It does not take long for people to come up with theological explanations for world shaping events. Every major tragedy – pandemic or otherwise – can be neatly categorized under “God is punishing us because of our sins.” Which sins? Take your choice – from how we mistreat Mother Nature to how we ignore Father God and everything in between. To paraphrase Chesterton, any stick is good enough to help me reinforce my agenda. Or, as Rahm Emmanuel so bluntly stated, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
So for those who want to make hay during this period of medical martial law where we have more than the usual amount of time on our hands to ponder such things, I ask that they read the story in chapter 9 of John’s Gospel, that of the man born blind from birth.
Most are familiar with the basic story line, but it is the set-up that is most relevant to our situation today. The tradition passed on to first century Jews by the Old Testament proposed two possibilities for personal misfortune: either your sins caused it or the sins of your parents, passed on to you, caused it. And so the disciples ask Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus, in a way that by that time must have become familiar to His followers, answers by choosing neither option, but by pointing to a new way of thinking about this and every one of life’s difficulties.
“Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”
Seen through the eyes of Jesus, and therefore the eyes of God, our difficulties, misfortunes, and tragedies are not examples of punishment; they are opportunities for us to make God known to others. From a divine standpoint, being born blind is not an indicator of sin, but an occasion for evangelization. And that is exactly how Jesus used this situation.
Miracles like this one, where Jesus makes a clay out of saliva and dirt and smears it on the blind man’s eyes, don’t happen every day. If they did, then we’d have to redefine the word “miracle.” But, the example given by Jesus, based on His understanding of what is really going on in situations that we mistakenly categorize as evil, is one that if followed seems to border on the miraculous.
Seeing Pope, now Saint, John Paul deal with the incredible pain of Parkinson’s disease and all of its complications for the last five-plus years of his life was, for those who paid attention, an experience of God’s grace in action. Closer to home, as I watched my great friend and colleague Jim Skerl ’74 and before him my son Kevin ’07 live with cancer and its ravaging effects, I witnessed a manifestation of the miraculous and transcendent nature of God’s grace as it filled their souls and spilled out into the lives of all with whom they came into contact.
These are not solitary cases. In the final papers for my two senior theology classes I ask students to write about this topic when I ask them to ponder “What defines a Christian Man?” and “Who do you know who has truly lived the Paschal Mystery?” I hear stores of family members and friends who have, as St. Paul said to St. Timothy, fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.
In other words, all of these people used their difficulties, their deadly tragedies, to make God visible. We all know of such people, and have been changed for the better by them. Let us honor them by doing the same now, by seeing this time of difficulty not as a punishment from an angry God but as an opening in the sacred door of grace that leads to a more loving world here on earth, as well as ultimate joy with Jesus and our saints in Heaven.
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