A Different Kind of Holy Washing

Ash WednesdayAs he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must 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.” 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, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

John 9:1-7

Often, one of the assigned scripture readings for this season in the Christian calendar is this story of healing from John’s gospel.  In this story, we read John’s recounting an occasion when Jesus met a blind man, engaged in a rather esoteric conversation with his disciples around the connection between sin and physical capacities, and, then, healed the blind man.  This story continues with additional debates amongst others regarding sin and various impairments and a realization that Jesus is the anticipated Son of Man.  This story captures many themes that define John’s text: (1) Jesus’ famous “I am” sayings, (2) the light and darkness contrasts, and (3) Jesus’ very public ministry, a ministry that offers repeated signs indicating who Jesus is.  This very public healing and the surrounding debate concerning the nature and propriety of Jesus’ actions amongst those within and outside Jesus’ inner circle stands in stark contrast to a similar healing story that takes place in Mark’s gospel.

In the middle of Mark’s gospel, Jesus encounters another blind man.  In that story from Mark’s gospel, Jesus, also, heals a man who is blind by rubbing saliva on his eyes.  Yet, there, in Mark’s gospel, the story has a rather different tone:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’

 Mark 8:22-26

Instead of performing a public healing, Mark has Jesus doing two very different tasks, directly contrasting John’s story.  First, Jesus takes the blind man away from everyone else so that Jesus’ healing might not be witnessed by others.  Second, after the healing, Jesus asks the blind man to go directly to his home, avoiding the village (and, therefore, public recognition of what Jesus just did.)

Curious!

Why would John’s story and Mark’s story differ so significantly?  Why would John assume that Jesus’ healing was meant to give evidence as to who Jesus is while Mark wants Jesus to remain obscure?  The answer seems to reveal the agenda motivating and permeating both writers’ gospels.

On the one hand, Mark is writing for a community uncertain about Jesus’ ultimate character and their perseverance with a faith in the midst of suffering and an uncertain future.  Mark wants his community to understand that knowing precisely who Jesus is will always remain somewhat mysterious, blurry.  And, that such uncertainty about Jesus and their futures and faith is a natural and expected condition for a follower of Jesus.  In other words, they are in good company, and they are experiencing faith as it is expected to be experienced.

On the other hand, John is writing from a completely different perspective, penning his text much later in the life of the early church and writing from a position evidencing more confidence and certainty as to who and what Jesus is—I mean, just look at his prologue to the gospel!  In John’s text, Jesus never obscures who he is but boldly offers sign after sign and repeatedly declares “I am this” and “I am that,” intentionally echoing the encounter with Moses and God at the burning bush and Moses asking God’s name—a name recorded as “I am who I am.”  In other words, Mark’s gospel is about a faith that requires extra work to see well, while John’s gospel is about a faith that supplies a light, i.e., Jesus, by which to see the world better: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5)

As interesting a point as it is that both these distinct healing stories sit within the same New Testament, it is equally compelling that both these healing stories are part of the assigned texts suggested be read during the season of Lent.  What are we to do with these two texts, and why are they both offered to us during this season of the Christian year?  While there may be several answers to these questions, here, I propose a few I find useful.

As already mentioned, these gospel writers seem to want to accomplish different tasks with their stories.  Mark wants us to be comforted in our struggles, while John wants us to turn our gaze upon the world, looking at it with the eyes/light of Jesus.  This last point leads to my second thought.

Typically, Mark’s text is assigned earlier in the lectionary cycle for the season of Lent, reminding us that as we being our introspective Lenten journeys that ignorance, uncertainty, and confusion are appropriate companions.  The time spent in introspection will lead to some clarity, but clarity is rarely found on the first try.  John’s text, conversely, generally comes closer to the end of the Lenten season, as a prompt to draw our thoughts out from ourselves and toward the world, beginning a transition from looking at ourselves with greater clarity to looking at our world through the eyes/light gifted to us via our recent introspection.  As it turns out, there are many ways to look at the world, and the Lenten season is but a reminder regularly to view it through the sight of love and grace, justice and peace offered through a life of faith.

So, this week, we are challenged to view the world with a greater level of intensity through an enlightened lens of love as the Christian calendar turns another page. The Christian tradition, as it is with many religious traditions, follows a distinct calendar revealing the contours of the faith.  That calendar turns a page, moving from post-Epiphany wanderings to the intentional journey of Lent that ends at the foot of the cross on Good Friday.  That page’s turning is marked with the ashes of a Wednesday service of humble reflection.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.

In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day journey, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of wilderness preparation as he initiated his ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by looking inward in personal transformation before gazing outward in world re-imagination.  If you are able, join us this week at our Ash Wednesday service, laboring to see the world through new eyes.  And, regardless, continue your own journey of faith, struggling to see the world through new eyes of love and grace each and every day.

Have a good week and see you along the way.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: