22 March 2020 Homily by Bishop Noel Treanor for 4th Sunday in Lent (Laetare)

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Laetare Sunday

Homily delivered by Bishop Noel Treanor

St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast


Affliction is at the heart of the extract from the gospel according to St John which we read on this fourth Sunday of Lent. The blindness of the man whom Jesus meets causes even the disciples to ask a searching question, which ultimately raises that profound issue: why is creation defective?

On this Mother’s Day, when we celebrate and thank our mothers for their nurturing and mothering of life, this question is not far from the minds of many in our present circumstances. How can a compassionate and merciful God allow calamities, such as the coronavirus pandemic?

As the gospel text unfolds, following on the actions of making and applying the earthen paste and washing in the pool of Siloam, the text is made up of a series of questions and responses. Many of them, like the two actions on the part of Jesus and the blind man, resonate with historic and religious significance for the first audiences for whom this gospel was written. The exchanges lead to the attestation of Jesus as saviour, the incarnate Son of God who takes on the reality of evil, failure, suffering and offers the hope of ultimate healing.  Notice that for this healing, Jesus uses the soil of the earth, an element of creation. Created matter is the stuff and vehicle of divine healing.  

If you take up this text from St John’s gospel (Jn 9.1-41) for yourself today, you will notice the progression of questioning. First, there is the question about the man’s blind condition. It includes the prejudicial supposition that some of his parents sinned and that his blindness is a divine chastisement!  Our own generation is not immune from such considerations. Jesus’ response counters such thinking!

After some interrogations of the man as to how his sight was restored and by whom, the questions then focus firstly on Jesus, who has not only restored the blind man’s sight, but has done so on the Sabbath and thereby transgressed the law of Moses. He, the incarnate Son of God, has now become the focus of myopic chastisement! At this point in the dialogue the blind man, under the pressure of questioning, proclaims Jesus as a prophet.

Following on this significant assertion, the circle of voices widens to include the blind man’s parents, who are duly questioned in their turn. Confronted, presumably astounded, by the healing of their son and released thereby from any hint of stigma for their son’s blindness and prejudicial gossip, his parents stop short of acknowledging the work of God through the action of Jesus. Various forms of blindness, blockages to deep insight, prevent us from recognising the mystery of the divine touching our lives and existence. We too can duck and shift the key issues and questions encountered on life’s pathway …

The text then passes through a dramatic exchange in which the healed man turns the table, as it were, and asks ironically if his questioners wish to become disciples of Jesus! Then, rejected and abandoned by the crowd, it is his turn to answer two questions from Jesus. His answer is a silent proclamation of faith, a response honed by John, the author of the gospel, to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, redeemer and saviour. With merely two words he enters the silence of worship thus acknowledging the mystery of divine intervention in his life. He sees and he falls silent in wonder and worship …

The gospel text continues with words ascribed to Jesus which turn on one of the key themes in the gospel according to John – the theme of sight, or the spiritual insight of faith. Then, against the background of that silent act of confession by the cured man, there follows that piercing rhetorical question put by the Pharisees to Jesus : “we are not blind, surely”?  (Jn 9.40). We might all ponder this question and consider if it questions us ….

The trials and difficulties of the local and global crisis due to the COVID-19 virus will cause us all to revisit our sense of values, our priorities in life, our social values. At the personal, social and communal, societal, state and international levels, the afflictions arising from this pandemic can re-open our eyes to fundamental values to which we have been blind, or partly blind.  

As Jesus used clay and spittle to cure this man, let us take hope in our God-given and innate capacities to respond to this affliction. God’s creation, under enlightened human governance, can generate healing and restoration.

Let us pray today that our eyes will be opened to “walk as children of the light” (Eph. 5. 8), as St Paul writes in the second reading, so that we may respond responsibly to the public advice and guidance, measures aimed at the common good and safety of all.  

And finally let us continue to hold in our prayers all who work to overcome the Coronavirus in hospitals, in laboratories, research, government and all frontline services in society.