Why would you install a window frame when you could have had an unobstructed view? I have often asked this question out loud to myself, with no one around for fear of being judged. Whether it’s sitting in a restaurant, or riding the Skytrain, or curled up in a seat at a retreat centre, I find that when I’m looking through a window that’s been framed into smaller, individual-sized panes, I’m less inspired by the scenery outside and more annoyed at the designer who thought it a good idea to break up a perfectly good view.
Don’t even get me started on stained-glass windows, especially those which portray scenes of trees and rivers and wildlife with actual trees and rivers and wildlife right outside! Again, why put in a window only to obscure the view?
The late Rachel Sherwood, an American poet who studied at St David’s University College in Wales, she once wrote of windows in this way:
From this height
the sunset spans the whole world
before me: houses and trees are shadows
neon flares between them like sudden fire
the freeways run, always
strangely vacant with riderless cars
the windows up here
refract the blue slate and rose light
making the hills on the horizon collide
with ideas of Sussex, piedmont
or the cold clear wind of the Abruzzi
but that is never what is out there.
At home, the lamp curls its aurora
into the corners of the room
and out the windows
squares, rectangles of light
stake out a territory on the ragged lawn.
In the center of things
between the pressing of the window and air
— a small space —
there is a meeting that defines
“In the center of things/between the pressing of the window and air/— a small space —/there is a meeting that defines/nothing, everything.”
Could it be that windows—especially the stained glass sort or the kind that come with hexagonal or octagonal frames—could it be that these in fact help us to view the world in a particular, deepened way than if we were to look out onto everything all at once?
I would like to suggest this morning, that the blindness of the man from our gospel reading is not a curse, or a sin, or a life-sentence, but a window frame, an invitation to show up in the world in a particular way, one that would not have been possible had he never been born blind at all. This is not to disregard the very real stigma, poverty, and impairment that can come with blindness. Nor is it to open up a debate about whether this man was literally given sight when Jesus healed him, or if this story is about “spiritual blindness” alone.
Rather, to think of blindness as a window frame is to notice that Jesus seems quite uninterested in what seems to be other people’s obsession with this man’s sight. Jesus seems much more concerned that we would consider the so-called trials and tribulations of our lives—physical and spiritual—not ultimately as impediments or sources of shame, but as opportunities for each of us to live in the world in radically different and unique ways.
Jesus is walking along when he sees a man blind from birth. His disciples say to him, “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was made this way?”
Jesus answers, “Neither! He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Then he spits in some dirt, makes it into mud, rubs it into the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash. The man does so and receives his sight. Interesting that Jesus uses mud, something that dirties and stains in order to heal, to make “clean” the man’s eyes.
The story goes on and we learn that the man blind from birth had been begging in the streets. We learn that his parents are afraid to speak to the authorities for fear of being kicked out of the community; Jesus has been working on the Sabbath, breaking religious law, and they don’t want to be associated with him. Finally, we learn that regardless of the forty-one verses of debate about the nature of this man’s blindness and whether or not he was really healed, with everyone from the disciples, the religious authorities, the man’s parents, and the neighbour’s dog chiming in, regardless of all this, we learn that at the end of the day, the man comes to believe that Jesus is more than a prophet, and this is the true scandal.
At the men’s breakfast on Friday, we read this gospel story together. All forty-one verses. We wondered why the author would take so long to tell a simple story about healing. One of the men seated around the table quipped, “If Jesus had just zapped the guy and been done with it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation!”
Indeed. When it comes to our faith, we could be given so-called unobstructed sight that shows us clearly who Jesus is so that we might believe without a doubt, without question. Instead, we are given long-winded, convoluted stories with all kinds of images and metaphors and double-meanings. Instead, we are given stained-glass windows, windows with coloured glass, windows with frames, windows that obscure our vision so that the message of this Jesus might remain a scandal, might not be taken for granted or cheapened, something that we say but don’t really mean, something that only has bearing on our lives until our lives, like our faith, get tainted, until we like the man born blind get some mud in our eyes.
There is an old prayer that we sometimes say in the church. It goes, “Merciful God, through the death of your beloved Son you transformed an instrument of shame into a sign of hope and glory.” The man born blind: his eyesight, or rather, lack thereof, is used by others as an instrument of shame to expel him to the margins of society, to turn him from a real, live human being into a theoretical question for debate. Jesus transforms the man’s blindness into a sign of hope and glory—and I think that’s true whether we believe the man was physically healed or healed from social stigma alone.
A friend recently pointed out to me the somewhat obvious image of a window broken up into four sections making the shape of a cross. I am learning to see window frames, both the literal and the metaphorical kind, as crosses. I am learning to see what might be called dirty or unclean in our lives, what might be used as instruments of shame, as crosses waiting to be transformed into signs of hope and glory, as invitations to a radical life lived with particularity. As it was for the man born blind, so may it be for us. Amen.
Rachel Sherwood, “Windows” from Mysteries of Afternoon and Evening. Copyright © 1981 by David Trinidad. Reprinted by permission of David Trinidad. Accessed online on 18 March 2023 at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57627/windows-56d23b51a5ac1