Saturday, April 02, 2011

Anointed with Light: Jesus Re-creates a Man

The drama increases as we progress toward Easter.  This Sunday’s readings are united by the themes of anointing and light.

The First Reading (1 Sam 16:1-13) recounts Samuel’s anointing of David as King over Israel.  Samuel journeys to Jesse of Bethlehem, and scrutinizes each of his sons in search of God’s chosen king, but to no avail.  Finally, the youngest of the eight, David, is called in from shepherding the sheep.  This at last is the future king.

(Visit Bethlehem with me in May!  Click here.)

Two points are essential for connecting this reading with the rest of the lectionary.

First is the LORD’s statement to Samuel: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”  The irony of today’s Gospel Reading will likewise hinge on the fact that appearances are deceiving: from God’s perspective, the sighted are blind, but the blind can see.

Second is the David’s reception of the spirit in conjunction with his anointing with oil.  Unlike other figures in the OT, the Spirit descends on David and remains “from that day on.”  Jesus is the New David; John the Baptist is told, “The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:34).  All today’s readings culminate in Baptism, when the Jesus, the New Davidic Shepherd, grants the gift of the Spirit also to us.

The Responsorial Psalm is the well-known and much beloved Psalm 23.  “The LORD is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”  Besides the LORD, the only other individual identified as the Shepherd of Israel in the OT is the Davidic King.  Like their forefather, the heirs of David were Shepherds of Israel.  Ezekiel prophesied a day when both the LORD God himself (Ezek 34:15) and David (Ezek 34:23) would be Shepherd of Israel, yet mysteriously, there would only be One Shepherd (Ezek 34:23).

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...” says the psalm, calling to mind the death-like darkness of the Blind Man in today’s Gospel.

Yet, “you anoint my head with oil,” says the psalmist, striking another chord—anointing—that runs through today’s readings. 

The thematic connections of today’s Second Reading (Eph 5:8-14) to the Gospel are obvious:

Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.
Live as children of light,
for light produces every kind of goodness
and righteousness and truth.
Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.
Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness;
rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention
the things done by them in secret;
but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,
for everything that becomes visible is light.
Therefore, it says:
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus granst light to a man born into darkness.  Yet the natural darkness of the Blind Man is a type of the condition into which all of us are born, namely, the spiritual darkness of original sin.  In Baptism we arise from spiritual death (“Awake, O Sleeper, and arise from the dead”) and become enlightened with the illuminating gift of the Holy Spirit.

As is well known, and I point out in my CD set on John, today’s Gospel (John 9, the Healing of the Man Born Blind), is an extended mystagogy on the sacrament of Baptism.

The Man Born Blind is a type of the Baptizand.  All of us are born into spiritual blindness, original sin.

The disciples’ question “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” reflects a pharisaic belief that birth defects were the result of parental sin, or else of the child itself in the womb.

Jesus says “Neither have sinned.” Instead, this is an opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed.

“I am the light of the world,”  Jesus asserts.  To fully appreciate this statement, and indeed the entire account of this healing, we must notice that it occurs in a long section of John (chapters 7-9) which take place during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.  This resplendent festival was marked by two themes: light and water.  The Temple was lit with gigantic menorahs all through the night for a week, and on the last day of the festival water was taken from the Pool of Siloam and poured out on the altar of the Temple as a prayer for rain, and as an actualization of various OT prophecies of the river flowing from the Temple (see Ezek 47).

John 9 ends this long section of John, and draws together the themes of water and light, as Jesus uses water to bring light to this man.

Jesus spits on the ground and anoints the man’s eyes with the mud.

Anointing is an important theme—baptism is the anointing with the Holy Spirit.  To this day, the rite of Baptism includes an anointing with the sacred chrism as a symbol of this reality.

What is the significance of Jesus spitting?

My own opinion is based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, where man is described as being “kneaded from dust ... he is so much spit ... mere knipped-off clay” (cf. 1 QS 11:21; 1QHa 20:35; 4Q264 1 9).  I think this reflects an ancient Jewish understanding of the creation account in which God spat on the ground and formed Adam’s body from the resultant clay/mud.

Jesus’ spitting on the ground is a recapitulation of the creation of man.  He is re-creating this man, moving him from darkness (uncreation) to light (creation).  He is the same God who declared long ago. “Let there be light!”

New creation themes are present elsewhere.  After anointing his eyes, Jesus sends the man to the Pool of Siloam to wash.  The pool of Siloam collected the waters of the Gihon, the spring that provided water for Jerusalem.  It was named the Gihon after one of the rivers of Eden, because the Jews saw Jerusalem as a kind of New Eden.  So, mystically, the waters of Siloam were Edenic or creational waters.  The man is being made new.

After washing, he enters into the light (Gen 1:3) and returns to his home.

Those who know him are divided: some think he is the same man as used to beg, others say, “No, he just looks like him.”

The man’s response—well translated here by the NAB—is ambiguous: “I AM.” 

“You are what?  The same or different?” 

The ambiguity is intentional, because this is a baptismal catechesis.  When we are baptized, do we come up as the same person as before, or as a different person who just looks like the one who approached the baptismal font?  Yes!  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

Note that this is the only place in the Gospel of John where anyone other than Jesus uses the phrase “I AM.”  Having been baptized, the man participates in the divine nature.  We truly begin to exist only when we enter into relationship with Christ.  Life without Christ is non-existence, darkness.

The subsequent back-and-forth with the pharisees is darkly humorous, although we don’t have time here to comment on all of it here (but in my John CD set).  There is a progression of the man’s knowledge of Jesus through it all, till the end of the passage where he fully realizes Jesus’ divinity and worships him.  This represents our post-baptismal growth in knowledge of Christ. 

Jesus, the New Shepherd, the New David, the one anointed with the Spirit, sums up the irony of this whole event in these words:

“I came into this world for judgment,
so that those who do not see might see,
and those who do see might become blind.”

Seeing the world through God’s eyes reveals great irony and paradox, because “not as man does God see ... the LORD looks into the heart.”

For the baptised, today’s readings should stir in our hearts a profound appreciation for what has been done for us in Christ, and applied to our lives through the sacraments.

We have been made anew!  We have entered into God’s light!  We have been anointed with the Spirit!

If we feel very much old, dim, and unspiritual, it may be that sin or distraction with the worries of this life (Matt 13:22) has skewed our perspective.  Lent has three more weeks: enough time return to confession, increase our prayer, and increase detachment through self-denial.


Randy said...


Good post! God Bless!

John Bergsma said...

@Randy: thanks!