John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38S
As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” — which means Sent —. So he went and washed, and came back able to see. His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is, ” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath. So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out. When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.
As we draw close to the end of our Lenten journey, I want to spend some time in reflection. I’ve been thinking of the year 325AD, the year of the first great ecumenical council in the town of Nicea in present day Turkey. It was an assembly of bishops from all over the Christian world who gathered to do some housekeeping about Church structure and lines of authority, and most importantly, to set straight the thinking of a Deacon named Arius who taught that Jesus was a creation of God rather than a full manifestation. They penned a statement of belief with these words about Jesus: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made…” They used the Greek word homoousias to affirm in that creed that Jesus was of the exact same substance as God; therefore he was not only fully human, he was and is fully God. We now use the word consubstantial, a deliberately distinct word, to deliberately convey the significance and the mystery.
Pious tradition tells us that there were 318 bishops there, from the British Isles to the Arabian Dessert. They engaged in a preparatory 40-day period of fasting and prayer and penance, much in the tradition of the Holy people of scripture: Moses, Elijah and of course Christ Jesus himself. Some of the bishops had been tortured and mutilated in the persecutions of the Roman Emperors Maximin and Lucinius. They wore their infirmities as badges of honor. They had suffered for the sake of Christ and his Church—and it showed.
Today there are bishops who are maimed like those bishops at Nicea. Some who have fallen into the hands of ISIS and Al-Qaeda are still suffering greatly. But not all are the victims of Islamic extremists. One, Ignatius Cardinal Kung of Shanghai, was released some 30 years ago after spending 3 decades in a Chinese prison. He was reportedly surprised to learn that the Church’s Friday meat abstinence had been changed to apply only to the Friday’s of Lent. Evidently he did not think that this was an improvement. While his interment had been a perpetual Lent, a constant period of self-denial and self-offering, he thought that the mortifications, large and small, of his brothers and sisters in the West had been sustaining him; when in fact it had been found that it was the other way around.
The bishops of Nicea knew the consequences of mortification, the grief when it was inflicted, and the grace when it was voluntarily embraced. Today, the practices of self-maiming are not to be done. But there is something about pain that is not avoided, along with general self-denial that is intertwined with holiness. The Catechism states: The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes. [The one] who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. [One] never stops desiring what [is already known] (CCC #2015)
To give an appropriate amount of time to hold close the tender and painful aspects of faith, the bishops of Nicea decided to extend to 40 days that period which had been 3 days of penance right before Easter. They also decided that this penitential season should be a time of preparation for Catechumens, those to be baptized as well as a period of overall instruction for the faithful. Through the years, the nature of the Lenten Fasts and penances varied. It was not until the 7th century in Western part of the Church that Ash Wednesday was added so that Lent would last the full forty days, because Sundays were exempt.
There is something about Lent that is not for the sentimental. I think that is because the Christian faith is not for them either. As is said so often, Cafeteria Catholics who pick and choose the aspects of faith they wish to obey and to follow, embrace an easy, fast food version of the heavenly banquet and this picky self selection is neither feast nor fast.
Thomas Merton, another convert from the Episcopal Church, recalled in The Seven Story Mountain that before he became a Catholic, his Easter consisted of an abbreviated service of Morning Prayer followed by an egg hunt on a manicured lawn. This reminds me of something that one of my former parishioners said to me: “Church is what you do in your spare time.” Sadly, that seems to apply to many Catholics as well.
There was a time when Church—and Lent specifically—determined the course of one’s life. It is not supposed to be convenient. Lent was once known as the “truce of God.” Alms-giving was flaunted. Wars were suspended. Executions were postponed. People offered the entirety of their lives to God, at least for this one season.
And ironically, Lent is an occasion to sin. Just as Jesus was tempted by his time in the dessert, so are we especially tempted during Lent. St John Chrysostom preached: God does not impede temptations, first so that you can be convinced of your strength; secondly, that you may be humble, not proud; thirdly that the devil, who may doubt whether you have truly abandoned him, will be certain of that fact; fourthly, so that you may become strong as iron, understanding the value of the treasures which have been granted you.
Mortification and ascesis, pain and self-denial, things that humble us and keep us off balance are offered to us to be cherished, even hugged, especially during Lent.
As an example, I look back on Pope St. John Paul’s infirmities prior to his death. They surely must have been a great mortification. The sight of the Holy Father so debilitated by his disease makes him an icon of Lent and as he gave us his blessing with trembling hands, we can rejoice that he is an icon of the Resurrection, our hope in the midst of terrible occurrences.
It is these unsought mortifications that are so much more difficult than the self-prescribed ones.
As I get specific for us, I think of the different kinds of mortifications. Traditionally they are things of the flesh, disease in particular. St John Paul’s Parkinson’s disease comes to mind immediately. But I think also of broken relationships: family members who are estranged, loved ones who hold the faith in contempt, grandchildren that flaunt sin as though it were approved by God.
Like all pain, it is best treated as something we “offer up,” something that is most appropriate on our Lenten journey. It is a reminder less of who we are and more of whose we are.
Let us emulate the man born blind in today’s Gospel lesson. We sit in our own private darkness and beg, not of others, but of God. And we pray that he will say the word, and sight will be restored. And then all we can behold is Glory. Until that day we will keep “offering it up” and no matter how many times we take it back, regroup and offer it up again, and again, and again if need be.