Archive for March, 1998

Sunday Week 4 of Lent Year C(A)

This is our prayer today: Let us see. Let us not be blind. Dear God remove our blindness! It’s the prayer we will pray for our catechumens on their journey out of darkness to the light of Easter. But it had better be our prayer today too. For we are blind. We are blind because we can see and because seeing is such second nature to us that we think see clearly and without effort. Seeing is so easy to us that we forget we have eyes that have to work at vision and we forget that every vision is a work of imagination. William Blake condemned his contemporaries for “seeing not with, but through the eye.” As if our sight were a window out onto the world rather than a portrait painted with nuance and interpretation. We forget the brush strokes. We forget the sign.
At the beginning of today’s story blindness is a metaphor for sin but by the story’s end blindness has become innocence. To not see at all would save us. The only sin is to see but not see the sign—not see the significance of what we see. We do not see the works of God. It is not our habit. We do not see into the causes of things but content ourselves with glamour.
Glamour is an interesting word. Today we celebrate it. It is the heart of Oscar night. But once the word meant a magic spell, a spell cast to hide one thing and show another—a deception, an illusion, a false identity.
This is what we pray to see through today. To see with new eyes what we have done and what God would have us do.
I woke this morning with the blind man. I was going to ask him what it was like to see but before I could get the words out he asked me a question: what is it like to be blind? I ignored him and poured my coffee. But about half way through my bran flakes he spoke again. “What do you see?” he asked me as I read the newspaper. So I gave in and tried to see the world his way. What would he see in the paper, with his fresh vision and innocent ignorance? Not words certainly—all that would be beyond him. What would he make of the pictures? So we looked together.
“Who are all these people?” he asked. They’re models mainly. People payed to look beautiful. He could see their beauty but wanted to know why they were so thin. So thin, so young, and so … moody. “Well, I suppose we like them that way.” “But they don’t look like anyone I’ve met—do you know anyone like that?” “Well not really.” “So where are the pictures of all the real people—like the ones at Church?” “Well you see we don’t put them in the ads because the ads are supposed to make us want to buy things and ordinary people don’t sell.” “They don’t sell?” “No, the idea is that we want to look like the pretty young things or at least we want some of their glamour to rub off on us.” “Does it work?” “Well no … but we still like it.” “You like what? Longing to be someone you can’t be? Yearning to have what you will never have? What?” “I don’t know.”
An Embarrassed Silence. Which I eventually broke. “Look here’s some ordinary people. It’s not all ads you know. This is a newspaper.” Faces of the hungry and old. People being arrested and the ones arresting them. Angry mouths of accusation. Smooth smiles of politicians. Quiet eyes of defeat. Guns and stones and batons. Skies and art and growing things. My blind friend was silent: watching, recognising. Until I turned the page to a large photo of children playing, dancing in a ring of held hands on bare earth against a backdrop of smoking chimneys. “What’s this?” he asked, “is it ugly or beautiful? I can’t tell.” Neither could I. It was both and neither. I read the print. “It’s a picture from a town in Mexico—Juarez—that’s a US factory making copper.” “Who are the children?” “They’re just children—the story says they are playing in a place with unsafe levels of heavy metals like copper … they’re playing on poisoned ground.” “Why? And why is a US factory in Mexico?” “Well it says it’s cheaper to smelt copper there than here because you can pay people less and you don’t have to worry about the pollution you make and that it gives jobs to the local people—mainly women—so everyone benefits.” “You mean except the children with the copper poisoning.” “Well…”
“I came into this world to divide it,” says Jesus, “to make the blind see and the seeing blind.” We see by dividing, discriminating dark from light, foreground from background, colour from colour. We see by dividing, discriminating rich from poor, hurt from healthy, just from unjust.
It is a dangerous prayer we pray today. A dangerous way we walk with Cecilia and Derek. We ask to see and we ask to become responsible for what we see. We ask for the end of our innocence and the beginning of faith.

3 comments March 29th, 1998

Sunday Week 2 of Lent Year C

A terrifying darkness with smoke and fire and animals torn into pieces. A mountaintop brilliance with burning figures out of legend and a voice booming from a darkening cloud.
What do these two moments, one from the Hebrew scriptures and the other from the Christian, have in common. One thing is terror. Abram is terrified. The disciples—Peter, John, James—are terrified. None of them knows what’s hit them. Or maybe they do know and that’s why they are in terror. Suddenly, in the middle of their lives, when they least expect it, they find themselves having a close encounter with something way beyond them, something uncontrollable, something that might do anything to them. Suddenly they know power, raw power, and they know glory, dazzling glory—and it takes their wits away. Wouldn’t it do the same to you? Who in their right mind would want to see the face of God unveiled?
What else do the two stories told this morning have in common? Sleep. Deep sleep. Abram has been taken on a journey. Abram has exhausted himself slaughtering and sawing up all these animals and now he is asleep in the dark. Peter and John and James have been taken on a journey. They have exhausted themselves climbing a mountain and now they are asleep.
At least we have that in common with our heroes today. We might not have seen terrifying visions of God but we do know what it is to be asleep, to be exhausted and to fall asleep. Maybe we are even better at sleeping than they are because they wake up in the middle of disorienting terror to a world transfigured beyond recognition, a world gone wild. Wouldn’t it have been better to stay asleep? To linger in the shadow kingdom of dreams where all the wildness disappear without trace with daylight? What would they have lost if they hadn’t been awake to be terrified?
Abram wakes to see a pillar of smoke and a pillar of fire, angels of God’s presence, moving between the scattered carcasses of Abram’s sacrifice. In Abram’s day this is how contracts were made. Both parties walked between the split bodies of heifer and goat and ram as if to say “let this be what happens to me if I am not faithful, if I do not keep my word.” But here, as Abram watches in terror, God alone walks the contract into being. Abram has to promise nothing. He has no oath to swear on pain of dismemberment. He only has to witness the oath God swears. “Look to heaven, Abram,” God says, “count the stars. So shall your descendants be.” And God seals the covenant by offering to be torn apart like dead meat if his word should be broken.
On the mountain Peter and co wake to the terror of glory all around them, to the sight of their friend Jesus burning with fire, speaking with long dead prophets, and to a voice calling to them out of a cloud of smoke. “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him.” The same voice which had spoken to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my son, my beloved. My favour rests on you.”
If Abram had slept on he would have missed the promise of God. He would have missed seeing God put God’s very life on the line for the sake of the chosen people. If the disciples had slept on they would have missed the promise of God. They would have missed seeing God claim Jesus as his own beloved child.
If they had slept on they would have missed the terror but they would have also missed the promise.
Who knows what promises we have missed because we have been asleep. We may have missed the terror but at what price in glory? If Lent is about anything it is about waking up. That’s all the fasting and penance and alms-giving are for—like pinching yourself to make yourself wake up. Not because we don’t need sleep but because we need God more. God has a promise for each of us this Lent, a touch of glory. Will we be awake to hear it?

March 15th, 1998


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