Now I See!

By David Harrison

I will admit that a particular Old Testament reading — the anointing of David — is among my favorite stories from the Bible. A new king is to be identified. God sends Samuel to the household of Jesse the Bethlehemite. “I have provided for myself a king among his sons,” God said.

One by one, Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel. Eliab. Surely this is the one, Samuel thought. No, said the Lord. Don’t look on his appearance or his height, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Abinidab? “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Shammah? No. All in all, seven of Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel.

But there is one more — the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep. David is brought before Samuel. Yes, this is the one. And Samuel anoints David and, we are told, the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him.

Vision is the clear theme of these readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent. There is the Lord’s vision in seeing past outward appearances to the heart, knowing that it is the eighth son, the youngest, who has the heart to be king.

In the second reading, St. Paul (writing to the Ephesians) reflects on the idea of light. Once you were in darkness, “but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” And he plays with the idea of light, writing about the “fruits” of living in the light — of being children of light — which is all that is good, and right, and true. Living in the light, living where there is vision, exposes the unfruitful works of darkness.

The gospel story — one with many twists and turns — is also a story about vision. A story of a man, born blind. Why? The common assumption of the day was that it was a result of someone’s sin, so the question posed to Jesus was whose: his or his parents? Jesus’ rather enigmatic answer is neither. Rather, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus then heals him, mixing saliva and mud, putting it on his eyes, and sending him to wash in the pool of Siloam.

After he is healed, he is the subject of some disbelief. Is this the same man, or someone else? And if he is the same man, how is it that he is healed? The man points to Jesus as the one who heals him, which opens more controversy. After all, the healing was performed on the Sabbath, which breaks the law. How can Jesus be a healer from God when he breaks the rules of the Sabbath? And, what’s more, how can this man, born in sin (their assumptions have not been dislodged) presume to teach them? Indignant, they send formerly blind man away.

Jesus catches wind of what has happened and he finds the man, asking him a very direct question: “Do you believe?”

“Lord, I believe” is his answer. And then here’s the clincher. “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees, who overhear this, ask the question: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus’ response to them: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

This story uses the healing of a man’s blindness to reveal his spiritual sightedness, and the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees and those who interact with him. Like the story of the anointing of David, it upends what we might expect, revealing that God sees these differently, that God looks on the heart, that God sees through our poses and our masks. In the end, it is the Pharisees’ confidence in their spiritual insights that invites Jesus’ diagnosis of their blindness.

Today is roughly the middle of Lent. By long tradition, the fourth Sunday of Lent is a bit of a “lightening” of the Lenten mood — rose vestments, daffodils, perhaps simnel cake. “Refreshment Sunday,” it is sometimes called. It might just be an opportune time for some mid-Lent stock-taking. Not so many days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we were invited to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.

How’s your Lent going? Here’s my confession. On the third day of Lent, I began a rather lovely vacation. As much as I enjoyed it, I found I pretty much needed to put a bracket around the next week or so, for it was a good distance from anything resembling Lent. And so I’ve got some catching up to do this Lent. Double time, perhaps.

But it isn’t too late. Lent invites us to clarity of vision — about ourselves, the state of our physical, emotional, and spiritual being — and how we can grow and change to be more consonant with God, in whose image we are made. That is a life’s work, and Lent is the particular time of the Church’s year when our attention is called to this work.

In that work, in that journey, not only are we invited to see clearly, but we are also reminded that God sees perfectly. One of the pivotal prayers of the Anglican liturgical tradition is the Collect for Purity. Originally it was one of the prayers of preparation prayed by the clergy before the Mass. Thomas Cranmer moved it out of the vestry to the beginning of the liturgy. “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desire known, and from you no secrets are hidden.”

I’m sometimes asked, what is prayer? How ought we to pray? Put very simply, prayer begins with an honest relationship with God. In fact, we might say that prayer is an honest conversation with God. Prayer, it is often said, is about aligning our will with God’s will. In prayer, with God, we can indeed put down our defences, our conceits, our walls, our self-images, and the images we wish to project to others. We can even admit our spiritual blindness, and ask to be given new sight.

Many years ago, I was a theological student for a term at the Church of the Redeemer in downtown Toronto. Redeemer has a vibrant ministry to people who are homeless. One man who was at Redeemer several times a week, including Sundays, was named Paul. Paul was tall, had long, matted hair and a beard. He wore whatever he could scrounge. His feet were constantly in need of attention, and his footwear needed replacing. Paul conversed, but conversations with Paul were unpredictable and somewhat erratic.

After I left Redeemer and returned to my government employment, I used to see Paul quite regularly in the downtown core. One evening I was walking up Bay Street to the subway on my way home, and I spotted Paul, standing at the corner of Bay and Charles. Just then there was a man who was blind, attempting to cross the street at the stoplight. “Can someone help me?” he called out. I was quite close to the man, and so I sprinted toward him to offer assistance.

But Paul got there first, and offered his arm. So I walked on, and as I continued up Bay Street, I turned around to see this man, who was blind, being gently guided across the street by Paul, and having not the slightest idea whether it was a seemingly competent civil servant in a pin-striped suit helping him, or a man who was homeless, troubled, and on the margins.

I moved out of Toronto not too long after that, and I never saw Paul again. But I’ve remembered that moment

You see, I once was blind — but now I pray to see.

The Rev. Canon David Harrison was formerly a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto.


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