Blind from Birth

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A

[The man born blind] replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.”
–John 9:11–

In the eighth chapter of Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jesus heals a blind man of Bethsaida. At one point during the cure, which takes place in stages, the blind man says, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” Obviously this individual had once had vision before becoming blind. How else could he know what trees look like? How else could he know how people appear when walking? Here we have a case of restored vision rather than vision initially bestowed. It is clear that Jesus is giving sight to a man who knows what it is to see.

However, today in our Gospel from the ninth chapter of John, we have a man who was born blind and suddenly receives his eyesight. Imagine how surprising that must have been for him. One of the administrators at Bethlehem Catholic High School told me that, after months of seeing students with facemasks, she was amazed to discover that, once the masks were no longer required, the kids looked quite different from the way she had imagined them. Maybe you’ve had an experience like this: When I was in college, I would regularly listen to the voice of Kathy Craine on WFMZ Radio. Years later, when I finally saw Kathy on WFMZ TV, I was shocked when I discovered she didn’t look a thing like the person I had pictured in my mind. No doubt about it: newly acquired vision brings surprises.

Furthermore—and this is key—suddenly functional eyes in people blind from birth bring with them additional problems as well as opportunities. You see, the brain’s neocortex in individuals born blind is very different from that of people who have always had good eyesight. In the case of people blind from birth, the portion of the neocortex normally devoted to vision is, because of the brain’s elasticity, largely given over to processing tactile information. That means a person who suddenly acquires eyesight for the first time must begin to interpret the world in an entirely new way. This change in processing information has been compared to learning a new language. My optometrist friend Dr. Howard Bookbinder says, “Imagine you wake up and everyone around you spoke only Klingon.”
Not surprisingly, people who suddenly receive their eyesight for the first time initially have difficulty with spatial orientation. Distinguishing people from objects, discerning shapes, patterns, and contrasts, and figuring out where one thing begins and another ends may be quite challenging. Facial recognition is at first difficult. Objects receding in the distance may simply appear to be growing smaller. Interpreting two-dimensional drawings and paintings is all but impossible. The degree to which normal vision can be attained seems to depend on a number of factors but never reaches standard levels in all areas. Some individuals find the transition from darkness to light so daunting that they fall into depression. The bottom line is that eyesight acquired by people who have never had it before is not only surprising; it’s downright challenging and requires an entirely new way of interpreting life.

But wait a minute. When you get right down to it, isn’t that what true conversion is like? Once we allow Christ into our lives, we’re not only surprised by the things we learn. We’re forced to see reality in an entirely new way—to view the world with Jesus glasses, so to speak. The moment I put on these Jesus glasses, the universe undergoes a shocking spatial and philosophical paradigm shift. I am no longer the center of all things. God is. Other human beings are no longer means to my ends. They are ends in and of themselves, infinitely precious because they are loved by God. Freedom no longer means doing what I want but freely doing the will of God. Sexual union is no longer a means of entertainment and manipulation but a loving means whereby children are brought into the world. Death is no longer the termination of all my hopes and dreams. It is, instead, a new beginning wherein “life is changed not ended.” Saint Paul puts it this way: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”
In point of fact, Jesus has come to open our eyes to the truth. Why? Because, due to original sin, we are all born blind.