The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are each rich with the narrative of the life and works of Christ. Together they make up what are known as the “synoptic gospels,” and over the course of a three year cycle the Church nourishes us with these narratives in the readings at Mass. In them we hear described in detail, and from various perspectives, the events of the life of Christ. Alongside these texts we often find ourselves diverted by a reading from the gospel according to Saint John. This gospel not only reinforces the narratives presented by the other three gospels, but also offers a mystical tone that demands a special effort in reading. Little in the text of the gospel according to Saint John is coincidental. Whereas the Matthew, Mark, and Luke provide a storyline for us to follow, John also uses specific words and ideas, in the context of retelling that narrative, to proclaim the great truths of our faith and in particular those regarding the person of Christ.
This year the three year cycle presents us with the gospel according to Saint Matthew, but during the Season of Lent the Church introduces a number of readings from Saint John as if to reinforce the themes central to both this sacred season, and present in the celebrations of Easter toward which we now journey. For example, last week we heard of the Samaritan woman at the well; a mystical encounter with the person of Christ and the living waters of baptism offered to her. Today—still from the gospel of Saint John—we hear more about baptism; that sacrament which is both the gateway to life in Christ, and an idea essential to both Lent and Easter. We recall that, having travelled through the desert of these forty days and forty nights of Lent, it is the blessing of the font and the renewal of our baptismal promises that will mark the first moments of our celebration of Christ’s resurrection in the holy night of Easter. Lent is also the during which those preparing for baptism—catechumens—prepare to receive this new life in Jesus Christ.
What, then, can we learn from today’s gospel? First, it is necessary to understand that for Saint John darkness and light are highly symbolic. We read in the opening verses of his gospel that Christ is the light shining in the darkness. Conversely, at the point of the betrayal of Judas, John pointedly declares: “And it was night” (Jn 13: 30). In short: Christ is light and the absence of Christ, and thus the presence of evil, is darkness.
The blindness of the man in this gospel passage is thus highly symbolic. Without sight, the man is unable to live by the light. We are told that his blindness is not the result of his sin, nor that of his parents, but that he was “born blind.” This relates in fact to the state of original sin; the life of disorder into which every person is born. Original sin is perhaps best understood as the dysfunctionality of our human race. A person born into a dysfunctional family is not themselves to blame, but still requires some means of leaving behind that dysfunctionality which is unhealthy, and perhaps even dangerous to his or her well-being. Baptism, the remedy for original sin—the washing away of original sin—is our way out of the dysfunctional and disordered realm of original sin, and into new life with Christ in God; into the life of the Most Holy Trinity. In baptism we are incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, and so restored to the orderliness of the life of Christ in heaven; at the same time becoming brothers and sisters with Jesus Christ: no longer slaves, but heirs (Gal. 4: 7). In this sense we are all “born blind,” and we are all called out of that blindness by the healing offered by the intimate touch of Christ that comes to us by means of our bathing in the waters of the baptismal font. Through the grace of baptism our eyes are opened.
Secondly, what is the effect of the restoration of our sight through baptism? How does our ability to “see,” through healing in Christ offer us a new way to live? Here, again, the ideas of light and dark are significant. The darkness that is the only vision of our blindness is cast out by the light of Christ, given us in baptism. As we heard in the Second Reading: “You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5: 8). We have been taken out of the darkness, yes, but light is not what we see, but that by which we see. The light of Christ enables us to know God and so live according to his will—to remain in his perpetual light for all eternity. But it also requires us to see what is revealed by that light and to be changed by that revelation of God’s love for each one of us. It requires us to “discover what the Lord wants of you,” as Saint Paul puts in the Epistle, and so live by the light of Christ as children of the light. This is why the Church sees baptism as the gateway to life in Christ; it is not the end of the journey but the start of a life in Christ that must be lived according to what is revealed to us by him; by the light.
It is for this reason, also, that baptism is the primary sacrament of the Church’s mission. Again, knowing the symbolism present in Saint John’s gospel, we cannot but notice that having touch the blind man the Lord instructs him: “Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam (a name that means ‘sent’).” It is only by completing this act that the blind man “came away with his sight restored.” To be “sent” in the sense of being called “out of darkness into his marvellous light” demands also that we are sent in the sense of mission (1 Pet. 2: 9). The life of the Christian is one, through baptism, intimately caught up in the dynamic life of the Most Holy Trinity: the action of God’s love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is thus, by that same reality, a life that requires us to be engaged in the mission of the Trinity. United to God the Father we are sent in God the Son, and motived by God the Holy Spirit. In short, our “sight” is given us for a reason: that we may live by the light of Christ and show others the joy of knowing him, and living according to his will. It is an inherently missional life; a life that gives glory to God by proclaiming his gospel of life and love by every thought, and word, and deed. By virtue of our baptism, each one of us is called become a missionary disciple of Jesus Christ and, through this, reach the Promised Land—the Paschal Feast—of eternal light in the kingdom of Heaven.