by Linda McMillan
“Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me and Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
I guess that just about everyone who prays has heard this Anne Lamott quote. And, if you haven’t heard that, you’ve probably seen her book, Help, Thanks, Wow… Three Essential Prayers. I don’t know Anne Lamott, and I haven’t read the book, but the quote and book title make me think she’s done some praying.
There is another prayer, though, which I don’t think gets much attention. It is also short, only one word, and also intense, sometimes desperate, and I suspect that most of us have prayed it: “Why?”
The disciples asked Jesus that question in today’s reading from John. They saw a man who had been born blind and they wanted to know why God – our good and kind God – would allow such a thing. In fact, I think we’d all like to know!
Jesus could have given a very good answer, eliminating all questions of theodicy for all time. What a sermonette that would have been! Instead, as he sometimes does, Jesus gave a most unsatisifing answer. Oh, he broke any connection the disciples may have had between sin and physical difference, and that’s important. “It’s not because of any sin,” he said, “It’s so you can see that I am the one sent by God, the light of the world.” And indeed, by sending the man to wash in the pool of Siloam (Siloam means one who was sent) we can see that Jesus was the one sent by God, and by restoring the man’s sight we can see that Jesus is the light of the world. It’s a great object lesson. It just seems like a poor reason for a man to have spent a lifetime without seeing the face of his mother, without being able to earn a living, or find someone to love. The sacrifice was more than that of his vision, it was his place in society, the things that could have been but which simply weren’t possible for a blind man in the first century. It seems like a huge sacrifice just so Jesus can, once again, make the point.
Throughout John, Jesus has been on one adventure after another proving who he is: In Chapter 4, which we read last week, Jesus met the woman at the well and showed that he was the living water for which she longed. In Chapter 6 he fed 5000 people with just two loaves and some fish, proving that he is the bread of life. In today’s reading we see that Jesus is the light of the world. In him there is no darkness at all.
How appropriate that we should have this meditation on light, the very light of the world, on Laetare Sunday. In Latin laetare actually means lighthearted.
Should we really be lighthearted in the middle of Lent? Well, yes. And, this is a particularly good time to look ahead and be happy about the resurrection we know will come. This is the fourth week in Lent. We are more than half-way to the passion. As we enter this time of deeper concentration and preparation for the passion, setting our faces with Jesus toward Jerusalem, we should be prepared with the knowledge that it all ends well. Otherwise, how could we stand it? Looking ahead to the lightheartedness that will come on Easter Sunday Morning fortifies us for the passion that is to come.
Such lightheartedness may also help us get through the questions of why which accompany this story and – let’s be honest – accompany many of us each and every day.
The questions of “Why, why, why God?” are the churning undercurrents in a thousand rivers of sadness cutting an icy path through a thousand human hearts. We believe that Jesus could give us an answer, even a good answer, but for whatever reason there are no answers for us. Why?
Even though we Anglicans love our questions, even taking pride in our lack of answers, “living into the questions,” as we like to say, there are still times when we just really, really, really want to know. Why, God?
I will give you the bad news first: This time of deeper concentration and reflection on the passion is not going to be the time when our questions are answered. Oh, you can hope. Join me and all the other hopers who have hoped through a thousand passiontides and a thousand Easter mornings and yet still ask why. But don’t count on an answer. If Jesus had answers for us he would have said so back when the disciples asked him: Why?
But there is also good news: While we may not get any answers we might learn to live with the questions. The questions don’t go away… ever. But, we can fortify ourselves for life with the questions. That is part of the gift of Laetare Sunday. We can gain strength for the journey. A light heart is our strength.
The heart very naturally wants to be happy. It is us and our many awful questions, obligations, and cares that keep it in bondage. If on this day of lightheartedness you can let your heart be happy for awhile, that alone might be enough to get you through to your very own resurrection.
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China – home of the Pufferfish.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The Café is not a book review site, and I haven’t read it so I am not recommending it either, but you can get the Anne Lamott book on Amazon if you’re interested.
All too often religion has made a connection between physical difference and sin, equating blindness, deafness, any number of differences to sin or punishiment. Jesus puts the nail in the coffin of that line of thinking. Why are some people blind, or deaf, or different in some other way? I don’t know. But, I know it’s not because of any sin, and I know that those who are different to me are also fearfully and wonderfully made, they bear the image of God as fully and surely as anybody else.
People in the first century thought about light and darkness in a way that’s a little different to how we think of it today. (This gospel was probably written in the third century, but thinking doesn’t change that quickly.) In modern times we usually think of darkness as the simple absence of light. But the writer of this gospel gives us a clue about his thinking in John 1:5 when he says that when light shines into darkness. the darkness can’t understand it. The writer probably believed that light and dark were substantive things residing in the heart and enabling sight. Thus, if one had an evil heart he may have an evil eye too. A heart of darkness would result in blindness. There is a story that the first light that God produced was so perfect that it enabled Adam and Eve to see from one end of the universe to the other, including all history! That turned out to be problematic and so God wound up hiding his perfect light in the trees, streams, and seas… created order.
Laetare, along with it’s cousin gaudetet, has been translated into English as rejoice — You may hear it in the introit this morning — But, it’s a little different. The Gaudete we enjoy during Advent means enjoyment. Laetare – today – means lighthearted.
John 1:5… This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. (Interestingly, I John 1:5 is almost identical to John 1:5.)
If you want to make your own simnel cake, here’s a recipe. It looks pretty complicated to me, but I’m not really a culinary authority. At all.