We learn how to see.
We possess documented cases of people who were born blind, who grew up that way, and who later on in their adult life were suddenly enabled by surgery to register optical phenomena. Surprisingly, they are not able really to see right away. Their brains do not have the skills to interpret the visual data impinging on their retinas. This experience has taught us that we have to learn how to see, even on the merely physical level. This is one of the first developmental tasks of a newborn baby. As infants, we gradually learn how to sort out the visual data, and with all the experimental learning that comes through baby play, we learn how to interpret the visual cues about space, distance, and how our bodies relate to the persons and objects around us. This kind of learning to see that comes naturally to a child comes as a shock to a lately sighted adult who grew up blind. This experience contributes to the drama of the film At First Sight. It helps us appreciate the gift of vision and the ability to use that marvelous sense.
But if we need to learn to see on the physical level, we know very well that there are still other levels of seeing that require learning. “You see what you're trained to see,” I recall a sociology teacher repeating over and over. Think of what a few savvy remarks from Sister Wendy can do to your ability to see new dimensions in a familiar painting. Think how the observations of the color commentator help you realize you didn't fully see what was going on a moment ago on the tenth yard-line. A physician's diagnosis lets us know that he sees something in Uncle Joe's complexion that we didn't catch.
This Sunday's Gospel account about the man born blind is the showcase example of seeing as a symbol of believing. We know that this symbolic dimension resides in the narrative and not simply in our imagination because of the clues the author embeds in the story. For example, Jesus' statement, “I am the light of the world,” calls attention to a theme already established in John's prologue when he speaks of the life of the Word as light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness has not overcome. The curious behavior of Jesus’ mixing his spittle with clay and “anointing” (epechrisen, a verb related to Christos, “anointed one,” or “Messiah”) makes sense when John observes that the meaning of the pool’s name, Siloam, is interpreted as "Sent" (or, more literally, “the Sent One” [apestalmenos], which serves in the Fourth Gospel as another name for Jesus).
In a community whose rite of initiation was immersion in water accompanied by anointing and was sometimes called “the enlightenment,” readers and hearers of this Gospel inevitably understood this narrative not simply as a healing account but also as a meditation on the meaning of baptism and coming to faith. Baptism is surely an immersion in the water of the Sent One. In that context we are all born blind spiritually, and we do not really see the fullness of reality until we are enabled by baptism and faith to see by the light of Christ, “the light of the world.” Believing is the deepest kind of seeing. Like physical vision, it is not simply a given ability; it is also something that we have to learn to use.
The reading from Ephesians speaks with the same imagery, especially if those commentators are right who claim that the passage derives from an early baptismal homily. Hear this, for example:
Awake, O sleeper,
arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light"