Archive for January, 2014

PSALM 31:9-16

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eye wastes away from grief,
    my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
    and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
    and my bones waste away.

11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
    a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
    those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
    I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
    terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
    as they plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.

Along the course of spiritual development a neophyte becomes a “true believer,” where the questions of faith are gradually resolved and replaced with the answers of doctrine. The searching question of God gives way to orthodox theories about God. An open and curious mind gradually closes down on certainties.

When you are taught that God loves you, watches out for you, and will intervene on your behalf in times of trouble, the naive expectation is that God will come through. But what happens when he doesn’t? Is it that God doesn’t see your suffering? Is he watching but just doesn’t care? Could it be that God is aware of your suffering and desperately wants to help you, but is limited in his power to do so? Such are the new questions that stretch and threaten the definitions of orthodoxy.

One way of “saving God” – or saving your concept of God – is to take responsibility for his silence or absence. Perhaps you don’t deserve God’s help. Maybe you’ve done something to disqualify yourself from divine favor. What if God is punishing you with this ordeal, for a sin you have conveniently forgotten? Or it might be that your faith is not what it needs to be and God is actually subjecting you to this pain or loss in order to make you stronger.

And so on.

But the evolutionary arc leading from neophyte to true believer doesn’t end there, without a significant amount of what might be called spiritual frustration where the soul’s journey to fulfillment is stymied and cut short of its intended goal. Beyond the “true believer” stance of religious commitment and doctrinal certainty is the mystical experience. In that place, on the other side of truth as it were, there is no theological possessive such as might prompt the soul to say, “You are my God.”

In the experience of divine presence, this moment is enough. There is nothing else.

ISAIAH 50:4-9a

4 The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.

7 The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8     he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
    who will declare me guilty?

Chapters 40-55 are believed by scholars to have been written during the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE), after the southern kingdom of Judah was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army and a significant population of its capital city of Jerusalem were taken in chains to Babylon.

As the siege was about to befall Jerusalem, there had been a few prophets who assured the people that God would protect the holy city and its sacred temple. So when it actually came to pass, and now in the distant land of their captors, not a few were ready to assign blame – not to God for failing his people, but to the exiles themselves for sinning against God. Some even suggested that the catastrophe was God’s retribution on the sinful nation.

But others didn’t buy it. Jeremiah and Ezekiel did their best not to place blame, but instead looked to a future of resurrection (Ezek 37), return and restoration (Jer 31). For his part, the “Second Isaiah” (as this author is known) chose not to look outside the suffering of his generation for its possible meaning or purpose. Rather than interpret it as punishment for sin, however, he reframed the experience as redemptive in its own right.

                                                                                          

Every so often, a system in dynamic balance will begin to experience feedback in the form of “vibration,” “heat,” “wobble” or “noise.” At such times the system needs to be reset in order to recover its center and balance. If the feedback is allowed to persist unchecked, it can amplify to the point where the system cracks up and breaks down.

Second Isaiah didn’t dispute the theory that Jerusalem had fallen because the people had lost their center. The devastation and exile indeed represented a major breakdown of the system, precipitated by the amplifying feedback of false hope, lost focus, and moral indifference. Not this generation, born in exile, but those before it had allowed things to fall off course. 

His creative contribution was to see the generation in exile as bearing the consequence, absorbing the shock of the tragedy, and symbolically taking the nation’s guilt on its shoulders. His generation’s suffering was redemptive in the way it removed this guilt and recalibrated the system. Second Isaiah and his fellow captives were not suffering to pay for sin, but to restore righteousness (balance and wholeness). They were not the shame of their nation, but its hope!

Much later on, some followers of Jesus would use this metaphor of vicarious suffering through the bearing of a burden to understand his death as a turning-point in redemption history.

Breath of Life

Posted: January 27, 2014 in ContraVerse

Breath of Life

JOHN 11:1-44

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Near the beginning of the Fourth Gospel, the author refers to Jesus’ miracle of changing water to wine as “the first of his signs” – thus tipping us off at the start that the miraculous deeds related in his Gospel are intended for the reader’s interpretation rather than astonishment. As examples of hagiography – stories told of a hero, saint, or savior by his or her disciples and followers – the New Testament Gospels are not concerned with reporting facts, so much as they are with representing what they understand as the “essence of Jesus” and persuading our belief in what he means.

We need to careful, then, not to diminish the Gospels – and the entire Bible for that matter – by reducing them to mere factual reports or even eye-witness accounts. We are dealing here with mythic literature, which means that much more is going on than what might be described on the page, miracle or not. Even a so-called miracle is merely a surface event intended by the storyteller not just to impress us but to open a view into deeper truth and, we might say, more reality.

Throughout the narrative of this Gospel, the author describes seven such “signs” that we are supposed to look through to grasp his meaning of Jesus. These seven signs are arranged in a very deliberate order, not according to their linear sequence but upon a narrative structure known as “chiastic” (often shaped like an ‘X’, the Greek letter Chi). In this case, the first sign makes a pair with the seventh sign, the second sign with the sixth one, and so on until the center is reached, which is where the “main point” of the structure is located.

The raising of Lazarus from the dead lines up with the sign where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding party. In that miracle, Jesus orders six very large empty jars, the kind used to hold water for the rinsing and ritual washing of guests’ hands and feet upon entering a house, to be filled with water. He then tells the steward to ladle a cup of the water and bring it to the party host, by which time it has changed into wine. The opposition playing out here is between water and wine, social convention and spiritual transformation, ritual washing and internal change – what we might today name “religion” and “spirituality.” The Gospel writer’s message is that Jesus has freed us from conformity and obligation, bringing us joy and new life instead.

In the acrostic structure of the larger narrative, the raising of Lazarus stands as “complementary opposite” to this water-to-wine miracle. Again we have an outer-to-inner dynamic going on, as the dead body of Lazarus is filled with life again. The “bound” once-dead man is liberated from his bandages and given back his life.

As signs, these stories are pointing to the essence of Jesus (according to this author), which is his power to give joy, life, hope and new meaning to those who are empty and dead inside.

ROMANS 8:6-11

6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Earlier the point was made that resurrection is different than recovery, revival, or resuscitation, in that it involves not just a “return to life” but a transformation through life to a higher level of freedom, fulfillment, and joy. In myth and literature it is commonly represented metaphorically in the raising of a dead body back to life, but what resurrection symbolizes is much more than a mere miracle.

We also learned that in Hebrew anthropology (view of human nature) the familiar split of body and soul, favoring soul as the real and immortal identity of a person, has no support. (The split and bias towards the soul came into Western thinking from the Greek and oriental cultures.) Hebrew thought regarded “soul” (nephesh) as the temporary and inherently conflicted “agreement” of two more primary things coming together, body (basar) and breath (ruach). These two “things” were later abstracted in Hebrew thought into matter and spirit,”or the material and spiritual principles coming together in and as the living person, or soul.

Paul considered these principles as opposing forces, acting on the personality from “below” (flesh, body, instinct) and from “above” (breath, spirit, wisdom). While the soul (ego, person) is the product of these two forces coming together, it is also where they are experienced as counter-forces pulling the soul in one direction or the other. So Paul would sometimes speak of life “according to the flesh” and life “according to the spirit,” by which he meant two opposite ways of living depending on whether your focus and commitment are on the “lusts” of the flesh or the “gifts” of the spirit.

So, you can give in to the flesh and allow the cravings and lusts of the body to drive your life (to selfishness and ruin, in Paul’s opinion), or you can surrender yourself to the spirit and allow the will and wisdom of God to guide you. Attachment to a life according to the flesh only brings suffering in the meantime, to the extent that its cravings can never be fully satisfied, and catastrophe in the end, since the body must eventually expire. And yet (as Paul sees it) this is where each of us is, until we can open ourselves to the breath (spirit) of God and be filled with new life from above.

We must “die” to the flesh and be “raised” in the spirit. That is resurrection.

PSALM 130

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
2     Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.

5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities.

There are times in life when the solution or answer we seek cannot be found inside our present circumstances. No matter how much we rearrange the furniture or change out the pictures on our walls, the “box” we’re in remains a box.

Let’s be careful to understand that by “circumstances” we are not simply referring to the external conditions around us. Even more important are the mental categories in our minds that assume, explain, classify and predict reality into a corner known as “certainty.” When we are certain about something, curiosity, imagination, as well as critical thinking fall into disuse – and may even go extinct.

The common state of psychological depression typically occurs when our world is shaken by chronic pain, abrupt change, or permanent loss – experiences that force us into serious disillusionment concerning the security and meaning of life. Down inside that emotional pit, our view of reality is drastically reduced in scope – even more so as we start to turn inward on ourselves and ruminate on our misery.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” We do have a choice, even down there in the deep emptiness of loss. We can persist in turning the pain over and over in our hearts until we are exhausted and ready to give up, or we can give it over – breathe through it, then take it gently in both hands and surrender it entirely to the provident mystery of grace in this moment.

Once we can let go of our categories, reality has a chance to surprise us. And it’s always more than we could have imagined. Instead of more illusions to replace the ones that were taken with our disillusionment, we are finally open and ready for insight.

EZEKIEL 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Resurrection is a metaphor found throughout world mythology, and likely originated in early agricultural societies where local economies looked with expectancy to the return of life in the spring. Stories across cultures tell of the god or goddess who dies or is taken into the underworld in late autumn and rises again in new seedlings and green shoots.

Because his people had languished for so long in Babylonian captivity, the prophet Ezekiel saw them as having lost their chance at fulfilling God’s destiny for them. Back home in Jerusalem, his contemporary Jeremiah was working out this same grief and struggle for hope on behalf of those who had been left behind in the city’s ruin. Although their contexts were different in that regard, both Jeremiah (at home) and Ezekiel (in exile) were searching for signs of divine presence and purpose in the midst of human suffering.

What can you say to a generation whose faith in God has been drained of life and left strewn on the ground like sun-bleached disjointed bones? Other writings of this Exilic period (587-538 BCE) – the Book of Job notable among them – had already fallen into disenchantment with the god who protects the righteous and punishes sinners. This generation was barely old enough to remember, and many of them were not yet even born, when the foreign army of Babylon had invaded their land, toppled the city walls, devastated the temple, taken their leaders away in shackles, and left the “tree of Jesse” (the father of David and his royal line) a mere lifeless stump.

How can you give hope to a people who can’t even remember what home was like? There are no commitments left behind that they can look forward to picking up again, no nostalgia under the ashes that can be poked and stirred and fanned back to life. It’s as if they need to start with an absolutely new beginning, with a new cycle of time, a fresh creation and their own identity.

                                                                                        

Resurrection, then, is more than a recovery of what might once have been. Its literal meaning has to do with “being raised up” from a state of profound discouragement, hopelessness, paralysis or death. This literal meaning is widely used as a metaphor of an experience that is widely contemplated across the world religions, of not just coming back to life as it was, but transforming to a new quality, vibrancy, or fullness of life.

The help his despondent generation, Ezekiel had to first get them together – thus the sound-imagery of rattling bones clicking together, the sight of flesh covering skeletons, and of  the ground cluttered with corpses. Only with the body thus reconstituted could the breath (spirit) animate it with life and new hope.

We need to be reminded that Hebrew anthropology did not accept the oriental and Greek idea of a body-soul dualism. For the Hebrew, “soul” is the unique individuality of a human being, a synthesis of a material principle called body (basar), and a spiritual principle called breath (Heb. ruach, Grk. pneuma, Lat. spiritus). Once the breath leaves the body, it is dead and the individual soul simply ceases to exist.

Unlike their cultural neighbors farther West (Greeks) and to the East (Hindus), the Hebrews didn’t engage in speculation over the metaphysical status of the once-embodied soul. The metaphor of resurrection for the Hebrew, then, wasn’t just about getting a departed soul back into its former body. It was an event of new creation! God is starting again with a fresh word: Let there be!

This was good news for a community that had all but given up.

 

Siloam

Posted: January 8, 2014 in ContraVerse

Siloam

JOHN 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” It would be easy to get distracted into a discussion on “the meaning of suffering” here, whether looking behind for a cause (in this case someone’s sin) or ahead for a purpose (“so that” God’s works might be revealed).

Let’s just say for now, that suffering doesn’t have to have a meaning at all. However cognitively disturbing or intellectually unsatisfying it may feel to just let it be, suffering – disability, illness, chronic pain, abuse, personal loss, relentless hardship, and even the mortal condition in general – might well be inherently meaningless.

Your spirituality and faith are no less genuine if you choose to regard suffering as absurd. The key thing in any case will be your ability to be present in the suffering and not explain it away, to be present to others in their suffering without reaching for one “justification” or another.

This passage is not really about suffering and its meaning (or absence of it). The man’s blindness is operating metaphorically as a condition of disorientation and being “in the dark” – a spiritual diagnosis of the human condition, according to many of the world’s wisdom traditions.

Every person is separated from the light-world of reality by a screen of ignorance, a condition which is compounded over time by the layering of additional veils with such names as assumption, belief, and certainty.

Physically blind people in the ancient world were commonly reduced to begging for their daily needs. This put them in a passive attitude with respect to the reality around them, as they awaited the charity of others. The ignorant certainty of many also keeps them in a position of passivity, laziness … even entitlement. They get to a point where they have resigned and turned in their key to the door of awakening and the liberated life.

                                                                                              

Instead of saying to the man, “Hocus, pocus, I command you to SEE!” Jesus made a mud paste and daubed it on his eyelids. “Go and wash.” 

The path out of darkness and into the light – from ignorance to understanding, from captivity to freedom – would require the man’s active effort. He needed to get on his feet and make his way to the Pool of Siloam to wash the mud from his eyes.

Once there, the man rinsed in the water – and was able to see!

Jesus performed this healing on a sabbath, which according to the rules was supposed to be a day for avoiding work, and making a mud poultice would have classified as “work.” This represents another tangent that we will forgo for now. One of the things that got him in trouble with the orthodoxy of his day was his insistence that human well-being always trumps religious obedience.

A cross of some kind typically awaits people like that.

The progression from darkness to light, then, called on the blind man – and on all human beings insofar as we are trapped behind our screens of ignorance and conviction – to take an active role in his liberation. Jesus wouldn’t let him sit there in passive expectancy, waiting around for something to happen.

Whatever fear he may have held concerning the risks involved in going on the unconventional prescription of a stranger – losing his begging post during rush-hour, getting lost in the streets, being ridiculed and shamed for his behavior – the man needed to step through the fear and do his part.

The religious leaders, still blind behind their orthodoxy, were unable to accept, much less comprehend, what had happened. This story is still playing out today …

EPHESIANS 5:8-14

8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Sleeper, awake!
    Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

The last quoted phrase was likely a piece of baptismal liturgy used in Paul’s mission churches, marking the moment of a new convert’s crossover into New Life. It was a sacrament, not magic, and the ritual was conducted as a way of demonstrating publicly what was happening in the depths of the person.

The dramatic contrast of light and darkness is certainly the most ancient and universal polarity found throughout the world cultures. Its power and attraction is likely rooted in our evolutionary past, when the darkness of night, forest interiors, and storm-laden skies represented dangers our daytime intelligence couldn’t easily detect or comprehend.

Darkness came eventually to represent not only obscurity and potential dangers, but savagery (our earliest predators were probably night-stalkers), chaos and ignorance (since order and distinction are lost in the dark), irrationality and insanity (the moon, Luna, was the inspiration of lunacy), as well as criminal behavior, secrecy, and sin.

The forces, conditions, and virtues associated with the light come to mind intuitively – probably even instinctively: clarity, order, knowledge, enlightenment, rationality, decency, righteousness, rebirth (think sunrise and winter solstice), vision – and by extension, foresight, prophecy, planning and purpose.

Light-and-dark as a polarity is what’s known as an archetype, or First Form, which lies deep in the primitive layers of consciousness and functions as a catalyst for the creative imagination. Insofar as religion is a symbol system that ties the conventional arrangement of life to the primal force and primordial mystery that is life itself, the contrasting interplay of light and darkness can be discerned in its art, mythology, ceremony, and doctrines.

New converts to the Christ movement – we hesitate to call it “Christianity” at this point since it still lacked the internal coherence, widespread agreement, and a centralized authority that eventually developed into the “official” Christian religion – needed confirmation in their dramatic life-change.

Paul exhorted them to dedicate their lives to the good, the right, and the true. While it may sound as if he is pushing for a strong definition of early Christian orthodoxy, Paul is really encouraging these new Christ-followers to become promoters of what is life-affirming and wholesome, advocates for decency and fairness, and seekers after what is genuine, authentic and real.

It’s not about what you believe, so much as how you live. “Christian” is more a verb than a noun.