Cast your mind back to the Sunday of Zacchaeus earlier in the year. We all remember the story (Luke 19.1-10); but try to recall the icon of the feast. It showed Zacchaeus up in the sycamore, but with his arms outstretched on the branches for support. The Lord was addressing him from below. The irony was vivid. Here was an image of the Crucifixion in a mirror. It is not the disciple in the tree, but the Lord. He addresses forgiveness and a new life to the disciple not from the ground but from the Cross. The Lord on the Cross does not require the Tree to support Him: He holds it as His tool to support the world while He wins its redemption. He is not raised up on the Cross so much as He raises the world up to gaze on Him as He prepares by death to bring about Resurrection. Christ sees not just one sinner struggling with himself on the boughs; for, by nailing Himself to the Cross-beam of the Tree of life, He struggles with death itself, and in His sight throughout He holds before Him all sinners that would turn their hearts from the decay of sin to God, to living for eternity even here.
The account of St Peter in his chains (Acts 12.1-11) and the miracle for the Man Born Blind (John 9.1-38) are more of the Bible’s stories with mirrors. What has happened to whom, and who is really meant by the stories? Let us go through what we have just heard.
- The angel shines light into Peter’s cell and tells him, “Get up quickly,” as the chains fall from his wrists. Instantly, Peter is back at that moment when he ran with St John to the Lord’s tomb (John 20.4) and sees where the bright angel has shone light on the abandoned grave-clothes. He sees now, as he saw then. So we know this story is about Peter’s own resurrection from fear, from living with an outlook towards death. “Get up quickly, Peter: Be arisen with the Lord.”
- The angel tells him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals … Wrap your cloak.” To Peter it is a dream; and yet he will be recalling the Lord’s words to him and the other apostles – “Do not take anything for your journey” (Luke 9.3). No more clothes and supplies: no cloak, no sandals (Luke 22.35). Peter is being sent out with different instructions. Peter’s fresh approach is confirmed: Indeed the Kingdom is come now; and nature, creation and humanity make their journey in a new Light.
- Then the angel says, “Follow me.” Peter begins to wake and is astounded. He is right by the sea of Galilee now, with his brother Andrew and their nets (Matthew 4.18). The first time he heard these words it was, “Leave your nets and follow me, and I will make you fishermen of people.” Then as the years go by, the tone becomes more grave: “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself, and take up your cross and follow me. What have you won if you gain the world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8.34-36) Such a cross is the loss of captivity and gaining freedom; it is the city’s cold iron gate that opens up and leads within, our liberation beyond destruction into the city of the Kingdom of heaven - not Herod’s old Jerusalem, but the City of God set on a hill that cannot hide its light.
With all these thoughts and words, Peter realised that the Angel liberating him from an earthly imprisonment was none other than Christ Himself, taking him out of darkness into God’s marvellous light (I Peter 2.9), as he himself put it, seeking out what is unclear in this darker realm, and transferring it into the Kingdom of His Son (Colossians 1.13). Here we can see what and who it truly is – our life and resurrection, and our hope. The mystery deepens in the gospel, not to obscure, but to draw us in.
- The neighbours say to the Man Born Blind that now can see, “Is this not this the man who used to sit and beg?” And he replies, “I am the man.” Now, where have we heard this before? Recall when Jesus says, “I am the Bread of life come down from heaven.” Those who would not follow Him grumbled, “Is this not the man Who is Jesus, son of Joseph, Whose mother and father we know. How can He say this?” We have the same reversal as Zacchaeus in his tree, and Christ signalling the Cross that is to come. Here the Man Born Blind whose heart has been turned into that of a follower, stands in for Jesus. “Look at him,” Jesus says, “and you will see Me. Reject him, how he sees by faith now and not just sight (cf. II Corinthians 5.7), and you reject Me. Dismiss the truth he is telling you, and you will turn truth on its head when it comes to Me.”
- "It is he,” say the neighbours. We are thrust forward into the hours before the Passion now. Jesus is betrayed and He asks the Temple guards, “Who are you seeking?” They call for Jesus of Nazareth and He replies, “I am He.” We look back and forth between the Man Born Blind and Jesus. What are we being told? The Man Born Blind keeps saying, “I am He.” And we realise all those times we have heard this before. Jesus says to us, “Yes – you are getting it. Keeping joining the pieces together. See Who I am in the pattern of your own humanity, and then you can see who you are in the pattern of my divinity: I am he. I am the Bread of Life and unless you eat Me, you shall have no life within you. I am the Door of the Sheep and, unless by way of Me, no one gets in. I am the Vine and if you branches get yourselves cut off, you are branches of Me no more. I am the way, the truth and the life; unless you come My way, you will not find the path to the Father. I am the resurrection and the life, and you will not find the life you are to live unless you trust and believe Me. I am the light of the world, and you will be walking about in darkness until you follow the light I shine.”
- And then finally, says the man now seeing, “I am the man.” Christ says, “Look at this – listen! Have ears to hear and eyes to see. This is what is coming: in the pattern of your humanity, I am the pattern for your life in God.” (cf. Galatians 2.20) In the miracle the Man Born Blind says, “I am the man.” So, when the high priest asks Jesus if He is the Son of the Blessed, He replies, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power” (Mark 14.62). And when He comes out spitefully crowned with thorns and mockingly robed in purple, Pilate says it too: “Behold the man. Ecce homo.” “Are you a king?” he demands. “Just as you say,” says the Lord, “I am.”
The Lord that the Man Born Blind sees before him, he sees in himself. The eyes that are opened see not just a miracle for one person, but the future for humanity entire. Christ asks him, “What do you see; what do you believe? Do you believe in the Son of Man who will be held up to ridicule by Pilate? Do you see the heavens opened, when even the high priest cannot? Do you see the Son of Man – a human being - sitting at the right hand of power and coming with heaven for you, another human being? Do you see that?” The Man Born Blind says, “What? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus says, “You have seen Him already.” The face of the Man Born Blind is confused, as his eyes search for what on earth Jesus can mean. So Jesus plays back the recording of what the Blind Man said himself: “I am He.” The sight is fully revealed, and it is fully revealing. The Man looks at himself, recalls his words, and sees the pattern of heaven cut out in the shape of a human being. “Lord, I believe,” he says. “I trust You. I understand. I see.”
We, who look upon the holy icons and touch as far as Heaven when it kisses us back, understand that we see as we are seen, that the Mother of God and the saints look out upon us from the Kingdom and draw us close within. We see Christ on His Cross at Calvary imagining us into the future Kingdom. We see the Great Angel taking us from captivity into the heart of the freeing mystery of God’s own life. We see ourselves like Zacchaeus representing for a moment the life of the Cross that will save us. We see ourselves as Peter who will be “got up quickly” from the prospect of death to new life in the City of God. And we must see ourselves like the Man Born Blind, who recognised who Christ is, reflected in the pattern of his own humanity, and it dawned on him what he was now remade to be, on the pattern of Christ’s divine life itself. We do not live merely as pilgrims from this life to a better world. How great our joy, however hard our struggle, God sees us realising the pattern He designed for humanity, living and dying and living again such that it mirrors how “the Kingdom has come in the midst of you” (Luke 17.21) and a whole world’s citizenship is that of Heaven. (Philippians 3.20)