Sunday of the blind man (5th Sunday of Easter)
What a time we live in! Wars, pestilence, plague, gloabal warming...the list appears endless. The other week I was with most of the Archdiocese's clergy at the annual symposium in Wollongong, NSW. I have to say that despite being away from my family, which I don't enjoy, I did enjoy my time with His Eminence and the deacons and priests of our small, but growing, Antiochian Orthodox community in this part of the world.
For those of you who don't know where Wollongong is, it's just over an hour's drive south of Sydney and on the coast. The city has about 300,000 souls and so is about the same size, population wise, as Wellington. There is a small but reasonably well resourced parish there with a pleasant and well designed church and hall – which is where the symposium was held.
Each day we arrived at church just after 7am, held a liturgy before breakfast and the day's work. At the end of the day we reconvened in the church for Vespers. The rhythm of the day starting and ending with a service in church. I suppose if we had been in a monastery we would have had the clearer cycle of the hours of prayer through the day as well – which I have to admit could be very reassuring and almost restful for its predictability when compared with the hurly-burly of my normal daily life.
Being away I hadn't really been engaged in what was going on in the rest of the world, so I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback when I heard about the appalling treatment tht has apparently been meted out to some of those being held in gaol in Iraq.
Over the past several weeks – since Palm Sunday if memory serves me right – I have in the odd occasion mentoned something about following orders and following our individual “moral compass's”. With this present situation in Iraq we are witnessing a fundamental breakdown in people's ability to determine what is right and what is wrong. Such an inability to discern right from wrong is a moral disease which seems to have spread throughout Western society in the past fifty years.
But no, I'm wrong here. According to some of our enlightened intellectuals and civil leaders there is no right and wrong, no absolute standard by which we can judge the actions of others. Each one of us has the right to determine what is right and wrong from our own point of view. If I disagree over some matter with another person then neither I nor the other person is right (or wrong), we just have different points of view.
What rubbish! A famous writer once called such moral relativism an “absolute lie”. I think he would be appalled at the extent to which this cancer has spread throughout the world. Unfortunately the lies of moral relativism are being taught in our schools, colleges and universities as (and here is the lie in the lie) as the absolute truth!
So the poor people in Iraq are suffering – at least in part – because of a paucity of moral backbone in the West. But why are they in gaol? Don't we normally send people to prison who have done something wrong? Normally yes – but by whose standards?
In the past few days a young man has been sentenced to a (short) term in prison because he was driving carelessly and killed someone. The family of the young lady who was killed are very upset because, in their eyes, the punishment handed out was inadequate. What did their daughter do to deserve death by someone else's poor driving?
What had the Iraqi prisoner's done to be put in prison and abused?
I don't know the purpose of the prison in question here – as far as I am aware it is not a “common or garden” prison, but is a prison for a particular type of detainee. Many of these prisoners may have actually done nothing wrong (in the eyes of a judicial authority) at all other than be in the wrong place at the right time
People are injured or killed “accidentally” - what have they done wrong - “nothing”. People get ill and die through no fault of their own. Employees are made redundant – they have done nothing wrong.
At work I have a colleague whose wife is very ill. She is dying. Where as both of them thought they had years and years to live together, they now have only a little time. This will be a time of struggle, tears and unhappiness.
In the newspapers we read about the horrific things which have happened to young children and infants at the hands of adults. We read about children dying of cancer or suffering in other ways which we find appalling.
At times like this, for many both inside and outside the Church, such times are times of despair and anger.
Anger in that many (even those who have some faith) blame God. “What has so-and-so done to deserve this...” “If there really is a loving God He would not allow such unhappiness...” . Have we not heard such sentiments – or even expressed something like that ourselves?
Despair, because people regret things they have done or not done, and they have no real faith or hope in Christ. Of course, that is easy for me to say, my faith tells me that no matter what, I must ask for God's grace to help me through such times and to learn. But until I have experienced the struggle I do not really know, I only have an intellectual or academic understanding of the situation.
But did not God suffer in these ways for us? Did not even Christ plead for this cup to be taken from him? Did not Christ wonder form the Cross “My God My God why hast thou forsaken me?”. Are these not the same sufferings which we suffer? God himself was prepared to suffer for our sake, to experience what we experience. Remember that as Christ God was fully Man. He felt everything as a human being as well as being God. This is one of the key distinguishing features of Christianity – God became fully human in every sense. Suffering has a purpose. It may not be the purpose or way we want things to be. In our eyes it may seem perverse or evil. But isn't that often they way with some learning we need to do?
I remember going to Anakiwa to the Outward Bound school many years ago when I would have been, oh – ten or eleven years old. I remember being forced to do the “confidence course”. I recall wondering what on earth was menat by confidence course – I certainly had no confidence in it! I was petrified – especially when I had to take the flying fox. Looking down at the ground many feet below - I might as well have been on a mountain peak rather than half-way up a tree. In the end I think I jumped with my eyes closed. Hey- this is fun! The fear and stress and suffering I had experienced whilst climbing the tree, fearful of the experience of the flying fox itself had been for naught – they were put on me by me. I had had no faith in my instructor! I should have been ashamed – I wasn't, I hadn't matured to the stage of being able to grasp that I should have been.
Jump forward some twenty five years and I'm merrily signing myself to do a tandem parachute jump from 12,000 feet. I had total faith in the equipement and instructor. I may have felt slightly apprehensive stepping out on to the wing, but I thought nothing of just rolling off into thin air. It was great! Thirty or so seconds of free-fall, and then a few minutes of a gentle ride down once the parachute had deployed.
What about the blind man in today's Gospel reading? His sufferings were not because of anything he – or his parents – had done. Note that we are only talking about his blindness here – Christ didn't mention anything else, only that he wasn't blind because of any sin that had been committed. Suffering not because of Sin but for some other purpose.
The Blind Man had sight given to him – we are not told that he asked for his sight, but God gave him his sight. In faithful expectation the Blind Man crossed the city from the temple to the pool to wash and then receive his sight. He had suffered since birth, in faith, not knowing who Christ was he now had to cross the city of Jerusalem, with mud on his eyes and wash. We are not told what he suffered when he crossed the city – but we can imagine that he was at least laughed at and belittled. But he managed to cross the city, wash and sight was given to him, “the works of God were revealed in him”.
We have been washed in faith, we have been given our sight, let us listen to him “who is talking to you”, let us with faith bear our sufferings gladly.