Ephesians 2:14-22; Luke 18:35-43
As we continue to prepare to welcome the Savior at His birth at Christmas, our gospel and epistle readings remind us of the proper attitude that we must cultivate during these weeks of intensified prayer, fasting, and generosity. Since so much in our culture distorts this season into a celebration of materialism and self-centered indulgence, we must remain focused on pursuing a very different path that leads to a Kingdom that is not of this world.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus Christ restored the sight of the blind beggar identified as Bartimaeus in Mark 10: 46-52. He persistently called out for mercy as the Savior passed by, even though others told him to be quiet. Because of his bold and persistent faith, Christ restored his ability to see. Think for a moment of the humility and weakness of a blind beggar in that time and place. He was completely dependent upon the generosity and good will of others. He knew quite well what it meant to live in darkness without realistic hope for a better life. When Christ passed by, however, he took what little chance he had by calling out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” despite strong criticism from others.
Bartimaeus took a risk in doing so, for he might have alienated the very neighbors upon whom he was dependent. He certainly drew attention to himself and his need for healing, when the safe and easy thing would have been to remain silent. He was not afraid to cause a scene because he so desperately wanted to be able to see. Bartimaeus used a Jewish term for the Messiah, Son of David, when he called out for Christ’s mercy. He likely viewed the Savior as a righteous person blessed by God to perform miraculous healings. Like the rest of Christ’s followers, he surely lacked a full understanding of what it meant for Him to be the Son of God. Nonetheless, the Savior had mercy on him and restored his sight.
During this season of Advent, we must all learn to see ourselves in this persistent blind beggar. He did not relate to Christ as someone who had solved, or even could solve, all his problems by himself. He did not approach Him as someone who thought he had earned or deserved anything. He did not present himself as a member of a privileged group who expected to get his own way. Instead, he honestly called out for the Lord’s mercy simply as he was: a blind and poor man completely dependent upon the generosity of others.
The only way to clarify our spiritual vision is to approach the Savior with precisely such honest humility. Perhaps we can fool others or even ourselves, but we cannot fool Him. If we embrace the spiritual disciplines of Advent with integrity, they will reveal our own spiritual blindness and need for His healing mercy. When our minds wander in prayer and we come up with every excuse imaginable not even to attempt to pray, we will learn how little enthusiasm we have for opening ourselves to the presence of God. When even small changes in our diet seem unbearably severe and we easily rationalize not fasting at all, we will learn how enslaved we are to our taste buds and ultimately to our own will. When we become so insensitive to the needs of others that we refuse to share even a small portion of our resources with them, we will learn how addicted we are to serving ourselves to the exclusion of serving the Lord Who is present to us in every needy neighbor.
Nothing could be more profitable for us in the weeks of the Nativity Fast than to gain the spiritual clarity to see that we must all cry out, with the urgency of Bartimaeus, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” When our own thoughts encourage us not to do so for whatever reason, we must persist and refuse to be distracted from opening our souls to the healing mercy of the Savior with brutal honesty. That is how the blind beggar received his sight, and it is how we will cultivate the humble attitude necessary to embrace the salvation of the human person that He was born to bring to the world.
We must not, however, fall prey to the common temptation to view the life in Christ as a self-centered individualistic undertaking, as though our faith were simply a way for us to advance spiritually all by ourselves. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the Lord as “our peace” Who has united Jew and Gentile “reconcil[ing] us both to God in one body through the Cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” Because of the reconciliation worked in Christ, we Gentiles “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in Whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.’
Reconciliation between enemies is an intrinsic dimension of sharing in the life of Christ. He is the Jewish Messiah in Whom the promises to the descendants of Abraham are fulfilled and extended to the entire world. The more we unite ourselves to the Savior in holiness, the more we will display the peace of His Kingdom, especially in relation to those whom we view as enemies for whatever reason. If hatred, anger, resentment, and refusal to forgive remain characteristic of us, then we are very far from finding the healing of our souls. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not merely tools for enhancing our personal piety, but for opening ourselves to receive the strength to manifest His peace in relation to those we are tempted to hate and condemn.
We probably do not have to look far for those we consider our enemies. There are tensions within our marriages, families, friendships, and work places. Our political and media cultures seem to thrive on encouraging people to hate and fear one another. Too often, we view ourselves as the innocent victims of injustice done by people whose failings we can identify with complete clarity. The vast majority of the time, however, no one is purely innocent in a broken relationship with someone else, and every social system reflects our common brokenness. Surely our insight into the souls of people we consider our enemies is far less than accurate. If we embrace Christ’s reconciliation of humankind to God, then we must manifest His reconciliation, His peace, in relation to those from whom we have become estranged. Otherwise, we will be in the false position of wanting a blessing for ourselves that we will not extend to others.
When we struggle to forgive our enemies and otherwise to mend broken relationships, we must use our weakness to grow in our dependence upon the Lord’s mercy. That means focusing our minds on the words of the Jesus Prayer when we are tempted to dwell on the faults of others or to fuel our fears of them. That means praying for God to bless our enemies and to forgive our sins by their prayers. That means growing in the humility necessary to accept that we are members of the Body of Christ purely due to the Lord’s reconciling mercy for sinners and strangers, not as a reward for anything that we have done, whether individually or collectively.
Christ came to restore sight to the blind beggars of the world. Let us embrace the disciplines and spirit of the Nativity Fast in ways that will help us see that that is precisely who we are. Let us acquire the humility necessary to receive and share the peace that He was born to bring to the world. That is how we must all prepare to welcome Him into our hearts and lives at Christmas.