St. Luke 18:35-43
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that there have been times when all that we could do was to ask from the depths of our hearts for God’s mercy. When we have lost loved ones, when we or our family members have been sick or in danger, or when we have not seen a way out of a very difficult situation, our spiritual vision became focused. Then we called upon the Lord for help, not as a reward for our merits, but because He alone is our salvation and our hope.
As we continue preparing to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ at Christmas, we are reminded by today’s gospel text of how we all stand before Him: blind, weak, and in need of blessing beyond our own power or ability. For our Lord was not born as a reward for humanity’s good behavior, but purely out of the divine love and mercy for human beings, and the rest of creation, deformed and suffering from our sins.
That is why St. Paul taught that we are saved by grace through faith “and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” The blind beggar performed no good work that earned the Savior’s mercy. Instead, he simply called out persistently, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” as the Lord passed by. Even though others told the man to be quiet and not to cause a scene, he continued to plead for healing. He succeeded in getting the Savior’s attention, and He asked the beggar only a simple question: “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man responded, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Christ said, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he could see again and began to follow the Lord and to glorify God.
One of the reasons that we practice intensified prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Advent is to become more like that blind beggar, for we want to long from the depths of our being for our spiritual eyes to be opened by the healing presence of Jesus Christ. We want our vision to be focused. It is hard to cultivate that attitude, however, in such a busy time of year, when we are often surrounded by rich food and a cultural obsession with spending money. So much in the media tells us that the season is about simply indulging ourselves in whatever we want. Unless we are careful, we can easily be so distracted by our decadent culture that we will not even notice our spiritual blindness, much less want to be healed from it. Like too many today, we will forget that Christmas is fundamentally about Jesus Christ and not about money, pleasure, or good times with our friends and family. Yes, we will celebrate Christmas as a season that begins on December 25 and leads to Epiphany, but unless we prepare by spiritual disciplines in these weeks of Advent to welcome the Incarnate Son of God into our lives in a new way at His Nativity, we will not have the spiritual eyes to behold the glory of His birth. We will risk being blind to the salvation that He came to bring the world.
Nothing that we could possibly do could ever earn or deserve the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but we must all do our part if we want to open ourselves to His healing presence, if we want to participate personally in His salvation. For example, the blind beggar kept crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He did nothing other than to persist in calling for Christ’s help, even when others told him to be quiet. We do not know about this man’s beliefs concerning the Savior. As a Jew, he probably thought that Jesus was the kind of messiah expected by his people: a righteous teacher and leader who would bring God’s blessings upon the Jews, but not the Incarnate Son of God. Christ does not require an elaborate confession from him, however, but took his persistent cries as evidence of his faith. That is how the man regained his sight.
On the one hand, we have great advantages over the blind beggar, because we have already put on Christ in the waters of baptism, been sealed with the Holy Spirit in chrismation, and nourished with the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist. We have entered into His Body, the Church, and confessed Him in the words of the Creed. We are able at any moment of the day to show the humble faith of the blind beggar through the words of the Jesus Prayer.
These advantages, however, may tempt us to laziness, for it is easy simply to take the Lord’s mercy for granted. Remember that Christ said, “To whom much is given, from him much will be required.” Our spiritual blindness deepens when we allow our faith to be merely a collection of abstract ideas or beliefs and not personal participation in the Divine Energies such that we become like an iron left in a fire that takes on the heat and light of the fire. In other words, religious doctrines, practices, and traditions do us no good if we do not grow in holiness through them, if they do not become paths to our partaking of the Divine Nature. Our souls, bodies, and minds must actually be sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual blindness must be overcome. Otherwise, we simply judge and condemn ourselves by claiming the spiritual advantages of Orthodox Christians without actually embracing them or being transformed by them.
The more we participate by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity, however, the more we will develop the deep spiritual insight and focus of that blind beggar. He was certainly aware that he was blind and could not heal himself. He had no illusions about where he stood before God or in relation to others. But when he had his chance, he took it and no one could stop him. He zeroed in on the one thing needful; and then the mercy of the Lord healed him and transformed his life. I wonder if the same can be said of us? Given the teachings of our Church and the examples set by so many Saints, we should all be clear on the kind of faith and faithfulness that bring us more fully into the life of Christ. Orthodox Christianity is not a Gnostic sect with secret teachings for an elect few, but a public witness for the salvation of the world. As hard as it is to believe, we are all called to become holy. Christ’s mercy is for you, me, and our neighbors just as much as it was for that blind beggar.
That is why we all need to use the disciplines of this season to help us become more aware of our spiritual blindness so that we will be able to regain our spiritual sight. In other words, the first step in receiving the Lord’s mercy and growing in holiness is to recognize our sinfulness, as we do in Confession. Prayer, fasting, and generosity to the poor and needy are good teachers of our own spiritual sickness because we usually find them so hard to do and, when we actually do them, we often do them so poorly. Of course, it is prideful to think that we should be the judges of our spiritual disciplines. Better to follow this advice from St. Macarius of Optina, “Pray simply. Do not expect to find in your heart any remarkable gift of prayer. Consider yourself unworthy of it. Then you will find peace. Use the empty cold dryness of your prayer as food for your humility. Repeat constantly: I am not worthy: Lord, I am not worthy! But say it calmly, without agitation.”
In other words, be like that blind beggar who knew that his only hope was in Jesus Christ. Refuse to give up in prayer for the Lord’s mercy, as well as in whatever types of fasting and almsgiving you are able to do at this point your life. Use your weakness in all of these endeavors as food for your humility, and get on with the daily life of faith and faithfulness as the Lord strengthens and focuses your spiritual sight as He sees fit. Surely, there is no better way to prepare to behold the glory of our Savior when He is born at Christmas.