Bonus Day

April 1, 2010

The Book of Love

There is an ancient legend that speaks of God’s struggle to guide the destiny of humanity. It is said that God had grown tired of the way that mortals constantly lost their way, creating disasters as they go. So he sent out his angelic messengers to gather together the timeless wisdom contained in the world and to place this wisdom into a multitude of books that would be housed in a great library– a library that mortals could use in order to work out how they should live and act in the world.

When, after many millennia, the great task was completed, the colossal library stood proudly in one of the world’s great cultural capitals, dominating the skyline. However, this huge building contained too many books for any individual to read. It was all but impossible to reach for the majority of people, and the library’s sheer size was enough to put anyone off even entering it. So God demanded that his couriers compressed the essential wisdom into a single, encyclopedic book.

Once completed, this single work was widely circulated, but the manuscript was so huge that one could hardly life it, let alone read it or put what it said into practice. So yet again God put his couriers to work, crafting a booklet with all the essential information. But the people were lazy and there were many who could not read, so the booklet was refined into a single word, and that word was sent out on the lips and life of a messenger.

And the word?

It was love.

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What I’m most interested in here is the trickiness of language. This is a particular hobby-horse of mine, as most everyone who’s been reading this since I started will know.

This single word, love, is the perfect embodiment of everything I’ve been trying to say about language. I’ve come to believe that words, language, are pretty much rorschach tests. Our reaction to words says a lot about us; the things we value, the things we believe, the things we’re willing to argue for or against. Your reaction to this parable, particularly the clincher will reveal a lot about the way you think about love and the implications– Christian and not– thereof.

What the parable does is very cleverly demonstrate the multiplicity of meaning within language, the vast amount of conceptual space that even a simple word like “love” can take up. Just as the wisdom of the sages could be condensed down into the single word of love, so love can be expanded back out into the wisdom and the writings that could fill the most complete library known. There is much contained in this word, this greatest of commandments. It is a double edged sword; we have to be careful not to be too reductive. There are many things love is, but there are equally many things that love is not and it is easy to miss the mark. On the other side, we have to be careful not to get too bogged down in our definitions that we miss the essential simplicity of being told to love each other.

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A Miracle without Miracle

After Jesus had descended from the Mount of Olives he came across a man who had been blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he cannot see?”

Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must carry out the works of him who sent me while it is day, for night is approaching, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “My friend, go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” So the man went and washed and returned in jubilation, shouting, “I can see! I can see!”

The neighbors and those who knew him as a beggar began to grumble, saying, “Has this man lost his mind? for he was born blind.” Some said, “It is the same man who was blind.” Others said, “No, it is not, but he is like him.” In response to this grumbling, the old man kept repeating, “I am the same man. Jesus anointed my eyes and said, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and now I can see everything.”

To ascertain what had happened, they brought him to the Pharisees. “Give glory to God,” they said. “We know that this man Jesus is a sinner.” But the old man answered, “Whether or not he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

But the Pharisees began to laugh. “Old man, meeting Jesus has caused you to lose your mind. You had to be carried into this room by friends, you still stumble and fall like a fool. You are blind today as the day you were born.”

“That may be true,” replied the old man with a long, deep smile, “as I have told you before. All I know is that yesterday I was blind, but today, today I can see.”

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These last few parables have been focussing on the transformative nature of the Christian faith; namely, what faith is there if the person has not been transformed and how should we expect to see this transformation manifest itself? Here we see one of the miracles Jesus works in the Gospels reconfigured. This healing is not apparently any less miraculous for the fact that the man has not, in fact, had his physical vision restored.

This isn’t to pour water on the idea that the man in the Gospel story was able to see the color of flowers– indeed that he was able to see flowers at all– for the first time. What it does is push us to consider the meaning behind the meaning in Jesus’ healing. If the man hadn’t, in fact, had his vision restored, what would his declaration of sight have meant? If we probe into the symbolism of the healing a little bit further we might be able to glean a bit more understanding.

Most of the miraculous healings Jesus performed had serious symbolic implications for the people he was talking to. The cripple, the leper, and the blind man all represented Israel in the symbolic shorthand of the day; this is the kind of stuff alluded to in the writings of the prophets. So when Jesus goes about healing people with these specific ailments he’s making implicit statements about his nature and what he has come to do on earth. That’s why it is so important to see the symbol, but to look beyond the symbol to see what it signifies. This is very much the idea behind icons in the Orthodox church. A person venerating an icon isn’t worshipping the icon itself, but is using the icon as a symbol to orient themselves around the thing the icon represents. So the healing here is an icon; a symbol of Jesus’ work, of the Kingdom of Heaven.

If it isn’t a physical healing, then what kind of healing is this? We can see the answer revealed in the answers of the old man to the Pharisees: “I was blind, but today I see.” An encounter with Jesus becomes the light by which all other light is compared, the light which allows a person to truly see. This encounter– the love we spoke of in the last parable– then become the lens, the light, through which the rest of the world is viewed. I once heard evangelism described as a myopic telling a blind person where the optometrist is. None of us has perfect vision; in this sense we are the still-blind man who can see. “Now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face.” What the encounter with Jesus does is allow a person to see through world through divine eyes, and to begin looking for ways to help other people see the world through these same eyes.

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