Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Man Born Blind in the Liturgy of Lent

From very ancient times, the Church has read the Gospel of the Man Born Blind, John 9, 1-38, as a symbol of the rituals of baptism. Christ anointed the blind man’s eyes with mud made of His saliva, and then told him to wash in the pool of Siloam; this was naturally associated with the ritual by which the catechumens were anointed before the washing of their sins in the baptismal font. St Augustine makes this comparison in the Breviary sermon on this Gospel, from his Treatises on the Gospel of John:
He was anointed, and he did not yet see. (Christ) sent him to the Pool, which is called Siloam. It was the Evangelist’s duty to commend to us the name of this pool, and he said ‘which means Sent.’ … (The blind man) therefore washed his eyes in that pool, whose name means Sent; he was baptized in Christ. If therefore, (Christ) illuminated him, when in some way He baptized him in Himself, when He anointed him, He made him perhaps a catechumen.
The Healing of the Blind Man, represented on a Christian sarcophagus known as the Sarcophagus of the Two Brothers, ca. 335; Vatican Museums, Pio-Christian Collection.
In the Roman Rite, this Gospel is traditionally read on the Wednesday after the Fourth Sunday of Lent, the day on which the catechumens were once prepared for baptism by various rituals, such as the sign of the cross made upon their foreheads, the placing of blessed salt on their tongues, and various prayers said with the imposition of the clergy’s hands upon their heads. The whole of the Mass, one of the most beautiful of the Lenten season, refers to this baptismal preparation.

The Introit is taken from the first of the two prophetic readings, Ezechiel 36, 23-28: “When I shall be sanctified in you, I will gather you together out of all the lands, and I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness, and I will give you a new spirit.” The last part of this, “I will give you a new spirit”, refers to the conferral of Confirmation along with Baptism, according to the ancient custom. (This same Introit was later added the private Masses of the Vigil of Pentecost, a reminder of the true, baptismal character of the day.)

The first gradual, “Come, children, hearken to me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Come ye to him and be enlightened…”, the second prophetic reading, Isaiah 1, 16-19, “Wash yourselves, be clean, … if your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow”, and the second gradual, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord: the people whom he hath chosen for his inheritance”, all continue this baptismal theme.

The station church for this Mass is the basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls, where the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles rests under the main altar; this was chosen as the place to read this Gospel, of course, because Paul was blinded by the vision on the road to Damascus, and healed at the time of his baptism, by an imposition of hands. In ancient times, Rome was a city populated by every nation of the Empire; the neighborhood closest to the basilica of St Paul, now called “Trastevere” in Italian, “the region across the Tiber”, was the foreigners’ quarter in antiquity. From the very beginning, the Church had always been concerned to assert that Christ came to the Jewish people, to whom the promises of mankind’s redemption were made, but as the Saviour and Redeemer of all nations; St Paul’s tomb was therefore the ideal place to prepare the catechumens for baptism, in which He gathers His people from all nations, as the prophets foretold.

The Paschal candlestick of Saint Paul’s Outside-the-Walls, carved in the 13th century, and still used today. Image from Wikimedia Commons
The Church Fathers also understood the blind man more generally as a figure who represents the condition of Man before the coming of Christ. The same passage of the Breviary from St Augustine cited above says earlier on, “If therefore we consider the meaning of what was done, this blind man is the human race. For this blindness happened in the first man through sin, from which we all draw the origin not only of death, but also of iniquity.” Likewise, in Sermon 135 against the Arians, Augustine says, “… the whole world is blind. Therefore Christ came to illuminate, since the devil had blinded us. He who deceived the first man caused all men to be born blind.”

This broader interpretation is implied in the Roman Rite’s association of the story with the Sacrament of Baptism, which the Fathers often refer to as “illumination”. It is made more explicit, however, in the Ambrosian Rite, in which the Fourth Sunday of Lent is “the Sunday of the Man Born Blind.” The Ingressa of this Mass has the same text as the Introit of Septuagesima in the Roman Rite: “The groans of death have surrounded me, the pains of death have surrounded me, and in my tribulation I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice from His holy temple.” The groans and pains of death here represent the condition of the fallen human race, whose condition is that of the blind man, but the prayers of man longing for redemption are heard by God “from His holy temple”, referring to the very last words of the preceding chapter, “But Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.” The second half of this chapter, John 8, 31-59, is read on the previous Sunday, called the Sunday of Abraham; the Mozarabic liturgy reads this Gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent, with the opening words “At that time, when our Lord Jesus Christ went out from the temple, He saw a man that was blind from birth.”

The two readings before the Gospel (Exodus 34, 23 – 35, 1, and 1 Thessalonians 4, 1-11) have no obvious connection to it, but the Psalmellus and Cantus (Gradual and Tract) certainly do. The first is taken from Psalm 40, “I said: O Lord, be Thou merciful to me: heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee,” the second from Psalm 120, “I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me. My help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The Antiphon after the Gospel declares the mission of the Messiah in the words of the Prophet Isaiah (61, 1), words of which Christ declared Himself the fulfilment at the synagogue of Capharnaum (Luke 4, 14-22): “I was sent to heal the contrite of heart, to preach release to the captives, and restore light to the blind”. These two ideas are then admirably summed up by the preface of this Mass.
Truly it is fitting and just, right and profitable to salvation, that we should render Thee thanks, o Lord, that abidest in the height of Heaven, and confess Thee with all our senses. For through Thee, the blindness of the world being wiped away, hath shined upon the feeble the true light; which, among the miracles of Thy many wondrous deeds, Thou didst command one blind from birth to see. In him the human race, stained by original darkness, was represented by the form of what would come thereafter. For that pool of Siloam, to which the blind man was sent, was marked as none other than the sacred font; where not only the lights of the body, but the whole man was saved. Through Christ our Lord.
In this video, the preface is sung in Latin according to the traditional melody, but with the text modified for the new rite.
In the Ambrosian Rite, on each Saturday of Lent the Gospel refers to a part of the ritual preparation of the catechumens for baptism. The Gospel of the Saturday preceding the blind man is Mark 6, 6-13, which ends with the words “And they (the Apostles) cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.” The following Saturday, the Gospel is Matthew 19, 13-15, which refers to the impositions of hands upon the catechumens, “Then were little children presented to Him, that He should impose hands upon them and pray. And the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said to them: Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such. And when He had imposed hands upon them, he departed from thence.” The seventh Ordo Romanus describes the ritual in detail as it was done in the sixth-century, including the preparation of infants for baptism, a practice to which the liturgical tradition of both the Roman and Ambrosian Rites bear witness.

The Mozarabic Liturgy, on the other hand, reads this Gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent, but eliminates the references to baptism and baptismal preparation almost completely; blindness and illumination are presented much more as symbols of sin and repentance. So for example, one of the prayers of the Mass reads:
Jesus, Redeemer of the human race, restorer of eternal light, grant to us Thy servants, that just as we were washed from original sin in the waters of baptism, which was signified by that pool which gave light to blind eyes, so also may Thou purify us from (our) sins in the second baptism of tears. And so may we merit to become heralds of Thy praise, as that blind man became one that announced Thy grace. And just as he was filled with faith to confess Thee as true God, so also may we be filled with the confession of good works.
In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Gospel of the Blind man is read on the last Sunday of Eastertide before the Ascension. The liturgical texts of the day are more focused on the Resurrection, but not to the exclusion of the Blind Man.

At Little Vespers Christ our God, spiritual Sun of justice, by your pure touch you enlightened the one who had been deprived of light from his mother’s womb; by shedding your rays on the eyes of our souls, show us to be sons of the day, that we may cry to you with faith, ‘Great and ineffable is your compassion for us. Lover of humankind, glory to you!’

At Great Vespers, Idiomel Stichera The man born blind reasoned with himself, ‘Was it through my parents’ sin that I was born blind? Or was I born because of the unbelief of the nations as an accusation? I am not competent to ask when it is day, when night. My feet cannot detect the stumbling blocks of the stones. I have not seen the sun shining, nor him who fashioned me in his image. But I beg you, Christ God: Look on me and have mercy on me.

At Matins The Master and maker of all things, as he passed along found a Blind Man sitting by the way, lamenting and saying: ‘Never in my life have I seen the sun shining or the moon shedding its light; therefore I cry out to you, born of a Virgin to enlighten the universe: Enlighten me, as you are compassionate, that falling down I may cry to you: Master Christ God, grant me forgiveness of my offences through the multitude of your mercy, only lover of mankind’.

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