The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
A Beautiful Mystery
In her book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass shares an experience writer and Episcopalian Phyllis Tickle had while speaking to a large crowd at one of our Southern cathedrals: “[After her talk,] during the question-and-answer period, someone asked what she thought about the Virgin Birth. As such questions...do, this one devolved into a discussion of whether the Virgin Birth was a matter of scientific and historical fact.
As the discussion got more heated, Phyllis noticed that a young man, about seventeen years old, who was helping set up refreshments...had stopped his work to listen. She could see him...listening intently to the exchange. When she closed her lecture, he came up to talk with her privately. 'Ma'am,' he said politely, 'there's something I don't understand.'
In her...generous way, Phyllis asked him, 'What don't you understand?' She was ready to expound upon the complexities of the Virgin Birth with the young man.
His response, however, forestalled her explanation. 'I don't understand why everyone is so upset about this,' he said. 'I believe in the Virgin Birth. It is so beautiful that it has just got to be true – whether it happened or not.'”
All anyone wants is an explanation. No one rejoices with the man. They just want the explanation. And all he knows is that it was the most beautiful, transcendent moment in his life. This man in John's Gospel lived with this blindness since birth – a cruel blindness that relegated him to a life as a beggar. He had no hope that things could or would ever change: “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind,” he says. No hope; forever a beggar. And now – just like that – his eyes are opened; he can see beauty for the first time; his social status is transformed in an instant. It was the most beautiful, transcendent moment in his life. And no one rejoices; they just want an explanation.
It does not begin as a thing of beauty. At the beginning of the story there is a blind beggar. There is some spit. And there is dirt. Not a lot of beauty there. But from those raw, very raw, materials, Jesus does a beautiful thing: he changes this man's life. And no one rejoices; they just want an explanation.
Because they are afraid. It seems crazy to fear such an amazing miracle. But what should be a cause for celebration all over town, is instead a threat to the way things are. The crowd devolves into chaos and argument. They are immediately skeptical of the man – suspect, it seems, that he is lying or trying to trick them. His parents throw him under the bus for fear of the religious leaders. They don't want their son's new “situation” messing up their lives. The religious leaders attack the man who has been healed; they attack him in the name of God. Rather than admire the beauty of the moment, rather than praise God for a miracle, everyone fears what the miracle might mean – what it might mean about God, about Jesus, about their own lives. As fear so often does, the fear gives birth to anger and bitterness and hatred. Rather than celebrate with this man, they get rid of him – get rid of the threat.
And it leaves the man, the man who just experienced the greatest moment of his life, alone. The religious leaders drive him out – because he was healed, because God might be doing something new and amazing. And nobody wants that.
We live our lives caught up in a tangled web of beauty and fear. Life is this mix of miracle and tragedy. Every moment of intense beauty feels as delicate as the wing of a butterfly, as fleeting as a shadow. In our fear, or discomfort, we try to explain the moments away, to try to control that which is infinitely mysterious.
That Jesus might be able to heal a man born blind is terrifying; it did not fit into what that society knew about God or life or the Messiah. It transgressed that which was possible and so the people knew there must be a more reasonable explanation. What the crowd did, what the religious leaders did, is what we continue to do: there must be a reasonable explanation – a way to explain away the miracle, a way for a modern person to make sense of this story.
But to believe in God is to fall into the mystery without a safety net, to live life with a sense of awe. There are things that are just so beautiful that words only get in the way: witnessing the birth of your child, having great sex, eating the perfect meal, seeing an amazing sunset, being caught up in awe-inspiring worship. Or having your eyes opened after a lifetime of blindness. Some things are too beautiful to explain; some things should only be treasured.
The man in John's story never gives a satisfying explanation. He is asked many times about Jesus, about his eyes, about what really happened. But he never has much to say. He only marvels in the face of a mystery. He clings to the beauty of the miracle against the tyranny of explanation.
At some point, our knowledge ceases and we are asked to believe. When faced with the mystery of God, eventually the explanations will dry up, the answers will run out, the words will lose their meaning, and all that we think we know about God will fail us. And then all that is left is God.
And us. And those beautiful, transcendent moments that shape our lives. Those moments when Jesus takes all of our mess and makes something beautiful. Those moments that, if even fleeting, remind us that there is a hope that trumps the tragedy.
Words fail, and explanations are insufficient. But Jesus is still opening eyes.