Anointed Dust

Fourth Sunday of Lent. 1 Sm 16:1b,6-7,10-13a; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41

What would it be like to see after being blind for a lifetime? Vivid colors, shapes and objects flood the mind in a kind of confusing torrent. Some time would be needed to connect the sensations of touch and sounds with the unfamiliar sense of sight. What would be clear, however, from the very moment of healing, is the truth the man insists on in today's Gospel, “I was blind and now I see.” One cannot be mistaken about gaining one's sight. There is a similar certainty about ‘insight’, the sudden vision of the mind that causes us to say, “I see,” meaning “I understand.” Words like ‘sight’ or ‘insight’ are often used by those who receive the gift of Faith, meaning that the truth of the Catholic Faith has become clear to them, and their world has been transformed.

Now the contrast of blindness and sight is the major theme of today's readings. The man in the Gospel was born blind in the physical sense, but the readings speak mainly of spiritual darkness, a darkness of the soul that God alone can illuminate. In the First Reading, God illuminates the mind of the prophet Samuel to recognize David as the Lord's anointed, not the older sons who appear naturally stronger and better suited, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but God looks into the heart.” The Responsorial Psalm speaks of God guiding us through the ‘dark valley’, the valley of the shadow of death, along ‘right paths’ we cannot see by ourselves. On the same theme, the Second Reading urges us to live as children of light, and to take no part in the works of darkness, “Awake, O Sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Finally, the blind man in the Gospel is contrasted with the Pharisees. The blind man gains sight in both senses, when he receives the gift of physical sight and recognizes Jesus as the Christ, true God and true man. The Gospel says,  “He worshipped him,” showing the man's recognition of the divinity of Christ. The Pharisees, by contrast, angrily refuse to recognize Christ or their need of Christ, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Since they refuse to acknowledge their need and ask Christ for help, their sin remains.

So these accounts of gaining physical sight or spiritual insight help to give concrete expression to what it means to receive the gift of Faith, and to be healed of the spiritual blindness which is a consequence of sin. There is, however, a minor detail in the readings that is especially relevant to our spiritual situation today. When Jesus heals the blind man, he uses a physical instrument, an instrument that might seem rather distasteful to us. The Gospel says that Jesus spat on the ground, made clay with the saliva, smeared the clay on the man's eyes and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam. Why? After all, Jesus could simply command the healing of the man. Why does he choose this strange and apparently distasteful method? I have not been able to find any convincing spiritual interpretation from the Tradition, but no word or action of Jesus lacks a spiritual meaning. What, then, does the dust and dirt of the ground symbolize? Well, here is a possible explanation. The words of the Ash Wednesday service are, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Dust can, in a sense, symbolize human beings. Are there situations in which Christ uses human beings as a means of healing? The answer is ‘yes’. Christ uses his priests as his instruments of healing, especially by means of the sacrament of Confession. A priest is, after all, animated dust anointed as an instrument of salvation. The usual way in which Christ chooses to heal us of serious sin after Baptism is by means of the absolution given by such ‘anointed dust’, that is, his priests.

Now most Biblical passages have more than one spiritual meaning, but the link between this passage and the sacrament of Confession is particularly appropriate for us in this season of Lent. As you probably know, every Catholic must go to Confession at least once a year. Lent is a very good time to fulfill this obligation, and there are many places where one can receive the sacrament in this city.  Although I say that to go to Confession is an obligation, the actual experience of the sacrament is a liberating gift. To free a soul from sin is more wonderful than giving sight to the blind, and nothing is necessary for Confession except sorrow for sin and a resolve to change. Jesus rejoices to forgive us and heal us. It is only those who refuse to come to him whose sin remains.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, St. Louis, 2nd March 2008

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