Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
WHO IS THE BLIND MAN? This question is not about the name of the man the Lord Jesus heals of blindness in John 9 (in Christian lore he is given the name Celidonius). He is not named in the Gospel account because his name is irrelevant to the meaning of the passage.

Rather the question is: Of all the people described in this Gospel passage, which one is the blind man?

Several groups are mentioned in the passage: the disciples, the neighbors of the blind man, his parents and the Pharisees. The passage reveals something about each of them.

The Disciples

Christ’s followers are depicted asking a theological question on seeing the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2) The assumption behind their question was commonly shared by people in the ancient world: if you experienced good fortune, you were pleasing to God but if you experienced evil, it was a result of your sinfulness.

This was considered true for individuals and the entire people as well. When Jerusalem fell to the Romans in the first century ad, Jewish thinkers attributed it to the sins of the nation: Israel had offended God and were punished by God withdrawing His protection from them. When Christian Jerusalem fell to the Persians in the year 614 and then to the Arabs in 638, its leaders said the same thing: Jerusalem had fallen because its Church had sinned.

While this connection might be directly or indirectly true in some cases, it is not so here. Neither the man nor his parents had sinned. The man’s condition was according to the providence of God: “that the works of God should be revealed in him” (v. 3).

Today most people are likely to say that our good or bad fortune is not caused by direct divine intervention, but because of purely natural causes. However, it is still important to say that our choices for good or evil can and do have consequences. Societies have fallen because they embraced an immoral culture (based on violence, slavery or perversion). Abortion is sinful; it also lowers birthrates and condemns societies to extinction. Divorce has consequences for the couple’s children and grandchildren. Our sinful choices have effects beyond us.

While the disciples’ reaction is not recorded, we find Christians today connecting their earthly fortune to God’s blessing or punishment in an automatic way. The modern Protestant movement called “the prosperity gospel,” promoted by preachers such as Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, teaches that God wants all His people to be physically healthy and financially successful. If a person is sick or not prosperous, they claim, it is because they are not “right with God.”

While the inquiring disciples in Jn 9 were not “blind,” we may wonder about those today who embrace either of these extremes: by living as if their choices affect only themselves or by following the prosperity gospel.

The Neighbors

Those who knew the blind man were amazed that he could now see. Some could not conceive the possibility and asked: “’Is not this he who sat and begged?’ Some said, ‘This is he.’ Others said, ‘He is like him’” (v.9). Church Fathers such as St Irenaeus, St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom explained their confusion in this way: if the man’s sight had been restored, they could accept it. This man, however, was blind from birth. He has no eyes at all. Jesus filled his eye sockets with clay, “adding [eyes] where before they were not” (St John Chrysostom) and gave them sight.

The Gospel says that Christ “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay” (v. 6). The Fathers directly connect this making of clay with the creation story in Genesis. St John Chrysostom noted, “When He said, ‘that the glory of God might be manifested’, He spoke of Himself, … To have said, I am He who took the dust of the earth, and made man, would have seemed a hard thing to His hearers; but this no longer stood in their way when shown by actual working. By taking earth, and mixing it with spittle, He showed forth His hidden glory; for no small glory was it that He should be deemed the Architect of creation” (St John Chrysostom, Homily 56 on John). St Irenaeus said that this action “manifested the hand of God to those who could understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust” adding: “That which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, [viz., the blind man’s eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him” (Against Heresies V, 15, 2).

The Parents

The man’s parents affirmed his identity: “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind” (v. 20) but they evaded expressing their opinion on the miracle: “… but by what means he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we do not know. He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself” (v. 21). John explains their reticence in this way: to affirm the miracle would be to avow that Jesus was the Messiah. “His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him’” (vv. 22, 23).

It may have to be explained to us, but Jews would assume that only the Messiah empowered by God could engage in a creative act. It would be easier to claim ignorance that to affirm that God was at work in Jesus and risk the consequences. This might be wisdom in the world, but it would be blindness in the spiritual realm.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees are the “heavies” in this portion of John. In the previous chapter, John 8, Jesus condemns them for not seeing God at work in Him, calling them sons of the devil (see John 8:44). In chapter 10, the leaders of the Jews again confront Jesus, demanding to know whether He was the Messiah. Jesus replies, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:25, 26).

Jesus’ healing of the man born blind concludes with another encounter with the Pharisees (John 9:39-41). He reproaches them indirectly, saying “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.”

But the Pharisees challenge Him further. “Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’ “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains.”

The blind man had no sight through no fault of his own. The Pharisees claimed to see, without realizing that their pretension made them worse than blind.

Self-righteousness in religion can render us as blind as they. Relying on the Gospel as preached in the Church can free us from the blindness that results from being one’s own guide.
 
SOME CHRISTIANS TODAY seem to believe that Jesus never judged anyone. They feel that He welcomed everyone, without calling them to turn from their sin. This “live and let live” attitude hardly describes the Jesus we see depicted in the Gospels. Rather these Scriptures show that the Lord reacted differently to different people in different circumstances, teaching us something about Himself and holding a mirror up to our actions as well.

Jesus’ Public Preaching

The Gospel of Mark, perhaps the oldest of the canonical Gospels, describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in this way: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14, 15). The call to repentance was at the very heart of His teaching: of that there should be no doubt. How Jesus approached individuals who were living in sinful situations is another matter. The Lord addressed very strong words to those who were the religious leaders of Israel – the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and teachers of the Law – whom He judged to be failing in their mission to pastor God’s people. He publicly called them “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 13:4); “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16, 24); “fools and blind” (Matthew 23:17, 19); “white-washed tombs” (Matthew 23:27); and “serpents, brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33). He told them they had hard hearts! In Mt 23 He repeatedly threatened them, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees: Hypocrites! ... How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:13 ff.)” This is hardly the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” beloved of so many. Yet, as the Gospel tells us, His hearers did not reproach Him for being politically incorrect; rather “people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28. 29).

Jesus’ Approach to Individuals

When the Lord was trying to lead people to recognize their own sinfulness and repent, His approach was very different. He was not aggressive or condemnatory, but He was not timid either. When He was dining on the Sabbath with a leading Pharisee, a man with dropsy (edema) was brought before Him. The Gospel says that Jesus answered the (unasked) question of the onlookers by asking them a question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Luke 14:7) His questions forced people to examine their own beliefs or attitudes, opening a way for them to see their own errors and repent.

The Lord used parables in the same way. When He noticed that people were jockeying for the best places at the table, the Lord told a series of parables on being the guest or a host at a wedding. His hearers got the point He was making without any of them being singled out for their behavior.

Two Gospel incidents frequently heard in our Churches show Jesus dealing with people who were public sinners, yet ready to hear His call to repentance. Before the Great Fast we hear the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in Jericho, who himself admitted getting money by fraud (Luke 19:8). The Lord did not raise the issue of Zacchaeus’ financial manipulations even indirectly. He simply told Zacchaeus that “today I must stay at your house” (v. 5). Jesus allowed Zacchaeus to see Him close up and that alone was sufficient to bring him to repentance.

Something similar happened in the case of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s Well. Like Zacchaeus, her way of life was already well-known and she was probably not welcome among the local women. This explains why she had come to draw water hat the height of the midday heat. Yet Jesus did not bring up the matter of her multiple marriages; He innocently asks her to call her husband. When she tells Him, “I have no husband,” (John 4:17) then He responds, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly” (vv. 17, 18). Jesus led her to raise the irregularity of her marital situation herself so that He could reveal His mysterious knowledge of her past and lead her to repentance.

Both Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman (Photini, in some accounts) responded to Jesus’ presence by revealing their embarrassing secrets. They could not deceive Jesus into thinking them upright. They could not pretend an untruth in the face of the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

John’s Gospel contains the story of another hapless woman: one caught in adultery (John 8:1-8). The scribes and Pharisees claimed that, according to the Law, she was to be stoned. They were right. The Law prescribed: “If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die—the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 20:22).

In response, Jesus did not criticize the woman, her accusers or the Law. To the accusers He simply said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (v. 8). He trusted that no one would dare to claim to be sinless, and He was right. They began drifting away, leaving Jesus and the woman together.

Daily during the Great Fast we say the Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian, asking for same spiritual insight these accusers were brought to remember. We pray, “Grant that I may see my own sins and not judge my brethren.” We must know sin when we see it, but not in a way that is judgmental of others.

The Lord did not criticize the woman caught in the act, but neither did He say, “I do not condemn you either; it’s all good.” She had sinned – she knew it and so did He. His response was, “go and sin no more” (v.11).

Fraternal Correction in the Church

The Lord expected His disciples, the leaders of His new community, to deal with sin in its midst. He told them, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3,4). Confronting sin in the community was as much part of their job as was extending forgiveness to the repentant.

Sometimes Church leaders turn a blind eye to the unchristian behavior of members of their flock so as to keep them in the congregation. The apostles were more concerned with helping their people avoid sin, even to the point of discussing it publicly. These are some of their directives found in the Epistles:

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:1-5).

“Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:20).

“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” {James 5:19, 20).

“On some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 1:22, 23).
 
THE GOSPEL OF John, which our Church reads at the Divine Liturgy during the paschal season, focuses significantly on water. Near its beginning we read of the Lord Jesus telling Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). We may recall that three sources of water are prominent in the Gospel passages read on the Sundays after Pascha: the pool at Bethesda, Jacob’s well at Sychar, and the pool of Siloam. The ultimate source of water, the inexhaustible living water which is the Holy Spirit, is Christ Himself, as He proclaimed in the temple, the passage we read on Pentecost: “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).

The Pool of Siloam

Often mentioned in the Scriptures, this pool, outside the old walls of Jerusalem, was a freshwater reservoir, possibly used by pilgrims to purify themselves before entering the Holy City. It was filled in and covered over after the Jewish revolt against Rome in AD 70. The pool was excavated in this century by an Israeli group seeking to expand a Jewish presence in what is presently the Palestinian district of Silwan. Unlike the pool at Bethesda, Siloam was not known for healings. It figures in the healing of the man born blind in a different way. The healing is described as follows in the Gospel: “[Jesus] spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing” (John 9:6,7). Later writers have commented on how this process resembled our rite of baptism. The catechumen is anointed (with the “Oil of Gladness”), washed in the baptismal font, and emerges “seeing,” illumined with the light of Christ. Those newly-illumined at Pascha could hardly fail to see this man and his healing as an image of their own baptism.

The Blindness of the Pharisees

Much of this Gospel passage describes the disapproving attitude of the Pharisees to Jesus. They doubted the healing on several counts. First of all, some did not believe that the man was actually blind from birth until they had interrogated his parents. Others refused to see the healing as from God because, they said, “This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath” (John 9:16). By making clay and anointing the man Jesus had violated their strict interpretation of “work” prohibited on the Sabbath. Others questioned Jesus’ origins, saying “We know that God spoke to Moses; as for this fellow, we do not know where He is from” (Jn 9:29). Being a Galilean was enough to disqualify Jesus in the sight of many. Being from Nazareth was even worse. John had recorded Nathaniel’s skepticism when he heard Philip praise Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). The blindness of the Pharisees was exposed by the man who had been healed. “Since the world began,” he insisted, “it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing” (John 9:32,33). Giving sight to the blind was one of the signs some Jews traditionally associated with the Messianic age. At the beginning of His ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth (see Luke 4:19 Jesus had applied to Himself the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1,2 (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good tidings to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, declaring the acceptable year of the Lord…” – LXX). As an unheard of cure, the healing of a man blind from birth should have suggested to religious Jews that the Messianic age had come. The Pharisees, however, did not see.

The Blind Man Sees

Our passage climaxes with the formerly blind man’s confession of faith. Jesus asks him, “’Do you believe in the Son of God?”  He answered and said, ‘Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?’  And Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you.’  Then he said, ‘Lord, I believe!’ And he worshiped Him” (John 9:35-38). The man’s journey to faith in Christ marked, for many Church Fathers, a second recovery of sight. Thus Theodore of Mopsuestia wrote: “Now he who was believed to be blind, twice received eyes to see. He received bodily eyes and, to the perfection of his soul, he received saving teaching” (Commentary on John 4.9.39). The blind man exits the stage at this point, but the Gospel continues with the following explanation (John 9:39-41): “And Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.’”purpose of Christ’s coming is that all may be saved. The outcome of His coming is that some people will accept Him while others refuse to do so. The “judgement” is not the pronouncing of a sentence but a recognition of what happens when people reject Christ. His coming has the effect of making evident the division between those open to what God was doing and those who were content in their self-righteousness. The passage concludes, “Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, “We see.” Therefore your sin remains.’” St Augustine compares these Pharisees to their namesake in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee: “… the Pharisees… were obviously like the man who had gone up to the temple and was telling God, ‘I thank you, because I am not like other people, unjust, adulterers, rapacious,’ as though to say, ‘I thank you that I am not blind but can see, unlike other people of the same sort as this tax collector.’ (Sermon 136B.2).
Who can speak of Your sovereign power, O Christ? Who can count the multitude of Your wonders? As You were seen in two natures on earth, so did You grant a double healing to the sick: You healed the eyes of the soul of the man born blind as well as his bodily eyes, so that he could see You. And he confessed that You are a hidden God, granting great mercy to the world!
Sticheron at the Praises
 
IN ACTS 16 WE SEE THE GOSPEL spread to Philippi, a town in western Macedonia near the border of Thrace. Originally established in the fourth century bc as a mining town and military garrison on an important east-west road, Philippi stood at the northernmost tip of the Aegean Sea, and was a prosperous city in the first century ad. It was considered a “miniature Rome,” governed by the laws of the capital by Roman officials. Almost 900 miles from Jerusalem, Philippi was the northernmost place visited by St Paul in his journeys and the first place in Europe evangelized by the Apostle. Between ad 45 and 58 St Paul had visited a number of cities in Cyprus, Crete and Asia Minor (Turkey today) and would go on to visit the Greek cities of Thessalonica, Athens and Corinth. In all he made three circuits of this area, visiting some cities several times and spending over a year in some places where his message was well received. Some ten years later, while in a Roman prison, Paul sent this community his Epistle to the Philippians, a letter included in the New Testament. In it we learn that the Philippians were Paul’s most generous helpers. “Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need” (Philippians 4:15-16). The next generation of Fathers – notably St Ignatius of Antioch and St.Polycarp of Smyrna – visited and wrote to the Philippian Christians. In the following generation St Irenaeus of Lyons referred to Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians as a forceful witness to the Gospel and a guide to salvation. During the fourth through sixth centuries ad Philippi was a recognized Christian center in the Roman Empire. Its churches, particularly the great cathedral, were said to rival the churches of Constantinople. Weakened by invasions of Slavic tribes at the end of the sixth century, Philippi was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 619; after that it was little more than a village. Philippi was rebuilt as a garrison in the tenth century as a defense against the neighboring Bulgar tribes. It prospered again at least until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks when it fell into ruin. After the Greek War of Independence (1821-32) the area became part of the Kingdom of Greece. It was not until the twentieth century that archeologists began excavating the ruins of Philippi, identifying a number of structures including the great basilica of St. Paul.

Other Cities Visited by St Paul

Chapters from the Acts of the Apostles read in Church this week record St Paul’s ministry in the following places as well:
  • Phrygia and Galatia (Acts 16) – Provinces in western and central Anatolia, in what came to be called “Turkey in Asia;”
  • Troas (Acts 16, 20) – On the Aegean Sea, the chief port of north-west Asia Minor. With a population of 100,000 at its height, Troas was the seat of a bishop at least until the tenth century. The city was destroyed during the Ottoman invasions of the fourteenth century;
  • Thessalonika (Acts 17) – Already 400 years old when St Paul visited it, this city, Thessalonika remained an important center through the later history of the Roman Empire. It fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1430 and remained as capital of their Balkan province until 1912 when it was surrendered to Greece. In Byzantine times and again today it is considered its nation’s Second City;
  • Berea (Acts 17) – A small city in southwestern Macedonia, it has much the same history as its larger neighbor, Thessalonika;
  • Athens (Acts 17) – One of the oldest cities in Europe, it was the intellectual capital of ancient Greece. When St Paul was there, Athens had been given the status of a “free city” of the Roman Empire because of its classical past. It remained a center of pagan learning until ad 529 when the emperor closed its philosophical school. Conquered during the Fourth Crusade (1204), Athens quickly fell to the Ottomans until the Greek War of Independence in the nineteenth century. In 1838 it became the capital of modern Greece;
  • Corinth (Acts 18) – Julius Caesar founded the Roman city of Corinth in 44 bc on the site of the ancient Greek city destroyed a century earlier. It has been rebuilt again and again after successive invasions and earthquakes. After a particularly devastating earthquake in1858, New Corinth was built a few miles away. This too suffered a major earthquake in 1928. Its location on the Gulf of Corinth has always made it a hub for the transport of goods and materials to Europe;
  • Ephesus (Acts 19, 20) – One of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world (c. 250,000) in Paul’s day, Ephesus had been founded in the tenth century bc and prospered as the shrine city of the goddess Artemis. Destroyed in ad 263 by Gothic invaders, it was rebuilt as a Byzantine city. Its commercial importance declined as its harbor silted up and, by the time of the Ottoman conquest in the fourteenth century, Ephesus was a mere village. The town was completely abandoned in the next century.

These Churches Today

The Church in Athens believes itself in continuity with the first century Christians in the city. It names as its first bishops Hierotheus, who lead the Church from before ad.52, and Dionysius (53-96). The eparchy of Corinth looks to the apostles Onesephorus, Silas and Apollos as its first-century leaders and the eparchy of Thessalonika traces itself back to the apostles Aristarchus and Silvanos, two of Christ’s Seventy disciples, and names Gaius as its first bishop, in the first century. These eparchies, placed under the Patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth century, are currently dioceses in the Autocephalous Church of Greece. The Archbishop of Athens is the first hierarch of this Church, formed after the War of Independence. The Apostolic Church of Cyprus, consisting today of twelve eparchies, traced its history back to the apostle St Barnabas who accompanied St Paul to the island in the first century. Five years later Barnabas returned to Cyprus and established the Church there. The Apostolic Church of Crete, consisting of nine eparchies, is an Autonomous Church dependent on the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It claims the Apostle St Titus, the disciple of St. Paul, as its first head. The provinces of Asia Minor were placed under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Constantinople when that city was made the capital of the Roman Empire (ad 335). This is still the case, but few Christians reside there. In 1923 The "Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations" was signed by the governments of Greece and Turkey. Around 1.5 million Christians in Asia Minor were deported to northern Greece and 500,000 Muslims from Greece were relocated to Turkey. – around two million persons. Many of these Christians emigrated to North and South America as a result. The patriarchate consists on five eparchies in Asia Minor and the “New Territories” ceded to Greece after the twentieth-century Balkan Wars and six eparchies in the Greek Islands (the Dodecanese). Some 30 diaspora eparchies in Western Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia are also subject to the ecumenical patriarchate.
 
THE BAPTISM OF CATECHUMENS ON PASCHA was one of the most widespread practices of the early Church. Speaking of baptism, St. Paul had written, “We were buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). The connection Paul made between Christ’s burial in the earth and our burial in the water was so powerful in the minds of early believers that Holy Saturday, the eve of Christ’s resurrection, became the most appropriate day for baptism in both East and West. Those baptized on this day would share in the Eucharist for the first time on Pascha, the “Feast of Feasts” and celebrate their new life in the days that followed. To this day the Scriptures we read at the Divine Liturgy on this Sunday reflect on various aspects of the mystery of baptism. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we saw the jailer and his family baptized after experiencing the power of God and hearing the word of the Lord. In the Gospel we see the Lord approach a blind man at the Pool of Siloam – water again – and healing him. The Lord anoints him and he is able to see for the first time in his life. More than that, he sees with the eyes of his soul and confesses his faith in Christ. Countless people today are familiar with a similar image from the eighteenth-century hymn, Amazing Grace, where the new believer proclaims “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” These readings taken together suggest a pattern that has been followed throughout the centuries. People have heard the word of God, then been baptized, and anointed (chrismated), when they came to faith in Him.

Sight and Light

In the Middle East Holy Saturday is still the most popular day for baptisms. Christians of all traditions call this day sabt al-noor, the Saturday of Light, from another early image of baptism. Very early in the Church’s life baptism came to be called Holy Illumination. The term is used by St Justin the Philosopher in Rome and St Clement of Alexandria in the second century to say that when we come to know God, then we are able to see clearly. Like the man once blind, we are delivered from darkness and, most particularly, we are able to see the divine plan. Our “spiritual eye becomes full of light” and we can recognize the hand of God at work among us. At a baptism our radiant new nature is represented by the shining white garments the newly baptized puts on while we sing, “Give me a robe of light, O You who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment, O most merciful Christ our God.” We find the same image described beautifully in Agathangelos’ description of the baptism of the first Armenian Christians in the fourth century: “They went forth in great joy, in white garments, with psalms and blessings and lighted lamps and burning candles and blazing torches, with great rejoicing and happiness, illuminated and become like the angels.” For the same reason the Church describes the Feast of the Theophany, the remembrance of Christ’s baptism, as the Feast of Light. As we say in Kondakion for the feast, actually the first verse of St. Romanos’ Kondakion on the Life of Christ: Today you have appeared to the inhabited world, and your light, O Lord, has been signed upon us, who, with knowledge, sing your praise, ‘You have come, You have appeared, the unapproachable Light.’ The Gospels say that, at Christ’s baptism, the heavens were opened, which the Fathers assumed to mean that the mystery of the Trinity was revealed. Christ is the Light who enables us to see by revealing the mystery of God and His plan for our regeneration to the world. Clement of Alexandria also speaks of this light as being “signed” upon us. He describes this sign as a “seal,” a mark of belonging – in this case, to Christ. At our chrismation, the completion of our baptism, we receive this “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” who affirms that we belong to the Lord. We are His, and He is ours, as a pledge of the life that awaits us in glory.

Our Call to Respond

In the passage from Romans quoted above, St Paul makes another connection. As we have seen, he links baptism in water with Christ’s burial; he also relates Christ’s risen life to the way the baptized should live here and now. We can live a ‘resurrection life’ by following the Scriptural precepts that characterize the new life for believers. Later in the epistle St Paul expresses it this way, “…present your bodies a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. And do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:1,2). The first verse concerns our actions. Where in the Old Covenant people would offer animals, grain or other offerings in the temple, we the baptized are told to offer all our faculties as our act of worship. “Turn this body in which you are clothed into a censer…” we read in the letters of St Anthony the Great. There is nothing that we have or that we are which is not meant to be given over to God. We are called to commend “ourselves, one another and our whole life to Christ God.” Sometimes this “spiritual worship” is a matter of giving things up, as during the Fasts. At other times, such as during this festive season, it may be a matter of sharing the things that we enjoy with others in acts of hospitality. In either case we are called to see all our actions as oblations, like the prosphora, the candles or the incense we give over completely to God in church. The second verse is concerned with our attitudes. We are urged to avoid thinking like people who do not know God: to avoid thinking that the purpose of life is acquiring more and more of the world’s goods or respect. If our values are formed by the commercials we see on TV or the lifestyles promoted there, then we are conforming to this world. After all, sitcoms or reality shows never feature people who serve others, do they? If we accept the social engineers’ idea that other people – even our own older relatives or unborn children – are an inconvenience to be put aside, then we are conforming to this world. If we endorse the concerns of special interest groups rather than the values of the Gospel, then we are conforming to this world. We have been given a new life; we need to develop a new mind as well.
From the Pentecostarion
I have lost the very eyes of my soul, wherefore I come to You, O Christ, as did the man who had been blind from birth, and I cry out to You with repentance: “To those who stumble in darkness, You are a radiant and resplendent light.”
O Sun of Justice, Christ our God, by Your pure touch You filled completely with light the man held in darkness from his mother’s womb. Enlighten the eyes of our souls as well, making us children of light and of the day, that we may cry out to You with faith: “Great and wondrous is Your mercy toward us, O Lord, Lover of Mankind: glory to You!”
Who can speak of Your sovereign power, O Christ? Who can count the multitude of Your wonders? As You were seen in two natures on earth, so did You grant a double healing to the sick: You healed the eyes of the soul of the man born blind as well as his bodily eyes, so that he could see You. And he confessed that You are a hidden God, granting great mercy to the world!

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