THE THREE LESSONS OF FAITH
MARCH 19, MARCH 26, APRIL 2
The present order of the Mass, including the Lectionary, was arranged at about the same time as the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. In the revised format of the sacraments, Baptism of Adults, and minors of the age of reason, takes place at the Easter Vigil after a year of preparation known as the catechumenate. The three Sundays prior to Holy Week/Palm Sunday are dedicated to the “scrutinies,” the final public examination of the candidates before the solemn observance of the Last Supper, Passion, and Resurrection of the Lord.
For these three “scrutiny Sundays” the Church has designated three lengthy and profound texts from the Gospel of John. Next week features John 4: 5-42, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The Fourth Sunday of Lent proclaims John 9: 1-41, Jesus’ healing of the man born blind; the Fifth Sunday features John 11: 1-45, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Each of these texts begins with an incident (an encounter at Jacob’s well, Jesus restoring a blind man’s sight, the death of Lazarus.) Each narrative follows a pattern of originating in confusion and ending in the light of full revelation of truth. All three episodes occur in daylight; the sun, or sunlight, is a metaphor for God’s revelation. By contrast, Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night; Judas, singled out as the traitor at the Last Supper, leaves the table “at night.” The position of the sun is a peculiar characteristic of St. John.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well brings to a climax the revelation that Jesus’ work of redemption is universal. Relations between Jews and Samaritans were not good; there was some element of risk for Jews to wander about in Samaria. The woman herself emphasizes the differences, telling Jesus that “our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [Gerizim]; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus’ reply, "Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” was probably disconcerting in a radical sort of way, both to the woman and to Jewish leaders who probably had a good idea of what Jesus preaching.
This Gospel is included in the scrutinies because it is a case study in the gradual opening eyes of faith. The titles alone are instructive. In the opening scene, the woman addresses Jesus with the colloquialism of “hey you there.” The more Jesus speaks to her, her tone improves to “sir” to “prophet” to “Messiah” to “the Christ” to finally “the savior of the world.” Another reason for the inclusion of this text on Sunday are the numerous references to water: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Clearly a Baptism/sacramental motif is at play here.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent is rich in themes, beginning with the disciples’ original question, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?," reflecting a popular view of evil and guilt in that day. But again, drawing on the metaphor of sun and light, Jesus relies that "neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
The blind man’s healing is a story of two entities heading in opposite directions. The man born blind, now healed, comes to greater understanding of Jesus throughout the day, much like the Samaritan woman. His courage—one might say his swagger—improves throughout the day until, after his expulsion from the temple, he seeks out Jesus to make a full confession of faith: " ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him.”
The healed man’s faith was costly in one sense, because of the opposition of Jewish leaders to Jesus, specifically for performing a healing on the Sabbath. Things had come to a sad point where the wonder of a charitable work—a miraculous healing, no less—was condemned on the shaky grounds that the holy day had been violated. Jesus had indicated to the Samaritan woman that a day was coming when God would be worshipped universally in Spirit and truth; the stagnant parochialism of his own contemporary Jewish worship did not escape Jesus’ notice or wrath. In this narrative, the more that is learned by Jewish leaders about the event of the healing, and the more that the healed man hailed Jesus to the point of ridiculing temple leaders for their theological density, the hearts of the priests were hardened to the point that they expelled a fellow son of Israel from the holy place.
The third Gospel sequence is the raising of Lazarus. This miracle occurs in the context of intense anger directed toward Jesus, as we saw in the preceding text of the man born blind. The disciples, in fact, upon learning of Lazarus’ death, are afraid of the danger of high visibility of Jesus around Jerusalem (and, it goes without saying, fearful for their own skins.) "Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?" Jesus returns to the theme of light and the urgency to act now despite the dangers. "Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him."
The theological thrust of this Gospel text is trust that belief in Jesus is the key to eternal life. The characters in this story—Martha and Mary in particular--are not unbelievers, but like many of their time they believe in an apocalyptic glory after death, not the guarantee of life in the here and now. The key passage is Martha’s exchange with Jesus regarding her brother’s future. Martha said to him, "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world."
Jesus, then, is the Lord of life in the here and now, and he demonstrates this by raising Lazarus from the dead. It is worth noting that John further emphasizes the power of Jesus over death with an often-missed parallel detail. Lazarus comes out of the tomb bound and tied by the burial cloths; by contrast, on Easter Sunday, when Peter and John look into Jesus’ tomb, the burial cloths are neatly folded and stored.
The raising of Lazarus is the final public act in Jesus’ ministry in the narrative of St. John. This Gospel proceeds to the “Book of Glory” which includes the Last Supper Discourse, The Pasion, and the Resurrection. Liturgically speaking, the Church assigns in the A Cycle the reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew to Palm Sunday on April 9, and the next Sunday Gospel blog post at the Café will go up on Tuesday, April 4.