This sermon was delivered on Sunday, June 2, 2019, the Sunday of the Man Born Blind (John 9:1-38)
C H R I S T I S R I S E N
For the majority of us here, our baptism is a thing of our past. It is, like our physical birth, something we don’t remember. We have come to develop ties to the parish community and its worship, but perhaps not with the zeal of faith that is inherent in the experience of conscious conversion, confession, remission of sins, and rebirth into the Body of Christ. And so, in a manner that is really the inverse of the ideal that the Church would perhaps like to uphold, many of us are effectively baptized catechumens:people who have already entered into the fulness of the life of the Church but who perhaps are insufficiently versed in the core tenets of our Faith.
Another way we might say that we are “baptized catechumens” is to say that we are “born blind”. This might sound harsh at first, but if we examine this a bit closer, we see that it makes sense. A catechumen is someone who is learning, someone who has expressed interest in joining the Church and has drawn near to be instructed, to hear. This is what the word “catechumen” means—one who is instructed by hearing.
Baptism is like the ultimate graduation ceremony. One’s instruction is completed, he or she has fulfilled all the requirements and is thus ready to walk, to pass from a mode of learning to a mode of working. In the context of moving from catechism to baptism, we move from instruction to illumination, from expectation to experience, from a world of hearing to a world of vision.
And so it is not entirely out of line to say that if we have been baptized while still being in need of basic instruction, we are effectively born blind. We have been allowed in to the realm of the light of God without having the eyes to see it. We grope and hear and bump into things along the way, and we manage to get around and eat, and perhaps even live a semblance of a Christian life. But it is a life deprived of the full light of divine knowledge.
A logical question that might be forming in your mind right now is, “Wait. Is he saying that baptizing infants is wrong?” This is, of course, a fair question. But let us put it to rest simply by saying, no, that is not what I am saying. In fact, if we look to today’s apostolic reading, we see that the jailer who was converted to Christ was not baptized alone, but with his entire household—that means children, too. It is only natural that Christian parents would want to bring their child into the fulness of the life that they live, too. Not doing so would be as absurd and inhumane as not speaking to your child until it was an adult because you want it to be able to choose its own language.
But it is this matter of absurdity that must delay us for a moment. Yes, we baptize infants with the assumption that they will be raised in the fulness of the Faith. But what happens when the parents’ (and godparents’) grasp of the Faith is also infantile? What illumination can the child hope to experience when there is no light in the household? Like a creature in a cave, its spiritual eyes will not develop. It will bear the name of Christ but live a life devoid of his light.
The darkness perpetuated by such infantile faith is plain to see. The catechism of the Church teaches modesty, yet we as baptized and chrismated and therefore supposedly enlightened Christians lead our daughters to emulate pop-culture idols, not saints. The catechism of our Church teaches sobriety and chastity, yet we say “boys will be boys” when our supposedly Christian young men party and chase after women. The catechism of our Church teaches us to love and to forgive, yet grudges and struggles for popularity and power and status pervade our lives. The catechism of our Church teaches us that we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, yet instead of purifying our mouths and bodies to receive him, we defile them with profanity and lies and gossip and careless and lewd behavior. The catechism of our Church gives us Holy Scripture and beautiful services and hymns and lives of the saints to study, yet we barely know them while being able to sing word-for-word inane pop songs and recite detailed sports statistics. The catechism of our Church teaches us that we are a holy nation, a royal priesthood, yet our lives are essentially indistinguishable from those of nonbelievers.
Which one of you, if you owned a business, would tolerate it for a minute if one of your employees came to work wearing the uniform of a competitor, and let alone tried to peddle those products in your place of business? You might very well say something to them like “Are you blind?!” Yet we do this all the time to Christ and his Church. There is much blindness among the supposedly illumined people of God.
But we must never stop in such a dark place. Christ himself said in today’s reading “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world”. And he also said that the man’s blindness was not necessarily a direct result of sin, but it was more importantly a means by which the works of God can be made manifest. Though the man was born blind, this did not prevent him from being illumined by means of Christ’s intervention. He was not less in God’s eyes because of his disability—in fact, his potential was all the greater because of his disability.
And so just think, if you fear you suffer from spiritual blindness: the Lord can heal you instantly. He can give us sight, to the point that those around us might not even recognize us anymore, much like the man’s acquaintances in today’s story. We might stop going to clubs. We might drink less. We might put more icons and fewer posters on our walls. We might start following the Church’s fasts. We might decide to spend less on going out to dinner and having the newest clothes and cars because we realize our stewardship to the Church has been at the bare minimum, if anything at all. And people will not recognize us. They might question us. They might take us before their own “Pharisees”, those who tell us we’re extremists or too religious and to take it easy, and that they will kick us out of their “synagogue” of worldliness.
Those of us who were baptized in infancy and have suffered from such blindness have the opportunity to encounter Christ and to have him give us sight. We might not see yet, but we can hear. And if we are attentive to the word of God, something might just prick our heart. We might be confronted with something that seems at first repulsive—not unlike someone spitting on dirt and making clay from it and rubbing it on our face: perhaps the thought to stop partying as much or to put an end to excessive shopping.
If we accept that jolt to our conscience, we are sent by Christ to another Siloam, another pool, in which to wash: the pool of tears. St. John of Sinai, the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent puts it this way:
Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. As baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears. And if God in His love for mankind had not given us tears, few indeed and hard to find would be those in a state of grace.(Step 7:6)
So take heart. Maybe you were born blind into this thing called the Church and have yet to truly see where it is you stand. Maybe you have yet to have a crisis of conscience or to truly place Christ at the center of your life. But Christ is here. Maybe you can’t see him, but he definitely sees you. Listen for him. Ask for him. He wants to open your eyes, for you to see him and to realize it is he who speaks to you. Then, like the man once blind, you will be able to say with every ounce of your being:
“Lord, I believe”.