“When a crisis hits, the question for believers is not so much ‘Why is God letting this happen to me/us?’, as asking what truth we can learn from this desert experience – and what truths we have been blind to in the past” – Bishop McKeown
One of the great traditions in plays on stage has been the role given to the fool. The clown asks the silly questions and is often the one who has a wisdom that the wise don’t have. The blind beggar in today’s Gospel plays that role.
He is someone who has been born blind. And he is able to recognise who Jesus is, while the learned are blind to what is staring them in the face. There are none so blind as those who do not want to see the truth.
That theme of sight and insight runs through the scripture readings. It is the youngest son of Jesse who is to be king, not the biggest and strongest. Saint Paul writes that light, goodness and truth are closely linked. And in the Gospel we have the journey of a man who is doggedly faithful to what he has experienced, even when everybody is against him and attacks him for being fool. But the fool is the one who asks the necessary awkward questions because he is unhappy with half-truths.
Society told him that he or his parents must have sinned, so as to cause the blindness. The neighbours said it couldn’t be the same person. The Pharisees were clear that nobody from God could heal on the Sabbath. His story is rejected by everyone and he is rejected. But he sticks to what he knows happened to him. At the end of this journey into progressive loneliness, Jesus finds him. The man had initially talked about the one who healed him as ‘the man called Jesus’, then ‘a prophet’, then ‘a man from God’. Now he is asked whether he believes in Jesus. He is not quite sure what that means. But he is prepared to take that leap, trusting that the one whom he has met and who has healed him will not let him down.
In an allegedly scientific world, faith is often portrayed as childish and escapist. You have to choose between doing things in a scientific way and clinging to an irrational faith story. But the development of an adult faith is actually an uncomfortable journey into facing the truth – about who we are, what we fear, what gives us life, hope and a reason for living.
Much of our modern culture claims to espouse two strange bedfellows at the same time. On the one hand an allegedly scientific approach to everything is promoted as if that were the only sensible adult way of seeing the world. And on the other hand, the individual’s feelings are put forward as the author of all truth and morality. To want and to need are seen as being the same thing. Being scientific and at the same time declaring feelings to be infallible strikes me as a very odd combination. It is difficult to propose scientific truth and at the same time say that all truth is what my feelings and hungers tell me is truth for me here and now.
Jesus invites us to believe that only the whole often-comfortable truth will set us free.
These are difficult days when individuals, families and communities are stripped of the things that give shape to our day. The public message has suddenly changed from “I’m worth it” to “think about others.” The focus on ‘us’ seems to be able to generate great creativity and goodwill. The rights of the individual and the common good are suddenly no longer seen as enemies but as intimately linked. People are not just looking for scientific information on the virus. They also hunger for solidarity and meaning in the face of this murderous tiny organism. The generous self-sacrificing work of medical, nursing and essential support staff has become what we value. We turn to big hearts and shun big egos. There is little to offer coming from those who are famous just for being famous.
This is a difficult time for many people. But it is important to remember that seeking the truth and facing it is the only way for us to grow as human beings. In Church and in secular society, we often feel more comfortable with simplistic stories. As the man born blind found out, many don’t want to accept the truth. But there is no future for us in the blind, uncaring faith that the blind man met in his contemporaries. Nor is there a future in a throwaway culture that offers superficiality but no meaning. We are suddenly being weaned off an entertainment culture that has little to say to the reality of fear or isolation. We are being exposed to the chill winds of reality that strip away the bling and the hollow laughs.
In today’s Gospel Jesus launches the blind man down an uncomfortable path. In some ways, life would have been for the poor man if he had been left with his certainties and his old social status. At least he would have known who he was and where he was. But Jesus engages with him and then keeps an eye on his from a distance, returning to meet him and engage with what has been happening. He takes him from where he is and helps him believe in what he can become.
When a crisis hits, the question for believers is not so much ‘Why is God letting this happen to me/us?’, as asking what truth we can learn from this desert experience – and what truths we have been blind to in the past. In Church we have to face those areas where institutional blindness and a cosiness that suited us actually blinded us to uncomfortable truth. Jesus is hard on those who do not want to see because it might upset their entrenched positions.
The challenge for secular society is not just to find medical solutions to a medical problem. A crisis like the current one challenges the great and the good to ask whether they are just giving people the means by which to live but failing to offer a meaning for living. Are we proposing a solid way of looking at life that can cope with the pain of being human? Or are we just feeding a self-serving system that is looking after itself and failing to seek the truth by telling us that there is no truth.
These difficult days are a time to be honest about our discomfort and not to be afraid of living with the truth. It is a chance to be in touch with the One who can heal the apparently unchangeable in your life. We can choose to see these weeks as a problem – or as an opportunity to break with the suffocating blindness that is killing too many of our young people. Let the Lord open your eyes to unseen and unimagined graces. Let the foolish blind man help you to live with truth and discover the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Because of the Cross and Resurrection, we believe in a God, called Love, who is present in the midst of every situation. We do not believe in a God who works magic but in a God who hangs with us on our crosses, speaking of hope and meaning into every crisis. Listen to the wise foolish questions of children.
Our Lenten journey may last much longer than 40 days this year. But for those who believe in Jesus, Resurrection is part of the deal.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This homily was delivered during Mass yesterday on Laetare Sunday.
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