Fourth Week of Lent 2016 – The Man Born Blind (John 9:1-41)
The text chosen for the Fourth Sunday of Lent 2016 comes from the entire ninth chapter of the Gospel of John (9:1-41), a moment of which – the healing by Jesus of a man born blind – the artist El Greco painted in 1570 (see below). What does this artist’s spiritual understanding of this biblical text offer to us, who wish to understand better John’s profound text? Take some moments to read or prayerfully recall John’s text, and then study El Greco’s painting.
I think that it is a stretch for us to imagine that the blindness of the man born that way is anything other than a liability, a profound limitation he is forced to accept by circumstances of his birth. We feel pity that he lacks what the rest of us have. And, as a result, we assume (without noticing it) that Jesus’ decision to heal the man, and then doing it, must have made that day in the Temple the greatest day of the man’s life – “I can see!” And, further, we assume that the miracle that day was that Jesus activated the man’s eyes.
Think for a minute how parents want their children to be spared having to see the world – where it is ugly, small, mean-spirited, too complicated, or starvingly superficial. Most parents I know worry because their children can see, able to see things far more clearly than they wished that they could. Parents feel themselves responsible and good when they keep their children blind, at least about certain things, for as long as possible. So why would the gift of sight necessarily be a grace to one born blind?
Further, think for a minute about how each of us may end up relying so heavily upon what we see in a particular person that we forget about what we understand about him or her. When we rely too much on what we can see in our friend or beloved, we undercut trust whose foundation is not constituted by what we see but by what we know. Trust grows not in changeable seeing but in tested conviction about the truth of our friend. Seeing can blind us to the truth of a person by distracting us. So why would the gift of sight necessarily be a grace to one born blind?
Or again, is not it going to be the case for the man born blind that the extraordinarily enhanced capacities in his other senses – feeling the world and hearing the world in particular – will likely suffer significant diminishment when suddenly he can see? We have evidence vast and significant that the blind hear and feel the world in ways that might convince us who see that we are mere amateurs when it comes to perceiving the world. So why would the gift of sight necessarily be a grace to one born blind?
Is being able to see necessarily a blessing?
Seeing can be a great burden to us who can see. Remember how God warned Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:17) not to eat of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” and how when they did, its effect is described as being able to see – “Then the eyes of both of them were opened….” And what we have been forced to look at through the course of our life may haunt us for years. And so why would it be a particular grace – a miracle – given by Jesus to the man born blind to be able to see the people who are now about to discount his testimony, to insult him, and finally to throw him out of the Temple – They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out. For the man to have to look at such faces looking at him could not have been easy, and I doubt that he would have wanted to expound to anyone on the grace of being able to see them.
Obviously my point is not to wish that we all could be blind, and from birth! Rather I am wondering whether our conviction about the wrongness of being blind, and therefore our praise for the miracle Jesus performed in making the man not blind, distracts us from the real miracle that Jesus does here.
“If love is blind, then maybe a blind person who loves has a greater understanding of it.”
What was it that set my thinking along these lines about the nature of the miracle we find in John 9? It was something that I noticed in the painting of El Greco – the geometry of it.
What struck me is how we think that the act of central importance must be Jesus healing the man born blind. But if that were the case, then why did the artist place the healing to the side, rather than at the center? He placed someone else at the center and arranged things in his painting to make sure that we would not miss them there.
I noticed that my attention was drawn first to the middle back of the painting, to those two figures who sit facing each other – the one on the right (younger) placing her hands on the eyes of the man (much older) on the left who reaches for her with such tenderness. Why did this happen? Because the geometry causes our eyes to be drawn there. When the artist places the crowd on the left where we see Jesus and the blind man, and the crowd on the right, and the parents of the blind man nearest us at the bottom center, he creates a vivid frame that makes stand out the two figures sitting back there. And then, as if we might still miss his point, he uses perspective to pull our attention back through the two crowds to the middle pair sitting back there, focusing that central part of the painting by his use of the arch all the way in the back.
El Greco’s insight into the meaning of John 9 is this. Whoever are those two sitting back there in the middle we do not know, but they are an image of tender love – the gestures making their care for each other obvious. The artist paints them as nearly transparent, as if to emphasize the light that is through them rather than on them. It is those two who are the interpretive key to the whole painting by way of contrast to so many others in the scene. They love, and tenderly, imitating in form and gesture that of Jesus and the man born blind. They get what Jesus is doing and imitate Him. Jesus heals the blind man to demonstrate love, and to evoke it – that is the miracle … not the making un-blind of the one who was blind from birth.
Those who love see; those who do not are blind. God gives us His eyes through which to see others – “quick-eyed Love” as George Herbert says. You see? We think it is a big deal physically to be able to see and so we notice the physical healing by Jesus and praise it, missing the miracle. Yet Jesus knows too well that those who physically see often use that gift unlovingly, to see what they want to see, and to find proof in seeing for their prejudices.
“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
The miracle of John 9 is the tender love given by Christ to the most mature and impressive character in all of John 9, who happened to be blind from birth. It is the love and gratitude in the man, not that he is suddenly able to use his eyes, that is the miracle effected by Christ, and which causes the man at story’s end to say what he did: “He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
And it was Love Who replied – “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.” 
 See http://www.biography.com/people/el-greco-9319123 – “El Greco [born in Heraklion, Greece in 1541; died in Toledo, Spain in 1614] was born around 1541 in Crete, which was then part of the Republic of Venice. In his mid-twenties, he traveled to Venice and studied under Titian, who was the most renowned painter of his day. Around age 35, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life, producing his best-known paintings. His works from this period are seen as precursors of both Expressionism and Cubism. He is remembered chiefly for his elongated, tortured figures, often religious in nature, the style of which baffled his contemporaries but helped establish his reputation in the years to come.”
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ge 3:7.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 9:34.
 From his book of poetry, Salome: In Every Inch in Every Mile (2011). Criss Jami, born in 1987, is the lead singer of the rock band Venus in Arms based in Washington, D.C. He is also a poet, essayist, and existentialist philosopher. He studied philosophy at George Mason University.
 Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhart
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 9:36.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 9:37.