[K:NWTS 23/3 (Dec 2008) 3-11]

Abscondita cum Christo: The Blind Man and Jesus

John 9

James T. Dennison, Jr.

How dark it was behind the blackness of that barrier—that barrier which darkened his unseeing eyes. Unenlightened, he sat by the way reaching a hand into the light—reaching a hand into the light beyond his darkness; a hand begging, pleading for something other than darkness—some small gift, some little token, some glimmer of kindness to console, to lighten his darkness. Only darkness, darkness as far back into his memory as he could reach—his reach, his mental reach—never anything but darkness—never any light at the end of his reach. His mother told him, he had been born in darkness. Birth to him had been just more of the same—black darkness outside the womb as inside. Never day light, ever night time for him; never sunshine for him, even inky darkness for him. His father led him out into the sunshine: he could feel it, but he could not see it. From his childhood, father and mother led him by the hand—the outstretched hand—for they were his light, his eyes. Still his world was darkness and in the darkness of his world, he sat begging for his daily bread. Sat, begging, reaching out his hand while others passed by—passed by on the other side of his darkness.

And Jesus passed by. Jesus passed by and he saw—Jesus saw the man who could not see. Jesus saw the blind man in his darkness. Jesus passed by in the light and out of the daylight, he reached forth—Jesus reached forth beyond the light into that man’s darkness. And Jesus touched that darkness—Jesus felt that darkness. As the cosmic darkness on the face of the deep in the beginning of creation; as the dark mantle of blackness which shrouded Egypt under the cursed plague—even darkness which might be felt: Jesus reached forth into the darkness of that blind man’s world—Jesus reached forth and drew that blind man into a new world—into his world.

Jesus passed by in the light and stretched forth his hand—his re-creative, curse-bearing hand. For light to shine on these dark orbs, it will require a new creation, a lifting up of the curse—a rebirth in sight and light. This darksome house of Adamic dust will need that dust of the ground new created. For the light to shine, dust must return to dust, dust covered with dust—dust covered with life-giving dust, light-giving dust. For this blind dust to see the light, some dusty clay must touch the curse, cover the curse, wash the curse; for this blind dust to see the light, some dusty clay must draw out the darkness, transfer the darkness, swallow up the darkness in the waters of rebirth. To substitute the light of his world, Jesus spits water on to the dust of this world and touches the blind eyes—covers the dark eyes with spittle-clay and sends the man to the Pool called “Sent”. Jesus touches, covers his eyes with watery clay and sends him to wash away the darkness as the dark creation waters were illuminated by “Let there be light!” Jesus touches the blindness—places his hands on the cursed darkness—and draws that curse, transfers that darkness to himself. Jesus, the vicarious one, says, “Let there be sight!” The One Sent by the Father to lift the curse by water and by blood—the One Sent by the Father sends this house of darkness to bathe in the Sent waters. And washing in the waters to which he is sent, the blind man experiences a new world. Water, spittle-water provides the transition to light; water, Siloam water dissolves the barrier of darkness; water, spittle and pool water flush away the curse, send the darkness into a world where it dies. And in the place of the curse, substituted for the darkness, the brightness of the world of the One Sent by the Father. Blackness drawn away on to the Light of the World; inky blackness swallowed up in a pool of brilliant daylight. This new creation bringer says, “Let there be sight; I am the light of the cosmos!”

This new light dazzles, leaves some things still unclear—unfocused. This new light lets the sun shine in, but its brilliance leaves some glimmers of confusion. There is yet more darkness to pass away; yet more light to penetrate, transform, radiate. “The man who is called Jesus”—I heard his name, I heard his voice, but my darkness kept his face from mine. I heard his disciples; I heard him spit on the ground; I felt his touch—I felt him touch my darkness with his clay-covered fingers, but I could not see his face. I could not see him; I could only obey him. He said, “Go, wash!” So I went and washed and I received the light. But my light did not yet shine on him. His light took away my blind-darkness, but still I did not see him.

They brought me to the Pharisees. My light—my new born/new created light shone upon my face. No more darkness in my eyes. I told them, these Pharisees, I testified to them, “Jesus put clay upon my eyes and I washed and I see.” Could they not see? I could see. Why could they not see? With their light, they say he is a sinner. This one who brought a new creation, a new birth to my sight. This one who hallowed the Sabbath day by transforming it into a day of light; this one, they say, is a sinner. They say he is accursed who took away my curse. They say he is a darkness-dweller who took away my darkness. They say he is blind to their light and therefore he is a bond-slave of darkness. I am beginning to see more and more; Jesus is a prophet! Surely a prophet brings light. Isaiah, the prophet, said the eyes of the blind shall be opened. This one opened my blind eyes as the prophet said. The very same prophet, Isaiah, said there will come one who will bring out the prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison. This Jesus brought me out of my prison-house of darkness as the prophet said. Surely, Jesus is a prophet!!

But these Pharisees still do not see. They cannot see what I see. A creator of light on the Sabbath day; a fulfiller of prophecy in lifting up the curse of darkness. They cannot see that the light shines more and more—upon Jesus. They refuse the light; they seem to cling to the darkness—the dark accusation that I was never blind. They seem to be what I once was—blind, shrouded in darkness. Call my parents; they will shed light upon my dark past. My parents will testify of the darkness in which I was born—darkness in which I was imprisoned and bound all those dreadfully black years.

And the witness of the parents? the twofold witness of the parents—the testimony of the parents confirms the light, establishes the light by confirming the darkness. He was born blind; now he sees. We are witnesses: this is our son. But the darkness of the arena in which the Pharisees dwell—the darkness of that arena stifles this man and wife—intimidates them, reduces them to fear. How he sees, we do not know. Ask him. Don’t ask us, ask him.

These Pharisees are relentless. They will not let me rejoice in the light. They call me again and again they tell me Jesus is a sinner. How could a light-giver dwell in cursed sin-darkness? This light—this light which he has given me is beginning to illumine him. Once I was blind, but now I can see. Can you Pharisees not see?

“What did he do?” you ask. As if he is some dark magician, some charlatan of the black arts. I have already told you. Clay, water, sight. That’s how it happened. Does repeating it again make it any clearer? If I say it again, will it illumine what I have already said to you? Are you beginning to be illumined with the light of following him; of becoming like me, one of his disciples?

“We are disciples of Moses.” We have no light as to where this man comes from. You have no light?! He opened my eyes—my born-blind eyes he touched. He gave me light and you who claim to have theological light don’t know where he comes from. Light creators only come from the Creator of light. If Jesus were not from God—the Light—he would be as powerless in the face of darkness as I once was. Never, since the beginning of time, has anyone opened the eyes of one born blind. Surely, he does not come from out of the darkness, like you and I. Surely, he does not come from the arena of the curse, like you and I. Surely, he comes from God. My eyes have been touched by one who comes from God. God’s very own arena has shed its divine and supernatural light upon my darkened eyes.

Who do you think you are to teach us? We are the learned; we are the professional theologians; we are the religious establishment; we are the moguls, the movers and shakers. We have the light; you are a sinful darkness-dweller. Out! Get out with your darkness; go back into your darkness.

And the once-upon-a-time blind man went back out—out in and into the light newly created for him by Jesus. And in the light of the new creation, Jesus found him. The Light of the World drew the light of the new creation before his face and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The Son of Man—that light-bearer; that heavenly man who rides upon the glory clouds of heaven; that celestial man who comes into the night with the clouds of light. “Do you believe?” Lord, I need a little more light. Who is he, this light-bringer, this cloud-rider, this glory-bearer?

And Jesus says, “I am taking away all the darkness.” No more haziness, no more cloudiness, no more blindness. The Son of Man, the Light of the World, the Prophet, the One from God: you see him, you hear him. And he who had been blind said, seeing all, “Lord.” Lord! My Lord, I believe. I see it all clearly now. You have made me a part of the new creation. Eyes to see—no more darkness; and a heart to believe—no more blackness. I can walk in the light for I have seen, I have possessed, the light of the age to come. The Light of the World is Jesus!

But the darkness still hovers; the inky black darkness still blocks out the light. The prisoners of darkness refuse the light; remain in the darkness; love the darkness. This is the judgment that light is come into the world and men loved the darkness rather than the light. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it.

Blindness deepens for those who hate the light. But for those dwelling in deep darkness who have felt the touch of Jesus’ hand, upon them has the light shined.

And I saw the new Jerusalem . . . and that city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it and the Lamb is the light thereof.

John’s Narrative Artistry

This miracle story, unique to the fourth gospel, is artistically structured with an inclusio and what I call dialogic shifts. The inclusio marks this chapter off from what precedes (chapter 8) and what follows (chapter 10). At the beginning and end of chapter 9, we find a literary envelope, a delimiting bracket in the form of interrogative/response, or more popularly Q&A (question and answer). The narrative core of John 9 is included within a question (the disciples in v. 2; the Pharisees in v. 40) and an answer (by Jesus both times, v. 3 and v. 41). The narrative of the blind man then develops dialogically—that is, by means of dialogue or conversation with the various characters appearing in the story. Note v. 8, where the neighbors enter into dialogue with the blind man. This leaves vv. 1-7 as a unit. The next dialogue is with the Pharisees (vv. 13-17) leaving vv. 8-12 as a unit. In v. 18, the blind man’s parents entertain a dialogue with the Pharisees—a conversation stretching to v. 23. A second interview occurs between the Pharisees and the blind man (vv. 24-34), ending in his excommunication from the synagogue. Jesus finds and speaks to the blind man for the second time (vv. 35-38); and finally, Jesus addresses the Pharisees (vv. 39-41). This is indeed a carefully structured narrative of a marvelous supernatural transformation.

But did you notice that Jesus is absent from most of the scenes in this drama. After he touches the blind man’s eyes, he disappears from the narrative until like a good Pastor—like a Good Shepherd—in v. 35, he finds his sheep, his excommunicated lamb. Yes, chapter 10 of John’s gospel is built on chapter 9. Jesus at the beginning of the blind man’s story; Jesus at the end of the blind man’s story, but in between, Jesus off stage. Center stage from vv. 8-34 is the blind man. In this gospel where Jesus is so magnificently central, here in chapter 9 Jesus is displaced by a former blind man. How is it that our author, the apostle John, whose gospel soars like the eagle to the heights of heaven’s Logos, the refreshing streams of the one who is the fountain of living water, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Resurrection and the Life—how is it that this Christocentric gospel now in chapter 9 displaces Christ for a transformed believer? The characterization of Jesus here in John 9 is healer, miraculous healer, bringer of the eschatological light, compassionate Pastor; but this story develops by means of the characterization of the healed blind man. Ironically, in a gospel full of the centrality of Christ, in 9:8-34 Christ is not central. What is going on here? Has John forgotten himself? Has some redactor, some editor, inserted the dialogues with the blind man because that editor has a non-Christocentric perspective? How do we justify the centrality of the blind man in a gospel which majors in the centrality of Christ?

Well, perhaps we are not seeing things clearly. Perhaps we have our eyes covered with a hazy film which prevents us from fully seeing the light. Perhaps we need some illumination that enables us to see Jesus in the blind man and the blind man in Jesus. Perhaps we need to see what John sees and that is why the blind man takes center stage at the heart of this drama.

Abscondita cum Christo

In the previous chapter of this gospel, our Lord has been involved in an intense dialogue with the Pharisees about his identity (Who are you?), his parentage (Where is your father?), his testimony (Your witness is not true). The intense dialogic exchange in John 8 amounts to a verbal trail—Jesus charged by the Pharisees with blasphemy and demon possession; the Pharisees counter-charged by Jesus with being bond slaves and children of the devil. In the course of the dialogic charges and countercharges, Jesus turns the tables on his accusers and places them on trial. The accused becomes the accuser.

The blind man in chapter 9 is also in an intense dialogue with his neighbors and the Pharisees about his identity (Is this the one who used to sit and beg?); about his parentage (Is this your son who you say was born blind?); about his testimony (What was done to you? How did you receive your sight?). And in the course of the dialogic charges and counter-charges, the blind man turns the tables on his accusers and places them on trial (vv. 30-33). The accused becomes the accuser. As with Jesus (John 8), so with the blind man (John 9).

Throughout the fourth gospel, there have been divisions over Jesus among the multitudes and among the Pharisees. The multitudes divided over Jesus when he claimed to be the source of the thirst-quenching water of salvation (7:37). The famous division among the Pharisees occurs at the end of chapter 7 when Nicodemus defends Jesus before the Sanhedrin. This blind man too is the source of division: division among the neighbors (vv. 8-9), division among the Pharisees (v. 16). As with Jesus, so too with the blind man.

Jesus is rejected as an outsider, not part of the acceptable establishment. The blind man is rejected as an outsider, cast out of the synagogue. Jesus breaks the Sabbath by healing the blind man; the blind man breaks the Sabbath by being healed. Jesus is the one sent by the Father; the blind man is the one sent to the Pool called Sent. Jesus is charged with being a sinner (v. 24); the blind man is charged with being a sinner (v. 34). As with Jesus, so also with the blind man.

But I have reserved the most remarkable parallel to the end. In the gospel of John, Jesus identifies himself as the “I am” (Greek, ego eimi). You know several of these: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; before Abraham was, I am. Look at John 9:9. Others were saying, “This is he.” Still others were saying , “No, but it is like him.” He kept saying, “Ego eimi. I am.”

And now, do you see what is happening? Why John has preserved this wonderful story for us? Now, do you see why Jesus is off stage at the heart of this narrative, while the blind man is in the spotlight? Now, do you see why the Shepherd and his lamb share parallel experiences? Now, do you see the blind man’s life hidden with Christ in God (abscondita cum Christo)? You do see it, don’t you. The union between the life of Christ and the life of the blind man. The ineffable union between the Light of the World and the one who is given that light. The sweet mystical union between the Eschatological Apostle (the One Sent from the Father) and the one sent to the apostolic pool to bathe himself, to wash himself, to cleanse himself in the Sent-One, the One who touched his eyes—the One who sent his darkness to Hell and the one who sent his light—his own heavenly light—into that blind man’s body and soul. You do see it, don’t you. John 9 is about being identified with Christ. John 9 is about the imitation of Christ—the precious imitation, the wondrous identification, the blessed conformity which comes when Jesus touches the eyes of the blind.

And now, you see even more, don’t you. Now, you see yourself in the light of this story because now, you see your life touched by the Light of the World. You see your former life of blindness and darkness now marvelously transformed by the One whom the Father sent to open your eyes and to drive away the darkness that covered your soul. Now you see yourself reproached, even persecuted and cast out from a cultural and often religious establishment which refuses the Light, hates the Light, even kills the Light when unrestrained. You too are an outsider, like your Lord and Savior, like this blind man. You too have been left alone with the Light; alone with Jesus to let your light shine—to bear witness to the Light (“once I was blind, but now I can see”), to share the sufferings of the Light at the hands of a world dwelling in darkness, to walk as the sons and daughters of the light.

The miraculous healing of the man born blind is not only unto salvation, it is to draw his new life into union with Christ. So that the new man may live and breathe out of his identification with his Lord. The centrality of the transformed man born blind in John 9 is the revelation of a new creation in union with his Creator and Redeemer. His life, in the light, a reflection of his life-union with the Light of the World. Revile him—revile his Lord; cut him off from the church of his day—cut off his Lord; reject the light in which he walks—reject the true Light; remain in the darkness—remain in sin—remain outside of Christ—remain outside of the forgiveness of sin.

You, upon whom the light has shined, here is your life. John 9 is your story—your story of being touched by the Light, of walking in the light, of possessing the Light in whom there is no darkness. No never, not ever. Jesus is the Light of your world.