christian living, love and discipleship as the only real evidences, do they continue to reject it?

Are prejudice and bias things we inherit, or things we chose to live by?

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Lenten Bible study in the Rectory, Askeaton, on Monday 3 April 2017.

Easter: the triumph over the barriers we create

The front cover of the April 2017 edition of ‘Newslink,’ the magazine of the Church of Ireland United Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert

Easter: the triumph over the barriers we create

Patrick Comerford

In the Western tradition of the Church, at this time of the year, we have traditionally contemplated the cross, and then the empty tomb. But we have often neglected Christ’s resting place, his tomb, and given little thought to what was happening in the Holy Sepulchre on the second day, the Saturday.

Holy or Great Saturday is observed solemnly in the Orthodox Church, with hymns and readings that explore the theme of the Harrowing of Hell. The traditional icon of the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that God reaches into the deepest depths to pull forth souls into the kingdom of light. It reminds us how much we are unable to comprehend – let alone take to heart as our own – our creedal statement about Christ’s descent into Hell – ‘He descended into Hell.’

Christ’s descent into Hell is referred to in Saint Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, and again in I Peter (I Peter 3:15b- 4:8), where we are told that when Christ died he went and preached to the spirits in prison ‘who in former times did not obey … For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that … they might live in the spirit as God does.’

The Harrowing of Hell … a traditional Orthodox icon

In the New Revised Standard Version, I Peter 4: 6 reads that the gospel was ‘proclaimed even to the dead …’ reflecting the original Greek. The New International Version translation, however, says the Gospel ‘was preached even to those who are now dead …’ But the word ‘now’ is not in the Greek text.

The Early Church taught that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve. The traditional icon of the Harrowing of Hell links intimately the Cross with Resurrection, and Christ’s death with the Raising from the Dead. As Christ is raised from the dead he also plummets the depths to bring up, to raise up, those who are dead. The Harrowing of Hell carries us into the gap in time between Christ’s death and resurrection, breaking down the barriers of time and space.

In icons of the Harrowing of Hell, Christ stands on the shattered doors of hell. Sometimes, two angels are shown in the pit binding Satan. And we see Christ pulling out of hell Adam and Eve, along with all humanity. Christ breaks down the doors of hell and leads the souls of the lost into heaven.

It is the most radical reversal we can imagine. Death does not have the last word, we need not live our lives entombed in fear. If Adam and Eve are forgiven, and the Sin of Adam is annulled and destroyed, who is beyond forgiveness?

Archbishop Rowan Williams has written beautifully in The Indwelling of Light on the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is the new Adam who rescues humanity from its past, and who starts history anew. ‘The resurrection … is an introduction – to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbours, to our physical world.’ He says: ‘Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal began … (This) icon declares that wherever that lost moment was or is – Christ (is) there to implant the possibility … of another future.’

At Easter, the icon of the Harrowing of Hell tells us that there are no limits to God’s ability to search us out and to know us. Christ breaks down the gates of Hell, and as the icon powerfully shows, he rips all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. He descends into the depths of our sin and alienation from God; and by plumbing the depths of hell he suffuses all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy and light.

Christ’s decent into hell pushes back hell’s boundaries. He reclaims this zone for life, pushing back the gates of death, where God is not, to the farthest limits possible, and shatters all the barriers we create in time and space.

And then his Resurrection on Easter morning truly is his triumph and our triumph over all those barriers.

2, The Resurrection … an Easter scene in a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This full-page feature is published in the April 2017 edition of ‘Newslink,’ the magazine of the Church of Ireland United Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert (p 19).

The Empty Tomb … a fresco in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Lent 2017 with USPG,
(37) Monday 3 April 2017

Bishop Margaret Vertue of False Bay … ‘Give thanks for courageous Christians in South Africa who draw upon their faith in Christ to tackle injustice and speak truth to power’

Patrick Comerford

We are now in Passiontide, the last two weeks in Lent.

The Lent 2017 edition of the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) follows the theme of the USPG Lent study course, ‘Living an Authentic Life.’

Throughout Lent, I am using this Prayer Diary for my prayers and reflections each morning, inviting you to join me in these prayers and reflections, for just a few moments each morning.

In the articles and prayers in the prayer diary, USPG invites us to investigate what it means to be a disciple of Christ. The Lent study course, ‘Living an Authentic Life’ (available online or to order at www.uspg.org.uk/lent), explores the idea that discipleship and authenticity are connected.

This week, from Passion Sunday yesterday (2 April) until Saturday (8 April), the USPG Lent Prayer Diary is following the topic ‘Counting the Cost.’ The topic was introduced yesterday in an article in the Prayer Diary by the Right Revd Margaret B Vertue, Bishop of False Bay Diocese in South Africa.

Monday 3 April 2017:

Give thanks for courageous Christians in South Africa who draw upon their faith in Christ to tackle injustice and speak truth to power (see article).

Continued tomorrow.

Yesterday’s reflection.