28 Oct – Blinding light
I was headed south on the Tuggeranong Parkway on Wednesday, just exiting onto Lady Denman drive, one of my favourite bits of road in Canberra, and half listening to the radio when I heard the phrase, ‘blinding light’. It was Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews promising, if re-elected, to hold a Royal Commission into mental health, and saying something like, “this will bring mental health out of the darkness and into the blinding light.”
But the phrase ‘blinding light’ bothered me. Was that really what he meant to say? What is the point of a blinding light? If the light is so bright it blinds its viewers, doesn’t that defeat the purpose? What we need is light that makes things clear; that makes things blindingly obvious. Aha! So ‘blinding’ can refer to brightness or emphasise the clarity or obviousness of something. So, perhaps Daniel Andrews really did mean a ‘blinding light’.
And there may be a biblical allusion in this phrase too; for how is the apostle Paul made to ‘see’ when he is ‘blind’? One minute he is breathing out threats and murder against the Christian believers and the next a blinding light, a ‘light from heaven’ flashes around him. He sees the light but is made blind in the process. It is three days later that his sight is restored.
And where is Paul when this happens? Bible Quiz question? ______ (on the Damascus Road) And so we call a blinding light or revelation or enlightenment a ________ experience.
And so, our reading this morning from Mark’s gospel is not a straight forward healing story, but a story about being blind and eyes being opened – not only the eyes of Bartimaeus – but also the eyes of the disciples. The road leaving Jericho is their Damascus road and their Damascus road experience; for here on the road leaving Jericho and in the restoring of Bartimaeus’ sight, it is revealed that this is also the road to Jerusalem, the way of discipleship, the way of the cross.
Our reading marks the end of a section of material in Mark’s gospel that begins in chapter 8 with the partial, and then full, healing of another blind man. There Jesus puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays hands on him, but he reports that he can see people, but they “look like trees walking”. “Then [verse 25] Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently, and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” In the material in between Jesus tells his disciples three times that as the Son of Man he will suffer and be rejected (8:31; 9:31; 10:33) and die, and three times they fail to understand. It is like the disciples are blind. They are struggling to see. They are like the man who sees people, but they look like trees walking! And then, finally, here on the road leaving Jericho, what it means to be a disciple is made blindingly clear to them.
Did you notice in the painting by Bulgarian artist Julia Stankova that both Jesus and Bartimaeus have their eyes closed and wear a similar expression? There is a visible likeness, an affinity, between them. And that the disciples, the ones who have their eyes open, are the ones looking here and there, looking lost and confused?
For Bartimaeus, even though he is blind, even though he is a beggar shunted to the side of the road, when he hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth, shouts out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This nobody, hails Jesus as a Davidic king– as he will be hailed again as he enters Jerusalem and where he will be crucified king of the Jews. And the crowd around Bartimaeus don’t just shush him, they tell him to shut up. Are they offended that he is a beggar? Are they offended by what he is saying? Are they offended by both? That someone from the margins is speaking theology into the centre of their lives?
But Bartimaeus only shouts louder. And Jesus – as the painting reveals – is still and calls him. In one verse we have the language of call three times! “Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” And Bartimaeus responds. He throws off his cloak, another sign of his commitment to discipleship, and comes and Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” On the heels of the passage before, of the request of James and John to sit in the positions of honour either side on Jesus, this is a telling question, but Bartimaeus asks for his deepest desire, for the deepest desire of every true disciple, “Let me see again.” And Jesus acknowledges his faith, “Go, your faith has made you well.” But Bartimaeus, does not go. He regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way.
Bartimaeus shines a blinding light on what it means to be a disciple. He recognises who Jesus is. He calls to Jesus in the words that are enshrined in Christian practice and liturgy, “Lord, have mercy on me, Kyrie elesion,” and Jesus calls to him. He throws aside his possessions and protection, all that would hold him back. He asks for new or renewed sight. And, with no hesitation, he takes the path of discipleship.
Oh, to have the vision of Bartimaeus! To see our path and purpose with such blinding clarity! I don’t know about you, but I see myself much more in the behaviour of the visually spiritually impaired disciples: hearing Jesus say he must suffer and be rejected, and even die, and trying to help him reframe that future; focusing on other things – like who is greatest disciple; or starting to picture who will sit at his right and left in his glory.
There is a wonderful book called Space and Sight written by Marius von Senden in which he catalogues the case histories of the first people to receive safe cataract operations, men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth.
The first impressions of the newly sighted, he writes, is that the world is a dazzle of colour-patches, and they are pleased by the sensation of colour, and learn quickly to name the colours. One girl rushed to tell a blind friend – echoing Mark chapter 8 – “Men do not really look like trees at all!” Another, on seeing an actual tree for the first time, stood speechless, and could only name the tree after laying hold of it and then called it, “the tree with lights on it” A twenty-two-year-old girl was so dazzled by the brightness, that she kept her eyes shut for two weeks. Then, when she opened them, she could not recognise anything, but, looking around her, von Sendon writes, with “an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; …repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’”
For almost all the patients, however, it took much longer to understand form and shape. Before the operations the doctor would routinely give them a cube and a sphere, and they would tongue it or feel it and name it correctly, but after the operations, without being able to touch the objects, they had no idea what they were looking at. One little girl called Joan, looking at photographs and paintings, said to her mother, “Why do they put those dark marks all over them?” “Those aren’t dark marks,” her mother said, “those have shape. If it were not for shadows many things would look flat.” “But that’s exactly how things do look!” said Joan. “Everything looks flat with dark patches.”
Understanding perspective and depth of field was also difficult. One man tried to gauge distance by taking off his boots and throwing them across the room. He would then take a few steps in the direction of the boots and try to grasp them, and on failing to do so, would take another few steps and grope, until he finally got hold of them.
But for many of these people the blinding light they could suddenly see was too much. One father who had hoped so much for his daughter from the operation wrote to the doctor that his daughter “carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.” Another young boy, who had left behind his girl-friend in the asylum for the blind, finally blurted out, “No, really, I can’t stand it anymore; I want to be sent back to the asylum again. If things aren’t altered, I’ll tear my eyes out.”
Wanting to tear out your eyes because the gift of vision is too much! Walking around the house with your eyes tightly closed even though you can see! Can you imagine it?
And yet perhaps we can. Perhaps staring down the path of discipleship, seeing the ways we are called to face the suffering, to share the suffering, to experience the rejection that many experience, to die to ourselves; we might prefer to keep our eyes shut. Perhaps when faced by the blinding light of God’s holiness, God’s love and justice, God’s passionate response to the spiritual and physical and mental suffering of our world; we might wish to tear our eyes out.
On the homepage of her website, the artist Julia Stankova includes a quote from another artist, Otto Dix. It says: The passion of the Christ, you can be told about in the Bible. But, nevertheless, you have to experience it yourself. Seeing for yourself, experiencing things on your own… being crucified yourself, is what counts… otherwise you are a theorist, a stupid theorist.
Are we just theorists, or are we prepared to see God’s passion for ourselves, to experience it for ourselves…and if our eyes take some time to adjust to the blinding light are we prepared to open our eyes, to open our eyes to see God’s beauty and experience God’s pain? Are we prepared to keep looking and keep training our vision until we see the shape and shadow and form of God’s kingdom clearly? Are we prepared to keep stepping out and stepping out and reaching out to discover the limitless depth of God’s love?
God calls to us. As we respond to that call, let us pray, with Bartimaeus, and with all Jesus’s disciples, ‘Open our eyes that we might see’/’Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.’