You have by now probably read many great commentaries and reflections on today’s Gospel. I want to share one by Kathy Coffey, which I came across several years ago. It’s a bit long for a blog post, so I hope you will bear with me.
In the story of the man born blind (John 9:1-41), only Jesus is named. Neither the blind man and his parents nor the temple leaders have individual names. In Hidden Women of the Gospels (Orbis Books, 2003), Kathy Coffey gives names to the characters in the story and tells the story from the perspective of the mother. Ever since reading Coffey’s book, whenever I give retreats, I try to tell Gospel stories from the perspective of one of the women (named and unnamed) in the story.
As you read today’s Gospel (John 9:1-41) focus on Jesus, Samuel (the man born blind), Rebecca (his mother), and Saul (his father). Try to imagine the scene: Who is there? Where are they? Who talks to whom? From whose point of view is the story being told? How is each person transformed by encountering Jesus? Are the Pharisees transformed? Why or why not?
Now, imagine if Rebecca (the mother of the man born blind) were telling the story. What kind of details might she include? Think of her relationship with her son Samuel. Does Rebecca have a relationship with Jesus before or after this healing? How is Rebecca herself cured of “blindness”?
Rebecca’s Story – created by Kathy Coffey in Hidden Women of the Gospels (Orbis Books, 2003)
I have memories of my son: Sammy’s jutting chin, leading him on sheer instinct because he lacked the sight of other children . . . his hands always seeking, waving before him, like tendrils, frail and thin, his sensors . . . other children jeering at him as he bumbled into doors and trees . . . his collapse into bed at night when the whole futile attempt to keep up became too much, even for his plucky spirit . . . his sarcasm developing in adolescence, painfully like my own, the only weapon of the unarmed person.
One day his wit served him well. He’d met a long series of bullies, so he recognized the Sanhedrin and knew how to stand up to them. They thought him stupid because his blindness reduced him to beggary. How he slashed through their deceptions and uncovered the holes in their arguments! How deftly he punctured their smug assumptions and poked the bubble of their entrenched ideas!
Stubbornly, he stuck to the truth in his story, so they couldn’t budge him. “He can speak for himself,” his father had said. Such hard-won understanding squeezed into five words! Over and over, I had to learn that lesson, suppressing my instinct to protect Sammy, stifling pity, saying not to him as directly as I would to any sighted child, pushing him to independence. And the miracle was, he could speak for himself: eloquent and bold, even when put through a grilling that would have intimidated trained orators.
Of course, there’s more to the story than what got recorded. I still remember, after the crowds went away and we were no longer the day’s distraction, his delight in what he’d suddenly seen. In his just-opened eyes, everything took on the sheen of spring. I’ll always remember the awe as he told me, “Finally, I can see your face!”
That brought tears to my eyes, but there was more. Since the day he was born, I’d wondered. The rabbis taught that God created everything, and God is just. If God could create such an affliction, there must be a reason. I knew that the baby, smelling sweet from his bath, had not sinned. Then the sin must be in me. The cruel words of the religious leaders only confirmed the condemnation I’d carried in my heart: “You were born totally in sin.” (John 9:34) What had I done to submerge an innocent child in an endless night? How had I caused the light to die in his eyes? Oh, I’d done plenty of things wrong: that wasn’t what puzzled me. It was more a question of which sin? How I detested the evil in me that could spread like a stain over him.
It gnawed at me even as the cure unfolded. Samuel’s experience so tightly knit with mine, I started to wonder: why had I taught him to be outspoken, then let my husband speak for me? Of course, it was custom; no woman ever spoke for herself. My husband was desperately trying to protect our spot in the synagogue. If we were thrown out, we couldn’t endure it! After years of hearing the undertones, the nasty whispers circulating about our sin, how could we toss aside what little security we had seized?
Here’s the strange thing: I was starting not to care. Even as Samuel blinked, as his watery eyes dilated and focused, I was starting to see through what I’d held most sacred. Had I been blinded by the beauty of our ritual? lulled by our chanted song? I had always worshiped in the tradition of my parents and grandparents, but was it partly sham? Could a broader vision include my son and all the others banished from the temple’s inner courts, the pitiful fringe begging outside? I had never known that the light in someone’s eyes could have such force. He freed me from caring what other people think, from placating the synagogue crowd.
This Jesus had not, like the arrogant authorities, peremptorily summoned Samuel. Jesus had sought him out. My son cherished their moment together: I could tell by all the details in his story and the excitement in his voice. Samuel told me, “All of a sudden, I knew why my sight was restored. Even if I plummeted back into blackness, I’d had this recognition. I’d looked into his face. That memory burns so bright, I could almost live with blindness again.”
I saw the world through my son’s eyes then, newly washed as from rain, glinting in the sun, almost too beautiful to bear. I too had fresh vision. Guilt had slipped off my shoulders just as scales had fallen from his eyes. I walked as if a cave once dark within me were flooded with all the world’s light.