Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Anointed with Light: Readings for Laetare Sunday

The drama increases as we progress toward Easter.  This Sunday’s readings are united by the themes of anointing and light.

The First Reading (1 Sam 16:1-13) recounts Samuel’s anointing of David as King over Israel.  Samuel journeys to Jesse of Bethlehem, and scrutinizes each of his sons in search of God’s chosen king, but to no avail.  Finally, the youngest of the eight, David, is called in from shepherding the sheep.  This at last is the future king:

The LORD said to Samuel:
"Fill your horn with oil, and be on your way.
I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem,
for I have chosen my king from among his sons."

As Jesse and his sons came to the sacrifice,
Samuel looked at Eliab and thought,
"Surely the LORD's anointed is here before him."
But the LORD said to Samuel:
"Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature,
because I have rejected him.
Not as man sees does God see,
because man sees the appearance
but the LORD looks into the heart."
In the same way Jesse presented seven sons before Samuel,
but Samuel said to Jesse,
"The LORD has not chosen any one of these."
Then Samuel asked Jesse,
"Are these all the sons you have?"
Jesse replied,
"There is still the youngest, who is tending the sheep."
Samuel said to Jesse,
"Send for him;
we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here."
Jesse sent and had the young man brought to them.
He was ruddy, a youth handsome to behold
and making a splendid appearance.
The LORD said,
"There—anoint him, for this is the one!"
Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand,
anointed David in the presence of his brothers;
and from that day on, the spirit of the LORD rushed upon David.

Two points are essential for connecting this reading with the rest of the lectionary.

First is the LORD’s statement to Samuel: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”  The irony of today’s Gospel Reading will likewise hinge on the fact that appearances are deceiving: from God’s perspective, the sighted are blind, but the blind can see.

Second is the David’s reception of the spirit in conjunction with his anointing with oil.  Unlike other figures in the OT, the Spirit descends on David and stays with him “from that day on.”  We can almost say David participated in the New Covenant in advance, because—in a sense—the Holy Spirit is the New Covenant.  David had the stable possession of the Holy Spirit, unlike other Old Testament figures who would just be filled with the Spirit temporarily for a specific task.  The ongoing, stable possession of the Holy Spirit is the privilege that Jesus gives us in the New Covenant.

Jesus is the New David; John the Baptist is told, “The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:34).  All today’s readings culminate in Baptism, when the Jesus, the New Davidic Shepherd, grants the gift of the Spirit also to us.

The anointing of David is typologically related to the anointing of the Blind Man in the Gospel.  Like David, the Blind Man enters into communion with God through this anointing.  As we will see, he is “recreated” by Jesus through this miracle.  But the Spirit is connected to creation.  The Holy Spirit is the “Creator Spirit,” who moved over the waters of the abyss at the beginning and caused creation to come into being.  When David receives the Spirit of the LORD at the hands of Samuel, he is in a sense becoming a new creation of God.  As St. Paul will later say, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation!” (2 Cor 5:17).

The Responsorial Psalm is the well-known and much beloved Psalm 23.  “The LORD is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”  Besides the LORD, the only other individual identified as the Shepherd of Israel in the OT is the Davidic King.  Like their forefather, the heirs of David were Shepherds of Israel.  Ezekiel prophesied a day when both the LORD God himself (Ezek 34:15) and David (Ezek 34:23) would be Shepherd of Israel, yet mysteriously, there would only be One Shepherd (Ezek 34:23):

Responsorial Psalm Ps 23: 1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6:

R. (1) The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
He guides me in right paths
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...” says the psalm, calling to mind the death-like darkness of the Blind Man in today’s Gospel.

Yet, “you anoint my head with oil,” says the psalmist, striking another chord—anointing—that runs through today’s readings.

Lent is meant to prepare catechumens to receive the Sacraments, and the rest of us to appreciate the sacraments better.  In the Catechesis of the Church Fathers, the two favorite texts for sacramental instruction were Psalm 23 and the Song of Songs.  Psalm 23 was taken as a typology of the sacraments:
         (1) “Beside restful waters he leads me, he refreshes my soul”—these are the waters of Baptism, that give us rest from our sins, and “refresh” (better: “restore”) our souls by infusing us with divine life.
         (2) “You spread a table before me in the sight of my foes”—this is the Eucharist banquet, which gives us courage and strength in the midst of the persecutions we experience in this life at the hands of our foes—Satan, his demons, and our persecutors.
         (3) “You anoint my head with oil”—this is the oil of Confirmation, that strengthens us to give witness despite the opposition we encounter from others.
         (4) “My cup overflows”—this is the Eucharistic cup, which always overflows with the Holy Spirit, giving us new life.

David was a shepherd boy who rose to become shepherd of Israel (2 Sam 7:8).  But his shepherding was only a sign and symbol of God as shepherd over his people.  As a shepherd used to smear oil on the faces of his sheep to ward of flies and insects, so Jesus the good shepherd smears us with the oils of Baptism and Confirmation to fill us with his own Spirit, who protects us from the harassments of the Evil One. 

The thematic connections of today’s Second Reading (Eph 5:8-14) to the Gospel are obvious:

Reading 2 Eph 5:8-14:

Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.
Live as children of light,
for light produces every kind of goodness
and righteousness and truth.
Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.
Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness;
rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention
the things done by them in secret;
but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,
for everything that becomes visible is light.
Therefore, it says:
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus grants light to a man born into darkness.  Yet the natural darkness of the Blind Man is a type of the condition into which all of us are born, namely, the spiritual darkness of original sin.  In Baptism we arise from spiritual death (“Awake, O Sleeper, and arise from the dead”) and become enlightened with the illuminating gift of the Holy Spirit.

As is well known, and as I point out in my CD set on John, today’s Gospel (John 9, the Healing of the Man Born Blind), is an extended mystagogy on the sacrament of Baptism:

Gospel Jn 9:1-41:

As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him,
"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?"
Jesus answered,
"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."
When he had said this, he spat on the ground
and made clay with the saliva,
and smeared the clay on his eyes,
and said to him,
"Go wash in the Pool of Siloam" —which means Sent—.
So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said,
"Isn't this the one who used to sit and beg?"
Some said, "It is, "
but others said, "No, he just looks like him."
He said, "I am."
So they said to him, "How were your eyes opened?"
He replied,
"The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes
and told me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.'
So I went there and washed and was able to see."
And they said to him, "Where is he?"
He said, "I don't know."

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees.
Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath.
So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
He said to them,
"He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see."
So some of the Pharisees said,
"This man is not from God,
because he does not keep the sabbath."
But others said,
"How can a sinful man do such signs?"
And there was a division among them.
So they said to the blind man again,
"What do you have to say about him,
since he opened your eyes?"
He said, "He is a prophet."

Now the Jews did not believe
that he had been blind and gained his sight
until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight.
They asked them,
"Is this your son, who you say was born blind?
How does he now see?"
His parents answered and said,
"We know that this is our son and that he was born blind.
We do not know how he sees now,
nor do we know who opened his eyes.
Ask him, he is of age;
he can speak for himself."
His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews,
for the Jews had already agreed
that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ,
he would be expelled from the synagogue.
For this reason his parents said,
"He is of age; question him."

So a second time they called the man who had been blind
and said to him, "Give God the praise!
We know that this man is a sinner."
He replied,
"If he is a sinner, I do not know.
One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see."
So they said to him,
"What did he do to you?
How did he open your eyes?"
He answered them,
"I told you already and you did not listen.
Why do you want to hear it again?
Do you want to become his disciples, too?"
They ridiculed him and said,
"You are that man's disciple;
we are disciples of Moses!
We know that God spoke to Moses,
but we do not know where this one is from."
The man answered and said to them,
"This is what is so amazing,
that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.
We know that God does not listen to sinners,
but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him.
It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.
If this man were not from God,
he would not be able to do anything."
They answered and said to him,
"You were born totally in sin,
and are you trying to teach us?"
Then they threw him out.

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out,
he found him and said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
He answered and said,
"Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?"
Jesus said to him,
"You have seen him,
the one speaking with you is he."
He said,
"I do believe, Lord," and he worshiped him.
Then Jesus said,
"I came into this world for judgment,
so that those who do not see might see,
and those who do see might become blind."

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this
and said to him, "Surely we are not also blind, are we?"
Jesus said to them,
"If you were blind, you would have no sin;
but now you are saying, 'We see,' so your sin remains.

The Man Born Blind is a type of the Baptizand.  All of us are born into spiritual blindness, original sin.

The disciples’ question “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” reflects a Pharisaic belief that birth defects were the result of parental sin, or else the child himself sinned in the womb.

Jesus says “Neither have sinned.” Instead, this is an opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed.

“I am the light of the world,”  Jesus asserts.  To fully appreciate this statement, and indeed the entire account of this healing, we must notice that it occurs in a long section of John (chapters 7-9) which takes place during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.  This resplendent festival was marked by two themes: light (Zech 14:7) and water (Zech 14:8).  The Temple was lit with gigantic menorahs all through the night for a week, and on the last day of the festival water was taken from the Pool of Siloam and poured out on the altar of the Temple as a prayer for rain, and as an actualization of various OT prophecies of a river flowing from the Temple in the last times (see Ezek 47; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8).

John 9 ends this long section of John, and draws together the themes of water and light, as Jesus uses water to bring light to this man.  Obviously, water and light are connected to creation, too, because first the waters covered the deep, and then God said, “Let there be light!”

But first, Jesus spits on the ground and anoints the man’s eyes with the mud.

Anointing is an important theme—baptism is the anointing with the Holy Spirit.  To this day, the rite of Baptism includes an anointing with the sacred chrism as a symbol of this reality.

What is the significance of Jesus spitting?

My own opinion is based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, where man is described as being “kneaded from dust ... he is so much spit ... mere knipped-off clay” (cf. 1 QS 11:21; 1QHa 20:35; 4Q264 1 9).  I think this reflects an ancient Jewish understanding of the creation story in which God spat on the ground and formed Adam’s body from the resultant clay/mud.[1]

Jesus’ spitting on the ground is a recapitulation of the creation of the first man, Adam.  He is re-creating this blind man, moving him from darkness (uncreation) to light (creation).  He is the same God who declared long ago: “Let there be light!”

New creation themes are present elsewhere.  After anointing his eyes, Jesus sends the man to the Pool of Siloam to wash.  The pool of Siloam collected the waters of the Gihon, the spring that provided water for Jerusalem.  It was named the Gihon after one of the rivers of Eden (Gen 2:13), because the Jews saw Jerusalem as a kind of New Eden.  So, mystically, the waters of Siloam were Edenic or creational waters.  The man is being made new.

After washing, he enters into the light (Gen 1:3) and returns to his home.

Those who know him are divided: some think he is the same man as used to beg, others say, “No, he just looks like him.”

The man’s response—well-translated here by the NAB—is ambiguous: “I AM.” 

“You are what?  The same or different?” 

The ambiguity is intentional, because this is a baptismal catechesis.  When we are baptized, do we come up as the same person as before, or as a different person who just looks like the one who approached the baptismal font?  The correct answer is: Yes to both!  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

Note that this is the only place in the Gospel of John where anyone other than Jesus uses the phrase “I AM.”  Having been baptized, the man participates in the divine nature.  We truly begin to exist only when we enter into relationship with Christ.  Life without Christ is non-existence, darkness.

The subsequent back-and-forth with the Pharisees is darkly humorous, although we don’t have time here to comment on all of it here (but in my John CD set).  There is a progression of the man’s knowledge of Jesus through it all, till the end of the passage where he fully realizes Jesus’ divinity and worships him.  This represents our post-baptismal growth in knowledge of Christ.

Jesus, the New Shepherd, the New David, the one anointed with the Spirit, sums up the irony of this whole event in these words:

“I came into this world for judgment,
so that those who do not see might see,
and those who do see might become blind.”

Seeing the world through God’s eyes reveals great irony and paradox, because “not as man does God see ... the LORD looks into the heart.”

For the baptised, today’s readings should stir in our hearts a profound appreciation for what has been done for us in Christ, and applied to our lives through the sacraments.

We have been made anew!  We have entered into God’s light!  We have been anointed with the Spirit!

If we feel very much old, dim, and unspiritual, it may be that sin or distraction with the worries of this life (Matt 13:22) has skewed our perspective.  Lent has three more weeks: enough time return to confession, increase our prayer, and increase detachment through self-denial.  Then we will discover the joy of “walking in the light, even as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7).

[1] A scholar from Pittsburgh beat me to it in publishing this theory. See DANIEL FRAYER-GRIGGS, "Spittle, Clay, and Creation in John 9:6 and Some Dead Sea Scrolls," Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 132, No. 3 (2013), pp. 659-67.

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