NOTE: I am sending out this Sunday's gospel reflection early as I will be on retreat this weekend. Reminder of our changed Mass time at 4:00pm. See you there!
This is where it gets interesting. Jesus heals this man's eyes in a rather peculiar way. First, Jesus spits on the ground. Then, from the dirt and His saliva, He makes clay, or mud. Then He smears that mud on the man's eyes with His fingers. Finally, Jesus tells the man to go wash in the nearby pool of Siloam. The man did as he was asked. After he washed, his eyes were opened, and he could see.
The reason this is my favorite of Jesus' healing miracles is because of the gritty physicality of it all. Jesus heals the man's blindness, but He does so in a very hands-on, down-to-earth fashion. It sounds more like something you might expect to find as a tribal folk remedy, rather than a method used by God Incarnate. To cure blindness, make clay from soil mixed with human saliva; apply to eyes; then wash in water from the pool of Siloam. Repeat as necessary.
As God Incarnate, why did Jesus have to anoint the man's eyes with dirt and spit? Why did the man have to wash in the pool before the miracle took effect? None of this was necessary for Jesus to heal him. As God, all Christ had to do was to will the man's sight restored, and it would have been restored. It would not have been necessary for Jesus to even touch the man. There are, in fact, accounts of Jesus healing without being in physical contact with the person. For example, Jesus brought the daughter of Jairus back from death without even seeing her (Mk 5:21-43). So why when He healed the man born blind did our Lord have to use all this material stuff?
The answer is that He did not need to, of course. Jesus chose to use physical matter to manifest His healing grace, because He deemed it good to do so. And no doubt the use of physical matter is for our benefit more than His own. All of this is very sacramental in nature; God manifesting His grace using elements of His own creation.
We must not lose sight of this essential fact. Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, the Creator of "all things visible and invisible," as we profess in our creed. He is the maker of the universe. When He makes clay out of dirt and spit, we must remember that He made the dirt in the first place. He made the pool of water the man washes in. When He chooses to use material things to manifest His healing power, it is His matter He is using.
And why should we not expect God to use elements of His own creation to communicate His grace to us? God made us as creatures with a physical body as well as an immaterial, spiritual soul. It makes sense that He would use matter from the physical world to communicate spiritual realities to us. It's how He made us. Jesus could have healed the blind man without so much as a blink of His eye. But so that the man would know Who it was that healed Him, and understand the miracle and mercy, Jesus used the very earth and water He created, the saliva from His own mouth, and touched the man's eyes with His own hands. We are matter and spirit, and so God comes to us in matter and in spirit.
The Sacraments Christ established in His Church operate in the same way. Each of the Sacraments has a physical component: the waters of baptism, the oils used in confirmation and anointing of the sick, the laying on of hands of ordination, and most beautifully the bread and wine which become the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist. In each of the Sacraments, God chooses to communicate His divine grace to us using elements of His physical creation. Truly this is not for His benefit, but for ours. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments" (CCC 1257). This is true of baptism, and it is also true of the sacraments generally. God made them for our good.
Let's just consider Baptism for a moment; the sacrament by which one is born again as a child of God, initiated into the Body of Christ, the portal into the Sacramental life. Immediately after speaking of the necessity of baptism, the Catechism also speaks about ways in which the sanctifying grace of God might be made manifest apart from ordinary water baptism - it speaks of the baptism of blood, gained by the martyrs, and the baptism of desire. "For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament" (CCC 1259).
So if we can receive the graces of the Baptism simply by desiring the sacrament, why do we need the ritual? Why do we need the water? In his book, The Faith Explained, Fr. Leo Trese has this to say.
This passage is not found in the chapter on Baptism, as one might expect, but rather in the chapter on "The Catholic Church." For the Church, in addition to administering the Sacraments, is herself a Sacrament. The Church, like us, is a citizen of two worlds, a union of the material and spiritual, the visible and invisible. Our faith is a sacramental faith. Ours is a spiritual faith of prayer and penance, of adoration and conversion. We strive to inwardly conform ourselves to God's will. But it is also a material faith of bells and incense, candles and stained glass, a faith that kneels and lays on hands, and sings praise. It is a faith that feeds the hungry and clothes the naked. It is physical and spiritual, because we are physical and spiritual. It is sacramental....I am sure that I have poured the water of baptism on the heads of many adults whose souls already were in the state of sanctifying grace. They had already made acts of perfect love for God; they had already received the baptism of desire. And yet in every such case, the convert has expressed his relief and joy at receiving, actually, the sacrament of Baptism. Because, up to that moment he could not be sure that his sins were gone. No matter how hard he might try to make an act of perfect love, he never could be sure that he had succeeded. But when the saving water had flowed upon his head, he knew then with certainty that God had come to him.
And why should this surprise us? Did not our God Himself become for us The Sacrament in the Incarnation? When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:4) the Second Person of the Trinity became the visible sign par excellence of the invisible reality of God. The earthy grittiness of spit and mud is nothing compared to the very physical reality of Christ's Incarnation, His birth from the Blessed Mother's womb, His suckling at her breasts, and most especially His passion and death which we are soon to celebrate on Good Friday.
We are privileged as Catholics to live in a world infused by God. In Daniel 3:57-88 we read of all of God's creation blessing the Lord, from mountains and hills, seas and rivers, dolphins, birds, beasts, lightning and clouds. Today in our gospel reading we see that even spittle and dirt offer their praises to the Creator. Let all the earth proclaim the glory of God! You and I, as citizens of both the material and spiritual realms, have the unique privilege of glorifying God in our bodies and our spirits. Let us never cease to find joy in that blessed calling.