We have reached today the last Sunday of Paschaltide. On Wednesday we will celebrate the Leavetaking of Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, and on the following day we will celebrate the Holy Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel reading which we have just heard, we see a living icon of all that the Lord has accomplished for each human soul. All of us are indeed born blind, disfigured by sin, incapable of perceiving the spiritual world around us, or the glory of God which suffuses all creation. In the clay of His Incarnation, in the union of the earth of our humanity with the cleansing water of His Divinity, the Savior heals our blindness and refashions us in our former beauty and dignity. And though we ourselves, and our parents before us, have certainly sinned and brought our suffering upon ourselves, yet we see over and over — in our lives and in the lives of those around us — that the providence of God utterly transcends this, that there is a deeper reason behind all the sinfulness and brokenness of the world: “that the works of God should be manifest” in us.
Indeed, we often see that the works of God are manifested so strikingly and powerfully in our lives that, just as in the case of the blind man, those who had known us before grace transfigured our hearts are scarcely able to tell whether we are the same people that they once knew before. And just as in the Gospel reading, there is a division among those people: some glorify the saving power of God, while others are not be able to tolerate the light of Christ that now shines in us, and they cast us out.
In fact, it is this with which today’s Gospel reading is primarily concerned: the going forth of the one who has been healed into the world. In the long Gospel passage, only the beginning verses concern the actual healing of the blind man by Christ; afterwards, Christ disappears, and there is left only the man born blind, and the men and women of this world.
It is no accident that we hear this Gospel reading at this particular time, at the close of Paschaltide. We see this same pattern over and over again during these holy days: the risen Christ appears, only to vanish again a moment later. Whether it be with the Holy Myrrhbearers, with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or with the countless others to whom the Lord appeared after His Resurrection, it is clear that these appearances are but brief consolations, meant to strengthen His disciples for the trials ahead. Likewise, in our own lives we must remember that if we receive a visitation of the grace of Christ, we must treasure it and guard it lovingly for as long as we can, because in this world such experiences of grace are seldom lasting.
How often do we fail in this, my brothers and sisters! How often, when we experience the grace of God with particular sweetness and clarity, do we squander this grace and lose it soon after, whether it be to the deceitful sweetness of the passions or simply to the bustle, distractions and cares of this life? It is as St. Augustine says beautifully in his Confessions: “Where do you go along these rugged paths? Where are you going? The good that you love is from Him… Why then will you wander farther and farther in these difficult and toilsome ways? There is no rest where you seek it. Seek what you seek; but remember that it is not where you seek it. You seek for a blessed life in the land of death. It is not there. For how can there be a blessed life where Life itself is not?”
Nevertheless, whether it happens through our own careless or by the providence of God, these tangible experiences of grace sooner or later withdraw. And so today we hear these words of the Savior: “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” We hear these words now, knowing that in a few short days the Lord will ascend from us into heaven and will be with us no longer in the same immediate and tangible way that He has been with us during these holy and joyous days.
What, then? Does the Lord leave the world in darkness? Looking around us today, it certainly appears to be so. Even the ancient pagan world was in many ways more noble and beautiful than our own — the ancients were expecting Christ, albeit in shadows and broken figures, while our own world has decisively rejected Him, plunging voluntarily into a night from which there will come no dawn.
And in fact, this is indeed the sad truth. The next verse following today’s Gospel passage reads: “And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” A world that has rejected God has chosen the very blindness from which Christ came to heal us. And there is nothing that He can do to heal those who choose not to be healed. This is why so many of Christ’s miracles were preceded by the question: “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?… Believest ye that I am able to do this?” If a person rejects faith, if a person does not freely choose to place himself into the hands of God, then the Lord can “do no miracle there.”
So it is true that the Lord, the light of the world, has ascended up into heaven, leaving behind Him a darkened earth which increasingly demands a self-inflicted blindness. A sad and bitter truth it is indeed.
But it is not the whole truth. St. Augustine, in the same passage from the Confessions, writes: “He departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find Him there. For He left us, and behold, He is here. He could not be with us long, yet He did not leave us. He went back to the place that He had never left… He is within the inmost heart, yet the heart has wandered away from Him. Return to your heart, O you transgressors, and hold fast to Him who made you. Stand with Him and you shall stand fast. Rest in Him and you shall be at rest.”
The rest of the truth (perhaps an even harder truth) is that we ourselves, the feeble Christians of the last days, are now called to shine forth the light of Christ for anyone who still wishes to see. We have been healed in Holy Baptism of our ancestral blindness. But it is still left to us to choose, with God’s help, to open our eyes, to use the sight that has been restored to us to look into our hearts, where alone the risen Christ can be seen in this world. If we Christians do not find Him there, then how will anyone else ever find Him?
Years ago there was a study done to try to find out why people went to church. The study was not interested in nominal believers, but only in those who demonstrated their commitment through regular and faithful attendance at worship services. There was only one factor that nearly all these people shared in common, and to which they attributed their piety: they had all, at some point in their lives, met a real Christian… and they knew that they wanted what that person had.
Aside from a few miraculous exceptions, it is only in a Christian that anyone in this world has ever met Jesus Christ. Even the Scriptures, even the Holy Gospels themselves, though divinely inspired are nevertheless also words spoken from a human heart that had beheld God.
In this world, we are all the blind man. We have all been born that way. And then, at some point in our lives, we have all met Christ. We have felt His touch, and we have experienced the healing power of His grace. Our hearts have been filled with the light of Pascha. And now He is in some sense leaving us, and we must bear witness before an unbelieving world of Him Whom we have known, and of what we have been given; we can only do this through entering as deeply as we can into our own hearts and reverently preserving, through humble prayer and repentance, the Light that abides there. And if we are faithful in this, if we fight the good fight and keep the faith, then we too like the blind man, after we have been cast out by this world, will be found by Christ, and He will reveal Himself to us in the full power and majesty of His glory, “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” And then, throughout all time and all eternity, we will fall down and worship Him. Amen.