30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Sisters and brothers, have you ever seen that picture that is actually two pictures in one? At first glance, what you see is something that looks like the face of an ugly old hag. With a large crooked nose. Not a pleasant sight. But if you resist the strong temptation to turn away from the ugliness. If you take the trouble to stare long enough at the hideous image. You might begin to see something else. You may see that the huge misshapen thing right in the middle of the picture is not just a nose. It’s also a delicate little chin belonging to a pretty young lady. Whose face is turned shyly away from your gaze. Exposing her neck. In a most attractive way. And when you see that, then the image is transformed for you. And you no longer feel the urge to turn away. In fact, some of us may actually find ourselves staring too long and too hard at it instead.
An optical illusion. That’s what it is. An image that has the power to transform itself. From ugliness to beauty. From repulsiveness to attraction. What it takes is the courage not to turn away. The willingness to stare longer than what feels comfortable.
I mention this, because our Mass readings present us with something very similar. To appreciate this, we must first recall what we have been hearing in the gospel readings of the past few Sundays. Today’s reading is taken from the end of chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel. Throughout chapters 8 to 10, two important things have been happening. On the one hand, Jesus and his disciples have been journeying to Jerusalem. In chapter 11, they will finally arrive there. On the other hand, all along the way, Jesus has been trying to teach his disciples a crucial but uncomfortable lesson. Three times, he has tried to tell them about what awaits him in the Holy City. That he will be handed over to cruel men. Be put to death. And then be raised up on the third day.
But Jesus’ message is too much for the disciples to bear. The image that he paints is just too ugly and repulsive for them to accept. You may recall that in last week’s reading, James and John react by asking Jesus for seats at his right and left. Prompting the other disciples to get upset with them. This reaction is really a turning away from the apparent ugliness of what Jesus had been telling them. And can we blame the disciples for turning away? Who among us would not feel the urge to turn away from such a terrible thing as the cruel torture and cold-blooded murder of an innocent man. And not just any innocent man. But the Messiah himself. Someone upon whom we have placed our hopes. Upon whom the fulfilment of all our dreams depend.
And yet, our readings invite us to resist the urge to turn away. To rest our eyes a little longer than what feels comfortable. And so to see a different image. An image not just of terror and despair. But of comfort and great rejoicing. Isn’t this the picture that the first reading paints for us? The Lord says this: Shout with joy for Jacob! Hail the chief of nations! Proclaim! Praise! Shout: ‘The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel!’…. They had left in tears, I will comfort them as I lead them back…
Of course, these words apply first of all to the return of Israel from Exile. But they also apply to what we believe Jesus to be doing in the gospel. By journeying resolutely to Jerusalem. By submitting humbly to death. Jesus is actually fulfilling the promise proclaimed by Jeremiah. Jesus is gathering together again the scattered people of God. Freeing those held for long years in the bondage of sin and selfishness. Turning humiliated prisoners back into proud sons and daughters. Transforming tears into laughter. Sorrow into joy. Playing the role described in the second reading. The role of high priest. To act for men in their relations with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. The gift and sacrifice of his own Body and Blood.
Terror and despair. Comfort and rejoicing. Two very different faces contained in the same image. Not unlike the optical illusion that we described earlier. But what does it take for us to see the beauty concealed in the ugliness? The hope hidden in the face of despair? We find the answers to this question in the experience of Bartimaeus. The one who was blind. And then was made to see again.
What was it that enabled Bartimaeus to experience the transformation of blindness into sight? How was he able to not turn away from Jesus? But instead to insist on shouting after the Lord. Even when other people were trying so hard to shut him up. The reading tells us two things that may have helped Bartimaeus.
The first is his blindness. He is unable to see. And so his mobility is restricted. The reading tells us that he was sitting at the side of the road. He has to keep still. Even as other people are busy rushing about. Including the Lord’s disciples and the large crowd. People apparently following Jesus. But not actually understanding where exactly it is the Lord is going. Geographically, they are walking the same road. But spiritually, they are moving in opposite directions. The Lord towards loving self-sacrifice. The others in the direction of greed and ambition. And anxious self-preservation.
In contrast, in his blindness, and in his stillness, Bartimaeus is blessed with a heightened sense of hearing. The reading says that he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth. Heard, not just with his ears, but also with his heart. Heard, and believed, so wholeheartedly, that he was willing to follow Jesus along the road. Not just the road to Jerusalem. But also the way of true discipleship. The Way of the Cross.
The second important thing we’re told about Bartimaeus is that he is a beggar. What does it mean to beg? It means first to acknowledge and accept one’s own helplessness. To recognise that no amount of effort and hard work will make a difference to one’s salvation. If God does not see fit to grant it. Isn’t this why Bartimaeus is not ashamed to keep shouting? He shouts loud. Because he recognises that his need is great. And, in shouting, he is heard. The Lord calls to him. And heals him. And accepts him as a true disciple. Someone blessed with the gift of seeing hope in despair. Joy in sorrow. And, having seen, is then given the courage to follow the Lord. To walk the Way to Calvary and Beyond.
And what about us, my dear sisters and brothers. Surely, we too have our share of ugly experiences. Situations from which we are sorely tempted to turn away. To reject and to deny. Troublesome feelings. Difficult people. Unpleasant circumstances. Things that we would rather not talk about. Let alone confront. And not just experiences in our own personal lives. But also situations of suffering and despair that we see all around the world today. Mistreated refugees and migrants. Victims of injustice and oppression. People who suffer simply because they were born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Images that make us uncomfortable. Tempting us to turn our eyes away.
And yet, it is only when we insist on looking. On enduring the discomfort. That we receive the blessing that Bartimaeus received. The gift of seeing beauty in ugliness. Hope in the midst of despair. And, having seen, to receive the courage to walk the Way that Jesus walked. The Way of love and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. The only Way that leads to joy. And to the fullness of life.
Sisters and brothers, is there perhaps an optical illusion in your life that the Lord is inviting you to keep gazing upon today?