39 The Blind Man: The Sixth Sunday of Pascha - June 1, 2008

Acts 16:16 – 34

John 9:1 – 38

In her meditation on this morning’s Gospel of the blind man, the Church in her liturgical texts sets it alongside the story of the myrrh-bearing women coming to the empty tomb, which we heard on the third Sunday of Pascha. The tomb is for us the symbol of Christ’s resurrection; but it only intensifies the question of death. We say that Christ by his resurrection destroyed the power of death. So why do we still die? Herein lies the religious problem that runs through all of these Paschal Gospels: how can one see and believe that Jesus is raised from the dead in view of the fact that everyone still dies? Where is the victory of Christ’s resurrection? That religious problem reaches its climax in this morning’s Gospel of the blind man, whose lesson the Church illumines for us by setting it alongside the empty tomb.

The report that Christ is risen reminds us that we all die. The remembrance of our death raises into question the meaning of our life, which in turn raises into question the meaning of death. What happens to us in death? Where do we go when we die? We don’t know the answers to these questions because we cannot see into the realm of death. We can see the corpse; we can see the tomb where the body is laid and the gravestone. But that is as far as our sight can go. We cannot see any farther. We can’t see beyond the corpse or the tomb to answer these questions. We can’t even see the risen Jesus.

This realm beyond the grave that we cannot see into is the mystery. It includes as well the realm that is beyond our birth. So why is the mystery so compelling to us? Because when we look back to our birth and wonder where we came from, if anywhere, and when we look forward to our death and wonder where we go, if anywhere, when we die, we can see at least this much: that both our origin and our destiny lie beyond our vision in the mystery, in that realm we cannot see into, that realm on the other side of our birth and our death. We cannot see into the mystery; but we can see that it is in the mystery that all the answers to our ultimate questions about the meaning of our life are to be found.

The Gospel story of Joseph of Arimathea placing the crucified Jesus in the tomb and sealing it with a large stone, is filled with the most provocative and endless irony. The one who is laid in the tomb is himself the mystery of God, as St Paul writes.[1] The crucified Jesus is himself the one in whom everything originates and in whom everything finds its true meaning and natural destiny. When Jesus dies and his body placed in the tomb, the Mystery of God enters into the realm of the mystery. When the tomb is sealed with a huge stone, God’s mystery is closed off from our eyes. We cannot see beyond that large stone and into the tomb to gaze even upon the corpse of the crucified Jesus. Nor can we see his resurrection, because it is the resurrection of the Mystery of God that takes place in the mystery, in the realm closed off to our physical sight, the realm beyond our birth and our death where our origin and our destiny lie.

But, in fact, even when the mystery of God became flesh and dwelt among us so that he could be seen with the eyes and touched by the hands and heard with the ears, even then he was invisible. He was invisible in his inner identity as the Son of God. No one could see the God in the God-man Jesus Christ; they saw only the man. Even as Jesus, the mystery of God hidden before the ages, was manifest to their eyes, he was still hidden. They could see evidence of his divine identity in the miracles of healing that he performed. He even raised people from the dead and gave sight to those who were blind, which only God can do. Yet, not everyone believed in him. They were blind even as they were seeing him. The religious problem running through these eight Sundays of Pascha, then, is not just how one can see and believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. The religious problem is how one can see Jesus at all, since he is himself, in his inner, hidden identity, the Mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.[2] 

I think the Gospel of Jesus’ resurrection is telling us that there is a deeper kind of eyesight than the sight of the physical eyes. The force of the Gospel lectionary for Pascha is how to open our deeper eyes so that we can see into the mystery of God to learn who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

The stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus is like this blindness that prevents us from seeing into the tomb and into the mystery of God that was hidden from before the ages. According to the liturgical texts for this morning, we become blind from our enslavement to our passions: gluttony, lust, anger, hatred, envy, jealousy, vanity, pride.[3] We become enslaved to the passions when we do not put our trust in God and do not practice his commandments. This mystical blindness by which we cannot see into the mystery of God is the beginning of our death. We are expelled from the Garden of Eden. We are expelled from the Mystery of God. We are separated from Christ, the Image of God, in whom we were made and in whose likeness we were destined to become. We are separated then from the mystery of our origin and our end. We are cast into outer darkness, and we begin our descent back to the dust of the ground and back to the empty nothingness of the dark abyss. There is no mystery here; only darkness and nothingness.

Herein lies the significance of the stone being rolled away from the tomb. It means that the Mystery of God is now open to us who are enslaved to sin and to death. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God anymore. Herein lies the significance of the empty tomb. Death has been emptied. Christ, himself the mystery of God, has descended into hell and filled it with himself and made death to be the death of death and our passover into life. Not the life of this world – that life is infected with the poison of death – but the life of the world to come, the eternal life of the Spirit. The empty tomb means that Jesus did not rise again into the life of this world that he had just left. It means that he has taken this life of the world and healed it of the poison of death by filling it with his own body and blood, the medicine of immortality, and he has raised it up into the Mystery of God beyond the grave, and united us again to our origin and our destiny which lie in Christ, the Son of God, the Image of God in whom we were made and in whose likeness we were destined to become.

The healing of the blind man is a reference to the mystery of baptism. We call baptism, Holy Illumination. It is the opening of our spiritual eyes so that we can see Jesus in the mystery of his divine identity and his holy resurrection. But to see the risen Jesus, we must believe in him, as did the blind man. If, like the Pharisees, we do not believe in Jesus, we will not see him in the mystery of his divine identity and resurrection from the dead, even though we have been baptized and our eyes opened. To believe in Jesus is to put our trust in him and to live our life according to his commandments. To put our trust in Jesus means to treat all that comes to us throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that his will governs all. It means that when things don’t go as we want them to, when we encounter disappointment or setbacks, we do not fall into despair or anger. We do not stop practicing the Lord’s commandments; for we believe that he loves us and that we have no reason to be afraid or distraught, for in Christ, the tomb that lies before us has been transfigured into gates opening onto Paradise. We believe that he has filled death with himself, and we trust in him that in his holy resurrection he is guiding us through our life in this world on the better and changeless path that ascends to God and into the mystery of our origin and our destiny, which are in God. This faith is our hope. In this hope, we believe that whatever happens to us in this life, if we are faithful to Christ and put our trust in him, then even disappointments are made to be part of the path that leads to our joyous end in Christ, which is nothing less than to become partakers of the divine nature, communicants of life eternal, born from above as children of God. Amen.

[1] For example, Col 1:27 & 2:2

[2] Eph 3:9

[3] Pentecostarion, p. 279, Ode 5, Hiermos of the blind man.