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The Light of Pascha
A Sermon on the Sunday of the Blind Man
Christ is risen!
We have reached today the final Sunday of Paschaltide, the Sunday of the Blind Man. While there are other accounts of miracles — both in the Old and the New Testaments — in which people are healed of their blindness, today’s miracle is far more remarkable than those others, for as the blind man himself in the today’s Gospel declares: “Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind” (John 9:32, emphasis added). The man’s ability to see had not merely been lost or damaged; it was missing entirely, and it had been missing entirely for his whole life. The hymns appointed to be sung on this Sunday tell us that the man was actually born without any eyes at all, and so when Christ “spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle” (John 9:6), He was actually forming eyes for the man from the dust of the earth, as our forefather Adam himself had once been formed from the dust by the Lord in Paradise.
My brothers and sisters, today’s Gospel miracle is not simply an event that occurred once a long time ago: it occurs in the life of every Christian, and each of us standing here today has experienced — to a greater or lesser extent — this same miracle in our own lives. For all of us were born spiritually blind, lacking spiritual eyes, unable to perceive the spiritual realities of the world around us. And just as a man born without eyes cannot even conceive of the visible world which is hidden from him, so too we each were utterly incapable even of imagining the glory of the Kingdom of God, the glory which “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither [hath] entered into the heart of man” (cf. I Cor. 2:9). And yet Christ, in Holy Baptism, has miraculously given to each of us the eyes to see such glory, the glory which has just been again revealed to us so clearly and so joyously on Pascha night, the glory to which we are now called by Christ to become witnesses amidst the unbelieving world.
And indeed, it is no accident that the Holy Church has appointed this Gospel passage to be read each year on the Sunday immediately prior to the Feast of the Ascension. Before Christ ascended up into heaven, He commanded His disciples — and through them, He commanded us — to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat. 28:19). And so the Church gives to us today as it were an icon of this missionary calling in the story of the man born blind, to inspire us and instruct us as we prepare to go forth and fulfill our holy calling.
So what, precisely, is the Church trying to teach us today? This Gospel passage is filled to overflowing with rich spiritual meaning, and so I will try today to point out only a few of the main lessons.
I think that, first of all, we must meditate on the fact that there was great confusion among the Jews as to whether this man was really the same man they had known for so long or not. The change that had come upon him was so great that he was scarcely recognizable as the same person he had been before, and it took no less than the testimony of his own parents to convince those who had known him that he was truly the same man.
And so it must be with every Christian. The change wrought by the Holy Spirit within us must become so overwhelmingly apparent to those around us that they cannot avoid asking themselves the central question in today’s Gospel: who is this Jesus, and how is it that He brought about such an astonishing and overwhelming change in the life of this Christian before us? St. Seraphim of Sarov perfectly encapsulated the Orthodox missionary spirit when he said to Motovilov: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
Because just as in today’s Gospel story, Christ Himself is no longer visibly present among the men and women of this world. He has ascended from us into heaven — as we will celebrate once more in a few short days — and so it is precisely through us and in us Christians that the world must henceforth meet the Lord Jesus Christ. This is an awesome calling, and an awesome responsibility. And so it is not only for our own sakes, but also for the sakes of all those around us, that we must make it the chief — and indeed, the only — purpose of our lives to open our hearts to the grace of God through repentance, and so to become living vessels of the Holy Spirit.
My brothers and sisters, to our great shame many of us fall very far short of such a lofty calling — and I myself more than any other. What, then, are we to do? How are we to go about making a good beginning? Today’s Gospel holds for us the clear and simple answer: by keeping the commandments of Christ, and by participating (as often as possible) in the Holy Mysteries of the Church. For even after Christ had miraculously created eyes for the blind man from the clay, he still could not see until he had obeyed Christ’s command to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, and this act of washing itself is an image of Holy Baptism.
The priest who baptized me once preached a sermon about the healing of the paralytic, and he pointed out that when Christ said to the man: “Take up thy bed and walk,” the man had already been healed — and yet if he had not obeyed, his healing would have done him absolutely no good at all, and everything in his life would have remained just as it was when he had been paralyzed. It is precisely in this light that we must understand the commandments of Christ. They are not random. They are not arbitrary. They are not merely some sort of test of our faith. No, each and every commandment of Christ is given in order to make us into real human beings, into true children of God, not only healed and whole, but transfigured and deified. It is the Holy Mysteries that grant us spiritual healing and the ineffable grace of God, and without the Mysteries we could no more become true Christians than the blind man could have made for himself a set of eyes. But it still belongs to us — to the freedom which God bestowed upon us when He made us in His image — to choose to act on this grace, to bring this healing into actual effect, to allow His Holy Spirit to fill every thought and word and deed of our entire life. This is what it means to keep the commandments, which according to St. Isaac the Syrian “are greater than all the treasures of the world… [for] he who acquires the commandments finds God in them.”
But today’s Gospel passage also teaches us that in this life, these great spiritual treasures are absolutely inseparable from great trials and temptations. Immediately after his healing, the man born blind received not congratulations and rejoicing from those around him, but rather scorn, mockery, condemnation, and revilement — simply because He told the truth about God. He was cast out of the synagogue, which in ancient Israel meant that he was deprived of all rights and completely cut off from everyone in society; even his own parents turned their backs on him for fear of suffering the same fate themselves. It is indeed as the Lord said: “ye shall be hated of all men for My name’s sake” (Mat. 10:22).
My brothers and sisters, each of us must also be prepared also to suffer at least little shame for the sake of the Lord. If we are able to go through all our lives without ever suffering any shame for our Christianity, then perhaps we had better reexamine our Christianity. Perhaps we have hidden the light of our lamps; perhaps our salt has lost its savor. And perhaps there are, as a result, some among those around us who might have come to know Christ if our example had not failed them.
So let us not fear shame, or persecution, or trials and sorrows of any kind, but rather let us in very truth give heed to the words of the Apostle: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” (Jas. 1:2). For as the great Paschal hymn “Having beheld the resurrection of Christ” teaches us: “For behold, through the Cross joy has come to all the world” [emphasis added]. Through the Cross — and only through the Cross.
After all, how does today’s Gospel passage begin? The disciples ask the Lord whether the man had been born blind because of his own sins, or because of the sins of his parents. And though God knows that there is no shortage of sins in the world upon which our suffering might be blamed, He instead answers: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). And indeed, it was through nothing other than his very blindness that he came to know Christ. Likewise, it was through nothing other than the Cross — the greatest sin that ever has been, or ever could be committed in this world — that the Lord opened to us the gates to heaven, granted us life everlasting, and made us into nothing less than gods by grace.
And, my brothers and sisters, it is the same in each of our own lives as well. It is through tragedies that we receive healing, it is through temptations that we receive purification, and it is even in the midst of our sinful falls that we receive greater grace [cf. Rom. 5:20]. The Lord never promised us a life in this world without sorrow or suffering. And though the utopian dreams of mankind have spurred us on in our efforts to build such a world for many long centuries, nevertheless despite all our constant “progress” in science and politics and philosophy, one need only talk to one’s neighbors, or turn on the news, or look within one’s own heart, to see that we remain farther from such a world than ever. Because this fallen world can never and will never be the Paradise that we lost, the Paradise that Christ has opened to us again, the Paradise that we glimpse every year on Pascha night.
It is not possible to live in this world without suffering. But what is possible is for that suffering to be filled by God to overflowing with meaning, with purpose, and with joy. That is the promise Christ made to us: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament… and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John 16:20). Just as there is no Pascha without Holy Week, so too there is no Holy Week without Pascha. “Though the Cross joy has come to all the world.”
This is the witness of Christianity. This is the witness that we must make our own, and that we must become willing and able to share with all those around us. My brothers and sisters, how desperately are those around us thirsting for the Gospel, for the joy of Pascha night! And who will share it with them, if not you and if not me? Let us therefore strive with all our hearts to nourish and to protect the Paschal joy within our hearts, to keep the light of Pascha always before our eyes. As we go forth from the Paschal season, let us always be ready to say within our hearts to all those we meet the same words with which St. Seraphim of Sarov greeted everyone throughout the entire year: “My joy, Christ is risen!” Amen.