The Call and Response of Faith

Friday of the First Week of Advent: Isaiah 29:17-24 , Matthew 9:27-31.

Today’s readings speak to one another in a grand call and response across the liturgy. Truly, this happens throughout the scriptures, as Christ fulfills the words he gave the prophets. The Liturgy of the Word shows us in written/oral form what happened in reality for people of faith (the blind, the lame, the deaf, etc.). As we celebrate the Mass throughout the course of our lives, we reenact another reality – the great spiritual reality we cannot perceive with our senses – and this, too, is the great call and response between the Father and the Church.

Today’s call and response is more concrete. We hear Isaiah’s prophecy that “the eyes of the blind shall see” and the gospel gives us Jesus’s miraculous healing of two blind men. As we know, blindness in scriptures is both a physical ailment as well as a metaphor for spiritual blindness. Thus, the “call” in the Old Testament is that people will no longer be blind to God in their midst and the “response” of the New Testament is Jesus, in fact, being recognized as the Anointed One, the Son of God. The physical healing is a sign of this spiritual movement toward God.

The Blind Man, Gustav Klimt (1896) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia. I find Klimt’s portrait here to be moving, and not in the way that I normally associate with the blind (who provoke in me feelings of intense pity and sadness). Let us consider what Klimt might be telling us about blindness. This is a man of advanced age, with a corpse-like forehead and deep wrinkles that suggest not just age but an emotive life now spent. This is echoed in the skin hanging from his neck and the deep bag under his left eye. The man is not smiling. He has a an uncertain mouth and furrows between his eyes. The eye that is shown is watery and has wandered far to his left. More than weakness of the eyes, this speaks to a depletion of spirit. Half of his face is in darkness, a deep, black hollow in the cheek emphasizing the approach of this man’s death. The great contrast in the painting is the man’s white hair, splayed out from his head in an almost inverse halo. The hair seems neatly coiffed despite its wildness. If portraits can present to us a summation of a person, this one seems to give us a man who wants to control his appearance and very self, but seems to be in a losing battle with time. In all, we encounter a man who has reached the end of his days, and his outlook is uncertain at best. I pity him, but not because of his physical blindness. He is the opposite of beatified. Why? If it is because he is blind, surely its not an indictment of people with disability but one of a deeper, perhaps spiritual significance. Is this a man who has been willfully blind to God in his life and has arranged himself in life according only to his own powers, only to find that this is woefully inadequate in the face of death?

Digging into the Word given to Isaiah, we see so much detail: “On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book; And out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly will ever find joy in the LORD, and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.” Just this part has so much resonance. The deaf hearing “the words of a book” is the literal opening of ears that physically do not hear, the opening of the ears of the heart to God and His message of hope, and the words they hear are not just any words but the “words of a book” – that is, the great book of scripture, incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Word Himself. The next line emphasizes the spiritual sign of curing blindness: “out of gloom and darkness” speaks to the spiritual desolation of people who are not open to God in their lives. And in the third line we find the joy and rejoicing that cannot be suppressed, as demonstrated by the blind men in the gospel reading who “went out and spread word of him through all that land” despite Jesus asking them not to. In these three lines in particular, the first reading and gospel speak to one another in perfect synchronicity.

But, as always, Jesus fulfills scripture in surprising ways. One exchange at the heart of today’s healing reveals the true kernel of the spiritual call and response. Jesus asks the men, “Do you believe that I can do this?” and they answer yes. Isn’t this the BIG call and response of each of our lives? It belongs to the constellation of big questions humanity has always dealt with: is there a God? What type of god is he? Does God (or the gods) take an active role in our lives or does He sit back after having set everything in motion? What is incredible is that we have an answer to every one of these questions. Jesus answers them definitively and clearly throughout his ministry, death, and resurrection. Despite this, we ask those same questions again and again.

It is our weaker nature to question and disbelieve anything our senses cannot “prove.”  The fact of love alone proves this. The thing we can’t quantify, can’t prove but simply feel and enact – that thing we call love is stronger than history, blood, even death. We can love ancient enemies. We can love a stranger like we would a brother or mother. Our love for those who have passed from this life makes their spirit live and breathe within us. This is our stronger nature – stronger because it participates in God and His grace while the nature of disbelief and cynicism will always be weaker because it is a product of Satan in our lives.

Beyond this rational argument about our nature and the fact of love, Jesus himself tells us of the essential power of our assent to God in our midst: β€œLet it be done for you according to your faith,” he says. “And their eyes were opened.” Deceptively simple. On one hand, we might be led to think that it is all in our power, in a type of mind-over-matter situation. But this is untrue. Those with faith receive sight and blessings. They don’t make a new reality for themselves. Not to mention, this thing called faith is itself an amazing gift, a matrix of communion between humanity and God that we have received from our ancestors. I didn’t make up Christianity just like Abraham didn’t make up Judaism. Our faith has been received by humans since the beginning of time when God planted the revelation of Himself in Creation and, in a special way, in angelic revelation to the prophets. This precious gift of faith passed down to us must be received, adored, absorbed, believed, and lived, however, in order for it to be efficacious. 

The Blind Beggar, Josephus Laurentius Dyckmans (1853) | Creative Commons, image courtesy The National Gallery. Compared to Klimt’s painting, Dychmans is much more overtly religious and presents a more lovable figure. The beggar holds a rosary while a woman in the dim background reaches up to the feet of Christ on a crucifix. The title of the painting recalls the blind beggar in the gospel of Mark and Luke (and found in today’s gospel of Matthew in the form of two blind men), all of whom hear Jesus say a form of “your faith has healed you.” All three stories have the blind man call out to Jesus, saying, “have mercy on me.” While many scholars see perseverance in calling out to Christ as the lesson from these gospel episodes, I feel that Dychmans emphasizes this openness of heart and trueness of faith. The man’s look is patently that of a penitent sinner receiving the grace of God, shining on him from above. The church is a great edifice that frames the scene and stands in for the great faith that sustains him. Most interesting to me is the sexless child holding the man with one arm and extending a hand of offering with the other. The child’s look is steady and firm, and the wide-set eyes lend an animalistic (perhaps sheep-like?) quality to the face. This person emanates youthful vigor and purity, and whether meant to be an angel or Christ himself, the juxtaposition with the blind man is very interesting.

A word about “blind faith.” What an interesting oxymoron in the light of today’s gospel where faith gives sight, not blindness. I’ve felt unease as a young man about believing everything the Church teaches, and my young adult children have interrogated me along these same lines. Indeed, growing up involves learning not be gullible, not to be “taken” by this con man or that ideology. So, a certain amount of skepticism is to be expected, if not encouraged. But, once the fundamental question of “is this actually God I encounter in my received faith?” has been answered affirmatively, then the game must change. For, if you believe that this is God, the only appropriate stance is on your knees. When we accept God, we make our hearts docile to His Word, His revelation of Himself. The docile heart does not challenge or demand anything from its God; nor does it from those things God has established for our benefit such as the Church and the communion of saints and angels. This is not “blind” faith, but faith that has been opened, like a rose unfurling, receiving sweet rain and nourishing sunshine, and then perfuming the world with its irresistible scent. The purer the faith (the less it is questioned and the more it is embraced and its endless depths plumbed for truth), the more we delight the Lord and receive His grace. 

May we understand our faith as the blessed gift it is this Advent, and may it be done for us according to our faith.



  1. Chris Miller

    Beautiful commentary, Michael. Thanks be to God! “For if you believe that this is God, the only appropriate stance is on your knees.” So true. I once read a Protestant criticism that claimed “if the Eucharist is really the body of Christ, then those who receive it should be crawling to altar.” Crawling in awe, and unworthiness, and gratitude, and at the recognition of what it really is: The body of Christ! Indeed, for those of us blessed with knowing this Truth, I would say this Protestant naysayer’s criticism is a good commentary for the correct posture (both physical and spiritual) a true believer should possess. For truly the only appropriate stance can be on our knees.

    Peace be with you.

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