As is the Church’s custom we mark this mid-Lent Sunday with rose vestments and flowers on the altar, traditional symbols of rejoicing, even as we push full speed ahead into the even more somber second half of Lent
The Gospel According to John, which in so many ways sets the tone for the second half of Lent, portrays Jesus performing a series of miracles, which John calls “signs.” The specific “sign” in today’s Gospel is a truly monumental miracle, for, as the formerly blind man himself testifies to the authorities, it was unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.
Just as the man blind from birth receives physical sight, so he is also gradually given increasing insight into who Jesus is, culminating in his profession of faith, “I do believe, Lord.” Meanwhile, he receives his sight through a series of steps in which he participates as instructed. Jesus spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay with the saliva, smears it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man goes, washes, and returns able to see.
Meanwhile, we watch this unnamed (hence, universal) man develop his insight into who Jesus is - a growth in faith which exactly parallels the increasing unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries, who can certainly see with their physical eyes but are spiritually blind - obstinately so. Physically the Pharisees could see, but spiritually they would not see, because they already knew with absolute certitude that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the man blind from birth, theirs was a willful choice not to see.
God, however, has his own way of acting as the story of God’s surprising selection of an insignificant shepherd as Israel’s king illustrates. Not as we see does God see. What God does can come as a complete surprise. Likewise, what God wants of us may also be a surprise.
The blind man’s meeting with Jesus caused him literally to see everything in an altogether new light – all because he had first been seen by Jesus himself and had gone where Jesus had sent him, allowing something new and different happen to him when Jesus entered his life. It’s easy to appreciate why the Church chose this Gospel account to express what happens when one turns one’s life around and obeys Jesus’ command to go and wash in the waters of baptism. What happens is a wonderfully new and bright outlook on life. At the same time, it is also an enormous challenge. Embracing belief in Christ opens one to a new life of faith and worship, but also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that still seems to dominate the world. Saying “Yes” to Jesus inevitably means saying “No” to other options.
The Scrutiny ceremony which we celebrate today is specifically for the Elect in the final phase of preparation for baptism, for whom this Lenten season is intended to be an especially transformative time, just as the blind man’s encounter with Jesus proved totally transforming for him. The new birth of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and communion with Christ in the Eucharist are fundamentally transformative experiences, intended to empower the baptized to live as children of light, producing every kind of goodness.
Lent, however, is for all of us. Certainly, we must not imagine that catechumens are the only sinners in our midst in need of conversion. All of us are being challenged to continuing conversion throughout our entire lives. And so we join with the elect today in praying to God for the grace to overcome the power of sin that still infects our own hearts. Lent is our opportunity to be changed, as was the blind man, and to be challenged, as were the Pharisees, to reject our own blind spots and to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to live in the light.
Baptism, for which the elect are in the final phase of preparation, is but the first sacrament of conversion, the first sacramental remedy for sin. The challenge to live as children of light in fact and to keep on producing every kind of goodness remains an ongoing one. The conversion to which we are all called is a continuing challenge to say “Yes” to Christ and “No” to other alternatives, a challenge which continues throughout the entire course of life. It obviously does not cease with baptism. For us who are already baptized, therefore, we may avail ourselves of the second sacrament of forgiveness - what the early Church charmingly called “the second plank after shipwreck” – the sacrament of Penance, in which, through the ministry of the Church, we receive forgiveness from God for the sins we commit after baptism and so may be repeatedly reconciled with God and with his Church.
As Walter Cardinal Kasper recently reminded us in his address to the College of Cardinals last month, “the entire Christian life is one of penance, that is, a life of repeatedly new rethinking and reorientation.” He went on to that our frequent forgetting of this and our neglect of the sacrament of penance “is one of the deepest wounds of contemporary Christianity.”
The sacrament of penance is available all year, but is especially and more widely available in this Lenten season. So, even if we manage to do little else during this Lent, let us at least make it a point to do that.