Some years ago I went to renew my driver’s license and discovered I was legally blind in one eye. Fortunately I could see well enough in the other eye to get the renewal, but it meant a trip to the eye doctor. Soon I had an appointment to have cataract surgery, which is surely one of the great success stories in modern medicine. I ended up needing both eyes done, which they do one at a time. In between, I got to see the radical difference between the eye that could see and the eye that was still cloudy. It was startling. Covering the now-good, new eye and looking at the flame of the stove burner, I saw what I took to be the usual sight, but when I switched eyes, I was shocked by the difference. Through the good eye, the color of the flame was vibrant. I had not realized what I had been missing.
In the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar, December 27th is the date for the observance of St. John the Apostle (or Evangelist), moved this year to the 28th because the 27th falls on a Sunday (and Sundays in Christmas take precedence). St. John could be called the spiritual sight doctor, for like a spiritual eye doctor, he wants us to be able to see clearly. Especially in his Gospel and in Revelation (I will not debate the authorship of Revelation, but simply follow the long tradition), John works to bring to light truths that might elude us who live in darkness.
What is it that John would have us see? The answer comes early and often in his Gospel. In John 1:14 we have these words spoken to us in the Christmas midnight Mass:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
“We have seen,” and by the end of the Gospel, you too, says John, will see.
Philip is onboard early with this project of seeing, for when Nathanael is told about Jesus and replies with his famous cynical line, Philip simply says, “Come and see.” When Nathanael is taken aback by the greeting he receives from Jesus, Jesus lets us know the root of all proper sight: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Jesus sees us before we ever see him! And Jesus tells Nathanael, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
John lets us know that proper sight is more than just the correct functioning of lens, retinas, and optic nerves. Chapter nine is a lived parable of what it means to see. A “man born blind” (with all the cultural baggage that entails) is given his sight. As observers, we get to see how “his eyes are opened” in more ways that just the healing of blindness. His part of the story has Jesus tell him, “You have seen [the Son of Man]” — It is I, and the formerly blind man worships Jesus. This act of worship points us to just what the once-blind man now sees.
The Pharisees are a different story. They provide a great example of the truth of the saying, “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see” (John Heywood). They don’t take well to being lectured by someone they consider beneath them. Jesus’ words to them should catch us up short: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:41). If we really could not see, we would be excused, but because we have chosen to not see, we stand in a very dangerous place. John would have us soften our hearts and allow ourselves to truly see.
The depth of the art of seeing can be discerned in the signs recorded in the Gospel of John. Starting with the wedding in Cana, and reaching to the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11, John is giving us clues about what he’d have us see. Signs in this gospel are like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” When you search for the funny man dressed in the striped red clothing, you can get frustrated that you cannot find him. But once you do find him, it becomes obvious where he is. From then on, whenever you look at that picture, your eyes are immediately drawn to Waldo. This is the effect of the greatest sign in John’s Gospel, which is never called a sign, but is still clearly the ultimate sign. And that sign is the cross.
After the cross, and indeed after the resurrection, our eyes are drawn to the center. Here is what John was doing:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (20:30)
To put it succinctly, John would have us see Jesus (just like Philip would have Nathanael) and in seeing him, we would believe.
In the liturgical calendar, St. John’s feast day is sandwiched between St. Stephen’s day — the first martyr — and the story of the killing of the infants in Bethlehem. John is the only apostle, according to tradition, to have died a natural death. But this only sharpens the point that we live in a world that remains in tension, and that we should not deny that trouble, struggle, and evil still dog our every step. It is in that tension we should read Revelation.
The book of Revelation has a long history of people attempting to decipher it. It is a rich brew of pastoral, prophetic, and apocalyptic writing. It indeed has something to say about the future, but in our mania to be fortune tellers, we have missed a central fact. The word apocalyptic comes from the Greek for “uncover” or “reveal.” Yes, the future is revealed, but even more, what is revealed is reality. John wants us to see the true nature of things, and Revelation pulls back the curtain so that we can see. The word “look” or “behold” occurs almost 30 times in Revelation.
And what a startling selection of things to see! We have the worship in heaven, the war between God and evil, both on earth and in heaven, judgment, the defeat of evil, and the restoration of heaven and earth. At the center, never far from John’s sight, is one central figure:
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:6)
Here is a sight too wonderful and terrible, a Lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered.” Here stands Jesus, the Lamb of God (John 1:29) still bearing the signs of crucifixion, standing at the center, worthy to finish God’s plan for the cosmos. Just as in his Gospel, John sees Jesus, his cross and resurrection, at the center of all things. This is what we too must see.
We live between great evils, the death of saints and the slaughter of innocents. Great events shake us to the core, and we believe the world has changed. Riots, pandemics, crashing towers, earthquakes, raging fire — all claim to tell us what is true. Our spiritual eyesight is clouded by our spiritual cataracts. God comes to us and heals our sight; John the seer helps us see the truth. Jesus stands behind it all. We have “read” the end of the book, we know how it ends — if we will allow ourselves to see.
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.