This post was originally written for a Lenten devotional put together by my parish, Church of the Advent, in Washington, DC.
It wasn’t just their question; it was mine.
What caused this wretched curse of wroth divine?
What did I do to be robbed of the light,
to utt’rly disappear from others’ sight?
Why hath my God looked on me with contempt?
With what did he my cursèd parents tempt,
cursèd with me, clearly God’s enemy,
curs’d e’er to ask and ask again, “why me?”
But then Light came, unveiling my deceptions;
with mud he smeared away my preconceptions.
My pain, rejection, O my loss and hurt,
that shame that comes from grov’ling in the dirt,
became the pretext for my greatest boon—
That moment when Light’s eyes did meet my own.
Today’s passage begins with a question, in effect, “Master, was this man born blind because of his own sin, or because of his parents’?” The starting point for my sonnet above was the realization that this question must also have haunted both the blind-man himself and his parents, and that it likely tore their family apart. Instead of finding support from his parents (vv. 18–22), as might be expected, he has been lying down by the side of the road and begging. Even after a dramatic reversal of fortune, his parents have no desire to stick up for their newly healed son (vv. 18–23). We easily imagine how the need to blame would have destroyed this man’s bonds with his parents. He’s faced rejection from his neighbors too. Some of those who have walked by him as he begged, presumably for years, are not even sure that this man is in fact the blind beggar— they had simply learned to look away.
Jesus, however, looks this pain squarely in the eyes. He refuses to allow his disciples, or the man’s neighbors, to employ theology to dehumanize, to disclaim responsibility for a creature, though marred, who was made in God’s image (may Christ confront us when we do the same!). He takes instead this terrible suffering as a pretext for a greater glory— that of sight restored, both of body and of soul. For God is so mighty in his love that even the most terrible suffering can be made, in the light of the cross, to look as though it were God’s original plan, as though God himself had directly caused terrible toil to bring about the reversal. This is not so, and cannot be so, but it is a testament to God’s exquisite care that our sufferings often become the locus of extraordinary blessing. This is the spiritual truth we are bid to embrace during the season of Lent: that when we lose our lives, we find them; that when we take up our crosses, we rise to new life; that when we lean with Christ into our pain, exhaustion, and despair, we might, just might, find Easter joy.