A few years ago, the Community of Jesus published a little book, Sacred Seeing: Praying with the Frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration. As we approached the New Year, it seemed like a good opportunity to share this simple guide to praying with the art here in the church, especially for those of you who aren’t able to come and see it for yourselves. Over the next several weeks, we will be sharing the meditations from the book. We hope that it helps to enrich your prayer life in 2017!
Healing the Man Born Blind
Spend a few moments looking at the fresco image.
What immediately strikes you when you look at this image?
How would you describe what is happening?
Read the Scripture: 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.
Some thoughts and questions to ponder
The fresco depicts the moment when Jesus anointed the eyes of the man born blind. In some other miracles of healing, Jesus simply spoke and the healing took place. Why did he use clay (mud, really) in this case, made from his own saliva and the dirt on the ground?
Even after he was anointed by Jesus, the man could not yet see. What do you think is the significance of his going and washing in the pool of Siloam?
How does this fresco depict Jesus as “the light of the world”? (John 9:5)
In addition to Jesus and the blind man, two other sets of figures appear in the fresco — in the foreground are four close witnesses to the miracle, while in the background there is another group gathered just inside the city gate. What is the difference between these two groups? What do you think is happening? Which group are you in?
Imagine for a moment what might be going on in the minds of the four “witnesses.” If they were to start speaking to one another, what would they be saying?
If you look carefully, you can see that the city street is strewn with rocks. Do you think that there is a reason why the artist included these in the image? What might it be?
Jesus, you said that this man’s blindness had nothing to do with either his own sin or his parents’ sin. His disability was no one’s “fault.” Instead, his suffering was always meant to be redemptive, to be the occasion when God’s work could be revealed. (One can almost imagine your speaking as you pressed clay into his eyes: “Let there be light.”) Given my propensity for placing blame — on others, on myself, even on God — this is a strange thought. I ask about causes — “How did this happen?” — and you speak of purposes —”I make all things new.” Is it possible that the deepest purpose of this man’s life was contained in these extraordinary moments with you? And where do I best find the purpose of my life? Much as I would like to find it in the “strong” moments of success or accomplishment, I think that it appears clearest in the things that bring me to my knees before you, and in the things that bring your healing touch to my life.
You said at the beginning: “Let there be light,”
and the darkness fled.
Remake my bind eyes, Lord,
so that I may come to see things as you see them,
so that each of my blind spots
may be the occasion for your wondrous work to be done,
again and again.
A Word from the Tradition
The reason for Jesus’ mixing clay with the saliva and smearing it on the eyes of the blind man was to remind you that he who restored the man to health by anointing his eyes with clay is the very one who fashioned the first man out of clay, and this this clay that is our flesh can receive the light of eternal life through baptism. You, too, should come to Siloam, that is, to him who was sent by the Father…. Let Christ wash you, and then you will see.
— Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397)
Image: ©2005 Healing the Man Born Blind by Silvestro Pistolesi at the Church of the Transfiguration