The Gospel of the blind man – blind Bartimaeus, as we know from Mark’s Gospel – crying out to the Lord nicely segues with Ash Wednesday. It reminds us of Martin Luther’s last words, which serve nicely as an Ash Wednesday affirmation: “We are beggars, this is true.”
Wow. Talk about a reliance on the truth devoid of all systems and ideologies. Luther was answering the question whether he stood by the doctrines he espoused. “Yes!” he replied, and then said his last words that sum up what he taught. “We are beggars.” We are totally reliant on God. Few moments better teach this than our final ones. Can anything more true come from someone’s lips than those words from Martin Luther? Yes, “this is true.”
Ash Wednesday echoes the sentiment. “We are dust and ash, this is true.” Ash Wednesday is a response to the temptation of the first temptation and sin: “We can be like God!” No, without God we are dust and ash. Is anything more true?
To be at the beggar point is to be at the zero point. It’s to be at a point devoid of all illusions of being like God on our own. It’s to realize without God we are nothing.
But it’s not a nihilistic sentiment, as the beggar in the Gospel shows us. After all, he cries out to Jesus for salvation. He cries out in faith. Faith trusts that being at the zero point means good things for our future, because God makes things from dust and ash, even as He did at the beginning, drawing out life and existence from the formlessness and void. Or as He drew Adam out of the dust.
The Lord cannot work with dust that runs from him with what little will it has left in it, thinking itself self-sufficient and capable. But He does great things with dust. So yes, count me with that dust and ash! That’s the message of Ash Wednesday.
And the Lord proves Himself faithful. Consider, we know about Bartimaeus and Lazarus, two pathetic creatures. They’re names are proclaimed and confessed by none other than the Lord in His Gospel. But who are the “rich man” or the “pharisees” who rejected Jesus? Their names are forgotten.
But of course Jesus would confess their names, because they both confessed Him. And as Jesus says, “If you confess me before men, I will confess you before my heavenly Father.” So, Bartimaeus and Lazarus’ names are proclaimed yet today, even as they confessed their Lord. The Lord is faithful.
What can we make of Bartimaeus’ blindness?
There’s an interesting “blind monk” motif that finds its way in literature and cinema occasionally. We think of the Greek prophet Tiresias, a character popping up in Greek drama, who helped steer Odysseus home. The Graeae shared one eye between them as they foretold the future. Or there’s Odin, whose one eye signifies a heightened wisdom. In modern cinema, there is the literal “blind monk” found in Rogue One, who continually chanted “I am one with the force. The force is with me” as he kicked but – his blindness was his strength.
There is something perverse about the motif, in a Gnostic way. Gnosticism considers reality an illusion; therefore anything seen only conspires in the illusion. Far better to be darkened to the sights of this world order and see a higher truth with “the mind’s eye.” Far better to be blind to the false thought that all the distinctions of beings– trees, animals, people, rocks, and all such things – should be made manifest in the light. Better rather that all these things blur together and disappear in the darkness, all the better so we can see what all along we could not see.
Nothing in the Bible or in Jesus’ ministry ever suggests support for this understanding of blindness. Blindness is the return of part of our body – a rather important part – to dust and ash. It’s deadened. It’s something that needs to be restored. When the blind man cried out, it wasn’t because he was tired of his “mind’s eye” perception. He was broken and needed to be fixed, and he knew it.
And Jesus, who created the light on the first day, is the Light of light. He brings all the life He made into our perception of reality, so that we can discern all the creation in its glorious specificity. We can see male and female. We can see what marriage is. We can see the truth of who we are (beggars) and what we need (God). This is all what reality demonstrates when the light is working.
To the one who like the beggar confesses himself dust and ashes – confessing himself to be “formlessness and void” as far as his existence goes – how fitting that his re-creation begins where the first creation began: “Let there be light.” And there was light. As it was for him, so I is for us. What did you think the candle at baptism symbolizes?