Confront 'social' blindness
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good New for the Fourth Sunday of Lent,
Sunday, March 14, 1999
1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a
John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38
The bishop dipped his hand into mud after the catechumens offered their names. At the cathedral in Milan in the late fourth century, during the weeks after Epiphany, Ambrose received the names of those who asked to be baptized at Easter. This forerunner of the ritual we now call the Rite of Election included one peculiar feature. After each catechumen submitted his or her name, the Bishop reached for some mud - and smeared it over the catechumen's face. Welcome to Baptismal preparation!
This action was inspired not by some boorish ancestor of Soupy Sales but by the Gospel we hear next Sunday (John 9:1-41). A man blind from birth meets Jesus, who rubs mud on his face and sends him to the pool of Siloam to wash. The mud does not cure the man; it only reinforces his blindness. When Ambrose rubbed mud on the faces of catechumens, he did not end their search for Christ; he only reinforced their spiritual blindness without him.
This story probably formed part of the preparation for catechumens as early as the fifth to the seventh century. These men, women and children, searching for Christ through the waters of Baptism, spent the season of Lent in intense preparation. A series of prayer services gradually formed to give this season its interior character.
Three passages from John's Gospel were probably associated with those rites called Scrutinies: the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.
For many centuries, the connection between this Gospel and the season of Baptismal preparation had been lost because the three readings appeared on weekdays in Lent, and because Scrutinies were no longer celebrated apart from Baptism. However, in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, both customs were restored. The three Gospels were reassigned to Sundays and they coincide with the celebration of Scrutinies.
Scrutinies are prayers of purification for those chosen for Baptism. They help remove whatever keeps them from Christ and strengthen their good resolve. The three episodes all show the kind of passage made by those in formation for Baptism: from thirst to water, from darkness to light, and from death to life.
The framers of the revised catechumenate saw a progression of themes through these three Gospels. They believed the story of the woman at the well (John 4) illustrated personal sin. The man born blind offered a case of social sin. And the raising of Lazarus (John 11) acclaimed the power of Jesus over sin's most potent weapon, death.
Consequently, the story of the man born blind, when it appears in the Lenten lectionary, provides a reflection for catechumens on social sin. But it also shows the faithful how the sin of individuals quickly becomes a systemic sin from which we all need deliverance.
In the Gospel story some characters try to pin sin onto the man born blind or onto Jesus. But the evangelist lets us see how many "blind" characters there are in this story: the Pharisees, the parents of the blind man, some of the bystanders - none of them can see the truth. They have woven a web of distrust, disbelief, false accusation and haughtiness. But they don't see what they've done. Jesus recognizes the truth, of course. The Pharisees ask, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" They are.
We swim in a sea polluted with sin. We live in a country which, for all its beauty and freedom, values individuality, greed, selfishness, isolation and self-gratification. We contribute to that seascape, and we are seduced by it in turn.
Lent can renew society, not just individuals. When we accept our Lenten penances, our goal is to change behaviors, outlooks and vision. Working together as the body of Christ we can have a powerful effect in the community.
We are usually blind to our own sin. Like many characters in this story, we can accuse others of sin much more readily than we can see our own. This Gospel should rub mud on our faces to thicken our blindness and increase our yearning for light. It should invite us to personal renewal and to the confrontation of social sin.
Father Paul Turner is pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish, Kansas City.