I have been meditating on three stories during this Advent season. A major theme in each is seeing, that is, recognizing God in all His strangeness. Strange is just another word for Holy.
The first story is in Mark 6:48-52. After the feeding of 5,000 people Jesus sends his disciples off in a boat to Bethsaida. This means that they would end up sailing after dark and even into the fourth watch of the night, which is apparently the watch that sailors dread. That is the watch that begins at the darkest hour, when eyes play tricks and fears are heightened. A storm arises and no doubt the disciples’ anguish is multiplied as they strain at the oars. Jesus walked out on the lake intending to pass them by. They see what they think is a ghost and cry out in horror. He answers their terrified cries, revealing Himself to them. They had just witnessed and took part in the miracle of a few fishes and loaves being increased enough in amount to satisfy thousands, yet the passage tells us that their hearts were hardened and they had no understanding.
The second story is in John 9, where there are many wordplays on the idea of sight. Jesus heals a blind man, an act which leaves the Pharisees completely befuddled. The Pharisees are ones who claim to see, that is, they believe that they fully know what God should look like and how He must act through their impeccable devotion to the Torah law. They were a group that concluded that they could figure everything out and fix the problem so that everything would be cool. You have to kind of admire their fanatical piety. They did not want to see Israel slip into disobedience again and suffer the pains of exile once more. Yet, the blind man saw Jesus for who He was and the Pharisees remained unseeing of God who stood right before their eyes.
The third is Luke 24:13-29 in which two men are walking together on the road to Emmaus, discussing all the strange things that had just transpired in Jerusalem. Another man comes along and asks what they are talking about. They are incredulous that he hadn’t heard all of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth and that even now His tomb stood empty. This Stranger spoke to them from the scriptures of what the prophets had foretold. Obviously hungry for this sort of food, they invite this Stranger to come and stay with them. Then as the story goes, the Stranger sat at the table with them, and he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized [Jesus], and he disappeared from their sight.
These stories open us to the strange, set apart, wholly and Holy otherness of God and His ways. In them, Jesus challenges the absolutes of the physical laws of the earth, He defies the certainties of religious devotion and obedience and He challenges the impossible – even the finality of death itself. Over and over He reveals our blindness to God, exposing that we have little sight beyond our paradigms of understanding. Like the disciples in the boat, I wonder how often we witness something that feels miraculous and believe that to be the end and the whole point of our engagement with God, while missing the opportunity to see and know a bit more of the God who is incomprehensible and inexpressible but who longs to be known. I wonder if Jesus’ intention to pass by the disciples in their struggling boat was just for that reason – to expose that even after a miracle or at least some insight or revelation, our imaginations shrink back down to where we are comfortably sure. They were sure He was a ghost.
Jesus also challenged the sight of those who were already talking about the shock of His empty tomb. They spoke with awe and wonder of the story but the sight of the resurrected Jesus was beyond the realm of their known possibilities and therefore He was unrecognizable to them. And the Pharisees, well, they had already decided that their religious worldview was the correct one. Jesus warned that to say “we see” is to remain blind. I think it’s time to stop seeing them as the bad guys. We have seen the blind and they are us. We each have our own categories of understanding into which we try to make Him fit. We are like the neighbors of the blind man who knew him all his life but did not recognize him when he was suddenly able to see. He no longer fit what they knew of him. They didn’t believe their own eyes.
In this time of preparation and waiting for His coming and His coming again, do we have eyes to recognize the One for whom we wait? What still blinds us? How do we become open to new things, to embrace this God who is so far beyond our finite minds? I imagine that this sight is costly.
One thing we do know: He is the Light by which we may see. I will be posting some more reflections about what these passages teach us about learning to see, but I would love to hear your thoughts.