First light

Many of you have seen the clip of the 10-year-old Iowa boy standing in the backyard with his dad standing right behind him, telling him to open his eyes.[1] The boy is wearing glasses that look like sun glasses. You watch him slowly turn his face and gaze across the yard and then he starts to cry; he quickly turns and hugs his dad, burying his face in his dad’s chest, clearly overwhelmed by the experience.

Cayson Irlbeck was born colorblind, and his parents hoped that the special glasses might help him see a fuller spectrum of color. Cayson didn’t see a difference between red and green, no matter how hard his friends tried to explain that a fire engine didn’t blend in with the trees and the grass at the park. Cayson and his friends looked at the same world, but they saw and lived in very different ones. Cayson told reporters, “I just didn’t really understand what people that aren’t colorblind actually saw, and that day was amazing.”

Annie Dillard once spent a full three minutes staring at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large she couldn’t see it even though a dozen people were shouting directions. Finally she asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.” When at last she picked out the frog, she saw what painters are up against: the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.[2] Even when we look at the same things, we don’t see the same things.

Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. “Yes,” said Rabbi Elimelekh, “in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things anymore.”[3]

What did he mean? I wonder. Did he regret that he no longer saw angels like he used to when he was young? Or did he downplay that kind of vision to subtly chastise the younger rabbi for boasting about it?

The way we look at things, the way we perceive the world and name the things we see changes throughout the seasons of life. When we are little, we begin to know the world with immediacy and wonder, by simply participating with all our senses in the miracle of every moment. The older we get and the more we know about the world, the more difficult it becomes for us to maintain that earlier, and often happier, way of knowing things and people and ourselves.

The Scripture readings for this Sunday invite us to reflect on seeing and blindness, on having one’s eyes opened and suddenly seeing in new ways, on how what we know shapes what we see and what we see shapes what we know. We have written words on the windows, painting the light of Scripture onto the glass through which sunlight pours into this sanctuary; we have written words on the windows to visualize how Scripture invites us to perceive the world in the light of God’s love and God’s righteousness. We considered painting the whole surface of the windows and using wet sponges to write by washing away the paint on the glass one letter at a time, G – R – A – C – E, every letter showing how God opens our eyes to see the world in the new light of Christ, the first light of creation. Like I said, we considered painting over the entire window, but we had a wedding here last night, and painting the windows was not an option; so we decided to go with plan B, using paint and brushes to write on the glass. If at any moment this morning you feel moved to add a word or a phrase to what is already written on the windows, go ahead and do so. There are plenty of brushes and small cups of paint on every window sill. Doing graffiti is part of our prayers, part of our response to the word of God, part of our worship.

Annie Dillard chanced upon a book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight, in which he reviewed 66 early cases of patients who underwent cataract operations. When Western surgeons discovered how to safely perform these operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth and documenting their cases. One doctor, before the operation, would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would use his tongue or his hands to feel it, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing. “The mental effort involved [in learning to see] proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable.” The doctor writes about a twenty-one-year-old woman, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote 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 woman was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘O God! How beautiful!’”[4]

Jesus opened the eyes of a man blind from birth. He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” The man went and washed and came back able to see. We’re not told if he was happy or if he felt overwhelmed. His neighbors certainly didn’t know what to do with him anymore. Nobody shouted upon his return, “Will you look at this? It’s Frank; he can see! Praise the Lord!” Nobody asked him, “What’s it like to suddenly see? Does it hurt?” Instead they talked amongst themselves, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” They remembered a man who occupied a place on the margins of their world. They remembered a man who walked with tentative movements with his hands up in front of him. It was like they wanted to explain him away, because he no longer fit into their world. “Oh, that’s not him, he just looks like him,” some of them said. And he kept saying, “I am the man.” But the questions didn’t end. How were your eyes opened? Where is the man you say has done this? What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?

He was on his own under this barrage of questioning. Jesus healed him and then disappeared. Like any of us who live between Christ’s coming and his coming again the man had to make his own sense out of what had happened to him and decide what he would say about it.[5] His answers were timid one-liners at first. “I am the man,” he said. “I do not know,” he said. “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” But as the questions went on, the man grew both in eloquence and in courage, finally answering the Jewish leadership with a teaching of his own: “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” At the beginning he spoke of his healer simply as “the man called Jesus,” then he called him a prophet, then a man from God. It was as though his vision kept on improving, so that he saw more and more clearly who Jesus was.

But nothing he said could make his opponents see what he saw. “We know that this man is a sinner,” the leaders affirmed with rock-solid conviction. They were sure that they knew all there was to know and saw all there was to see, and they didn’t risk having their familiar patterns of thought and perception opened up by the man’s testimony. They drove him out. They had no room for experiences and insights that didn’t mesh with their views of God and the worldand we know all too well what that’s like, don’t we?

At the end of the chapter Jesus enters the scene again and he finds the man. And now the man sees with even greater clarity who Jesus is and he worships him. Seeing, according to the gospel of John, is not just a matter of eyesight or habits of thought. Seeing is comprehending who Jesus is, recognizing the presence of God in Jesus, and beginning to perceive all thingsthe world, our neighbors and ourselvesthrough Jesus who is the light of the world.

We can’t force this kind of seeing, neither in ourselves nor in others. We grope like the blind along a wall, for all we know, groping like those who have no eyes.[6] But Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[7] That’s a promise I trust.



[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Perennial, 1985): 18.

[3] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, p. 125; quoted by Phillip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater, p. 402 and by Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 32.

[4] Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 25-29.

[5] See Barbara Brown Taylor, “Willing to believe.” The Christian Century 113, no. 8 (March 6, 1996): 259.

[6] See Isaiah 59:10

[7] John 8:12

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