Sermon preached by Dr Philip Murray, ordinand at Westcott House
Yesterday the Church celebrated the feast of the Annunciation, when we remember the Angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary and that brave Yes that she gave when God asked her to bear his Son. At nine months exactly before Christmas Day, the Annunciation celebrates the very beginning of our salvation, right at the start of Mary’s pregnancy. The Annunciation, fixed as it is, then, on 25 March, almost invariably falls in Lent. And this means that as Christians, we are regularly faced with the odd experience of thinking of Christmas, of the birth of Jesus, right at the time when we’re meant to be preparing to celebrate his death and resurrection.
Yet this apparent liturgical oddity, I’d like to suggest, isn’t really as odd as it first seems. Christmas is a period of contrasts, most particularly the contrast between the darkness of winter and the dawning of light that the birth of Christ represents. And it’s also this contrast between light and darkness, or we might say between seeing and blindness, that helps us to understand more fully the nature of Lent — that it is a season where we grow spiritually as we’re drawn more deeply into that ineffable well of light that is the crucified, risen, ascended Christ.
What I mean by this is made clear by this morning’s Gospel. The passage we’ve just heard about the man born blind interweaves images of blindness and sight, light and darkness, day and night, in a vivid example of one of the most important metaphors in St John’s Gospel. Earlier in the Gospel we hear of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, to hear Jesus say he is “the light” that “has come into the world” to save people from their sin. Later in the Gospel Jesus says to Philip and Andrew, “The light is with you for a little longer … While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (12:35–36). John uses this metaphor of light and darkness to make that Jesus is light, that he has been sent to a people who sit in darkness to make them children of light.
That this morning’s Gospel is part of this metaphor is clear. “We must”, Jesus tells his disciples at the beginning of the story, “work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” So the story of the man born blind is there to show us why Jesus comes into the world and what Jesus’ mission looks like when he does come. The story shows us that Jesus is the bestower of life, that he comes as the light of the world to free humankind from the darkness of its sin.
Jesus makes it absolutely clear in the Gospel that man wasn’t born blind because of sin. He flatly rejects his disciples’ own elision of being blind with being in a state of sin. At the same time, though, it does seem that the Gospel uses the man’s blindness as a metaphor for the sort of darkness into which humanity is born as a result of our distance from God. And we can see the transformation that Jesus brings about in the blind man, as Jesus draws near to him and touches him, as he makes mud with his own saliva and spreads it on the man’s eyes with his own fingers, as symbolizing the unique power Jesus has to free us from that darkness and bring us into light —into the fullness of our relationship with God.
But the story shows us even more than this. The man born blind receives sight, yes, but what he really receives is a new way of seeing: a way that’s radically different to the neighbours and standers-by who surround him. The man receives his sight and instantly he sees Jesus as he really is. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing”, he tells the Pharisees — the Pharisees whose unquestioning certainty about sin, the law, Moses, their salvation, is a much more problematic sort blindness than the man ever knew.
The man born blind shows us, then, not just the true nature of Jesus, and why he was sent into the world, but also the true nature of the change Jesus brings about in us. It shows us that if we allow Jesus to get close to us, to touch us, to wash away our sins, then we are given a new way of looking at the world. Being a follower of Jesus means putting aside everything we think we know about ourselves, the world, about what is right and wrong, worthy and unworthy, and looking at the world afresh: looking at the world as God intends us to see it. We are called to eschew the Pharisees’ way of looking at the world, and to emulate the blind trust of the man whose sight Jesus restored.
The Christian way of life, then, is one where we look at the world differently. As Christians, we are called to see the refugee or asylum seeker as someone in need of our welcome and care, rather than a security threat who must be monitored closely. We’re called to look at social issues like homelessness, or healthcare, or education, not in terms of economic gains and losses, or of utilitarian management, but with a desire that neighbours, the people we are to love as ourselves, truly flourish. Friendships, the family, marriage, the Church are to be seen not as contracted relationships of self-protection or nostalgic pride, but as opportunities for us to give ourselves completely to the other, just as Jesus did when he gave himself over for us on the cross. And we’re called to look honestly at ourselves as well—to ask how the way we’re leading our lives, and the choices we make, really look like from God’s point of view. Coming into the light of Christ, becoming children of light, means looking at the world, and ourselves truly through God’s eyes, a way of seeing that’s epitomized most fully when we come together at the Eucharist, when we gaze upon that piece of bread and cup of wine and see Jesus himself, the Son of God.
This transformation of our way of seeing is something we’re particularly called to in Lent. And in a sense the story of the man born blind is a sort of foreshadowing of the season of Lent itself. In the early Church Lent was (and for many, of course, still is) the time when new Christians were prepared for baptism at Easter. The season began with their anointing with the oil of catechumens, and in Lent the catechumens would fast, pray and receive instruction in the faith, as they prepared for the dramatic washing away of their sins by the waters of baptism. We have that same pattern in this morning’s Gospel. There’s an anointing at the beginning of the story: the Greek word John uses to describe Jesus’ rubbing mud on the man’s eyes is epechrisen which literally means “anointed”. And there’s a sort of baptism when the man is sent to Siloam to wash; only after doing this is his sight restored. Indeed, the whole narrative of the Gospel, of moving from darkness to light, blindness to sight, is in keeping with the nature of Lent. The season gets its name from the Old English word for spring, lencten, a time when we move out of the bleak darkness of winter and into the joyful light of Easter.
As baptized Christians, as Christians who participate in the love of Christ through the Eucharist, we are already children of light. But at the Easter Vigil in three weeks’ time we will gather around the font to renew the promises that were first made at our baptism. We will receive a sprinkling of water from the font as a reminder of that baptism and the change it brought about in us. As we prepare for Easter, then, let us remember the transformation the man born blind experienced, when Jesus brought him out of the darkness of his blindness and gave him a new way of seeing. And let us pray that as we come to renew the promises of our baptism at Easter, we may, like the man born blind, be able to see the world, to live in the world, as God intends.