The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Cycle A – 19 March 2023.
Lectionary Readings: 1 Sam 16:1,6-7;10-13; Ps22; Ephesians 5:8-14; john 9:1-41
Theme: light over darkness.
The triumph of light over darkness: this is the primary theme of our Gospel reading from John today. Just as the prophets of the Hebrew Bible accompanied what they said with symbolic actions which dramatized their message, so, too, Jesus acts out what he has said in the previous chapter: “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12). Before telling the story of the miracle, John points out the meaning of the sign as an example of light coming into darkness. The telling of the actual miracle is brief, for John is really interested in the interrogations, during which the man comes to express an ever-deepening knowledge of Jesus. He moves from speaking of him as “the man they call Jesus” to confessing him to be “a prophet” to defending Jesus as “from God”, and eventually to seeing him as “the Son of Man”. The former blind man gradually has his eyes opened to the truth about Jesus. There is also a connection with John’s description of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) in chapters 7/8. In Temple times, water would be carried for this feast from the Pool of Siloam to pour in the Temple. It is also known as a feast of lights, when, in those days, four great menorahs were set up in the Temple. So, today’s Gospel is a commentary on Jesus’ earlier claims not only that he is “the light of the world”, but also that he is the life-giving water (7:35-38). The man born blind washes in the same Pool of Siloam – John pauses to explain that the name means “one who has been sent”, thus clearly associating the water with Jesus, for in John’s Gospel Jesus is the one who was “sent by the Father” (3:17,34; 5:36,38). It is understandable that the story of the man born blind appears seven times in early catacomb art, most often as an illustration of Christian Baptism – and John 9 is used as a reading in preparing converts for Baptism and as one of the Scrutinies (examinations of baptismal candidates). The motif of washing leading to sight anticipates baptism at the Easter Vigil, which itself is splendidly rich in light symbolism.
In addition to the drama of light/darkness, sight/blindness, John presents in this story the violent polemic taking place in John’s own community of the late 1st century CE: the painful situation of Jewish Christians faced with expulsion from the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus. The opposition that we read here of “the Pharisees” is on a par with John’s unique use of the term “the Jews” which he uses 35 times to designate those responsible for the organized opposition against Jesus. Although it’s probable that John sees the conflict between church and synagogue of his own time already reflected in the conflicts of Jesus with some of the Jewish leaders in his day, the voice of “the Pharisees” in our text is really the voice of their descendants at the end of the 1st century, who were struggling to enable Judaism to survive after the destruction of the Temple – at the same time as the early Christian community was coming into being. Indeed, the blind man’s bold fidelity during Jesus’ absence offers John’s persecuted community a model of courageous witness.
Our reading from Ephesians uses the contrast between light and darkness to express the sharp antithesis between the new life of those coming to faith in Christ and the old life they leave behind them. Part of the effectiveness of the imagery of light lies in the power of light to expose what would otherwise be hidden from sight. The distinctive Christian claim is that the light (the real, most effective light) is “in the Lord”. `
Besides the title of “Son of Man” in our gospel, Jesus was also acclaimed by the crowds on Palm Sunday as “Son of David”. Our first reading from 1 Samuel tells how an unknown, unvalued shepherd boy called David becomes the “shepherd of Israel”. The story of him being chosen is also an example of “seeing aright”, for he was clearly not the obvious choice. Samuel has to learn that “God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances but the LORD looks at the heart”.
Psalm 22, echoing the biblical theme of God as shepherd, speaks of God’s presence both “by quiet waters”and “in the vale of death’s shadow”, a place of terrible darkness. Even there, God, the creator of light itself, is with us. So, the powerful, rich symbols of light and water run through our readings today, providing us with much food for thought on our Lenten journey.
Bibliography: McKenzie, J.L. Dictionary of the Bible (New York: 1965).
This week’s Sunday Liturgy Commentary was prepared by
Sr. Margaret Shepherd, NDS, England, Bat Kol Contributor