Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 22)

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3). The words come from the Prologue in the Gospel according to John. The evangelist sets in place one of the themes he will develop throughout the Gospel that follows. The light is Christ Jesus. The darkness can represent a number of things, among them: ignorance, sin, fear, arrogance, evil, pride.

The theme comes up again in different episodes in Jesus’ life and ministry. Early in the Gospel when Jesus meets with Nicodemus, one of the Jewish religious leaders, they meet at night (cf. John 3:2). The night is when it is dark.

Jesus speaks with Nicodemus and “enlightens” him about the Kingdom of God. Jesus says: “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). As the conversation continues Jesus says: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:15-16).

Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus represents a call to faith. Here the darkness may represent ignorance or perhaps a lack of faith or underdeveloped faith. The call to faith is a call to the light, a call to Jesus himself.

We see the theme at other places in the Gospel as well. I mention two here. First, in the account of Jesus’ restoring Lazarus to life (John 11:1-45). Darkness abounds. First in foreboding when Jesus receives word that Lazarus is sick but does not go to Bethany immediately. Then in the death of Lazarus himself.

Death is seen as the ultimate victory of darkness. The sorrow and grief that come with death particularly for Martha and Mary can be described as dark. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus is in the tomb sealed off from the light of day by a large stone covering the entrance. He is wrapped in burial cloths head to toe.

Jesus calls him out of the darkness and into the light as he says: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:45) At Jesus’ words, Lazarus is restored to life. Darkness is conquered by light.

Another powerful use of the theme is at the Last Supper. Jesus is on the verge of offering himself on the cross as he illustrates in the washing of the feet. After this Jesus identifies his betrayer. Jesus tells Judas, “What you do, do quickly,” and Judas leaves.

The evangelist then writes: “And it was night” (John 13:30). The forces of darkness are now going to throw everything at Jesus. The full force of everything that darkness represents will try to blot out the light.

The theme of light shining in darkness is again encountered and developed in the Gospel reading for Sunday’s liturgy. The passage recounts the cure of the man born blind. Jesus, “the Light of the World” (John 9:5; cf. 8:12) comes to the man born in darkness which is represented by his blindness. Some will say that the sin of his ancestors was the reason for his blindness, but Jesus will dispel this notion in the teaching he gives as the story develops.

Yet the blindness serves to represent him who has not yet encountered the light. The man lives in darkness because he cannot see. He is limited by this, as anyone who is trapped by any kind of darkness. It isolates, inhibits movement, proposes all sorts of challenges. The blindness is lifted at the command of the Light.

The physical cure serves as a prelude to the more magnificent illumination when the man healed of his blindness encounters Jesus the second time. After hearing about his interrogation by the Pharisees, Jesus seeks him out. On finding him, Jesus asks: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35)

The question is a call to faith. The man answers: “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” (John 9:36) Jesus, the light, now says to the man who can now see: “You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he” (9:37a). To which the man, now aware that Jesus is in the light, says: “I do believe, Lord” (9:37b). And he worshiped Jesus.

The darkness in this story is further highlighted by those who choose darkness over light. The Pharisees who plot against Jesus represent this group. Some of the neighbors of the man bring him to the Pharisees. The presupposition of the Pharisees is that Jesus is not from God and could not possibly cure the man of his blindness. They interrogate him first trying to get him to say he was not born blind. Failing in this effort they interrogate his parents. At each attempt they become more and more blinded by their obstinacy. Their third attempt, this time again with the man born blind, fails. All the blind man can say is: “One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see” (9:25).

They try to discredit the man with another presupposition. This time they recognize a cure had taken place for they associate his blindness with sin. In the end some of the Pharisees are with Jesus when he says: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind” (John 9:39).

Then the Pharisees say: “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” (John 9:40) Jesus responds: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains” (John 9:41). They may see with their body but the eyes of faith remain firmly closed by their own choice. They refuse to believe and so remain in darkness.

The story of the man born blind reminds us that Jesus is the light that overcomes darkness. The theme of light in the darkness culminates in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, the Paschal Mystery. Here the forces of darkness seem to triumph when Jesus is nailed to the cross and dies.

Yet do they? He empties himself freely of life, allowing these forces to have their way. He does so in love. He does so in mercy. Three days later when he rises from the dead it is clear that Light has triumphed and continues to shine.

As we continue to journey toward Easter we are reminded that we have come to live in the Light of Christ. We have been united with him in death, through baptism and have become the “children of light” mentioned in the second reading. Though darkness in its various forms try to bind us and hold us down, we remember the Light and his brilliance leads us forth.

So that “Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side. With your rod and staff that give me courage.” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.