“Reach out your hand, and see what it gets you”

Traditionally, as catechumens prepare for baptism in the Catholic Church, we hear three specific Gospel readings at the three Scrutiny Masses before reception of the Sacraments (John 4:1-42, John 9:1-41, and John 11:1-44).  Because my parish does two cycles of RCIA per year, I ended up hearing the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man as told in a different gospel.  On October 28th, the reading was from Mark 10:46-52 as follows:

As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”

And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.”

Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”

So they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.

Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.”

Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.

Jesus doesn’t meet the blind man where he sits; he asks Bartimaeus to walk to him.  Picture what that would be like; getting up and stumbling forward in pitch darkness, arms outstretched in front of you, until another hand takes yours.  That first moment of contact with Christ might have felt like when you don’t realize you’ve reached the bottom of a flight of stairs, and come into jarring contact sooner than you expected.

When Bartimaeus reached Christ, he would have touched him with his hand, the eyes he had used in lieu of eyes his whole life.  So, at the moment of contact, before Christ restored his sight, he was already perceiving Christ directly, and then, grace upon grace, a veil fell away, and he was looking at Him.  Jesus would be the first thing Bartimaeus saw, with no point of reference or comparison.  Presumably, for the rest of his life, everything else Bartimaeus saw was in some way interpreted in relation to that first vision.

But what I found most affecting was the moments right before Bartimaeus opened his eyes.  Walking forward in anticipation and encountering someone who’s already enough to overload the senses you’ve got, before you can  ask for any others to be dazzled by.

After Mass, I was reminded of one of the songs from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. In “See What It Gets You” the straightlaced Nurse Fay Apple almost entirely regrets having opened her heart to Dr. Hapgood. (The plot of the show is really byzantine, so I’m not summarizing any further than that). She sings:

Here’s how to crawl,
Now, run, lady!
Here’s how to walk.
Now fly!
Here’s how to feel-
Have fun, lady.
And a fond goodbye!
Reach out your hand
And see what it gets you.
See what it gets you.
See what it gets you!
Trouble is, whatever it gets,
You find
That once you see, you can’t stay blind.
What do I do now.
Now that my eyes are wide?

Nurse Fay Apple has also recieved a world-expanding vision, and it muddles everything up for her.  Without his sight, Bartimaeus would have probably remained a beggar, enduring countless pains, but not the wrenching pain of becoming a disciple of Christ, falling in love, and then arriving at Calvary.  Even in her pain and frustration, Nurse Fay Apple can’t reject what she now knows; she may resent the duties that have been laid upon her as she’s grown, but she can’t cast them off.

By the end of the song, Nurse Fay Apple has answered her own question of what to do:

And if I’m not ready
And lightheaded,
I can’t stand here dumb.
So, ready or not, here-I hope-I come!

 

T-3 days.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Wonderful piece, Leah, it left me very moved. You’re too young to be this insightful! Slow down! I am older and must keep up!

  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com Melanie B

    Wow! I love your reading of the Bartimaeus story.

  • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

    We are just so damn lucky. You open our eyes again to that first rush, over and over. Thank you.

  • Mark Shea

    Leah:

    Two things are also worth noting about this narrative. First, it’s very significant that Bartimaeus is *named* by the evangelist. This is the convention in ancient historiography in identifying the source of the the tradition. In other words, Mark is saying that Bartimaeus, who was known to the early Church as an, ahem, eyewitness is himself the source of this story. Similarly, the evangelists don’t simply say a “synagogue elder” had a sick daughter. They note that it was a man named Jairus. In other words, Jairus is the source of the story and you can ask him (or his daughter, who is an adult by the time the evangelists are writing). Sometimes, the identity of the witness is kept out of print during his or her lifetime but then mentioned explicitly once the witness is dead and out of harm’s way for persecution. So Mary of Bethany is not named as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in the synoptics, but is explicitly named as The Woman Who Anointed Jesus Feet in John’s. In fact, she is identified by this act *before* John gets around to telling her story a couple of chapters later. This means that there weren’t gaggles of women running around anointing Jesus’ feet. There was just one woman who thought to do it and Jesus was so moved by it that he said she would be remembered for it as long as the gospel was preached. (It’s also intriguing that of all the parables Jesus told, only one includes a character to whom he give a name: Lazarus (Mary’s brother), in a story told about a man returning from the dead. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture this parable being told, rather pointedly, at the celebration that followed the raising of Lazarus, and in pointed response to the people whose first reaction to the miracle had been to try to figure out a way to kill both Jesus and Lazarus in order to quell the growing crowd of admirers.) Once again, the convention of ancient historians is being obeyed in which mentioning the name of the character in the tradition is a way of tipping the hat to the source of the tradition (in this case, Mary and Martha, as well as the apostles who were eyewitnesses. Also interesting is that, in this case, Thomas seems to have been present, but not Peter. It’s he who is there, largely to provide snark, but also to doggedly stick with the Master even when he thinks the whole thing is a dangerous waste of time.

    Second, It’s worth noting that the evangelist includes the detail that Bartimaeus “followed him on the way”. The Way Jesus is on is the way to Jerusalem–and his Passion. Bartimaeus barely has time to get to know Jesus (though he is evidently acquainted with enough of the stories about him that he has become convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. That is what “son of David” means and when Bartimaeus calls him by that title he is already professing faith in Jesus. But you have to wonder how hard it must have been to go straight from this life-changing moment to the Triumphal Entry (which was Jesus own extremely clear affirmation that he was, indeed, the messianic Son of David–Solomon had ridden an ass into Jerusalem a thousand years before in claiming the throne of David and Jesus and his audience were both very acutely aware of this) to the crashing shock of the crucifixion, in which everything seemed to go hideously wrong. I wonder who Bartimaeus negotiated the whiplash. Yet he clearly remained a disciple and was, presumably among the 500 witnesses to the Risen Christ. Certainly he is, for the evangelist, an important enough figure in the Church that he sees fit to name him to the audience, with the assumption that they all know who he is. I wonder if there are any traditions about him?

    • grok87

      @Mark Shea
      very interesting, thanks

    • http://larebe.blogspot.com Rebekkah

      @Mark Shea- I appreciated your insights.

  • Pedro Paulo Jr

    Very moving the way you told Bartimeu’s history. I’ve read it a thousand times and never considered in this way.

    Thanks

    (D-3 day)

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  • Joe

    T-3 has the suspense killing me even though I know what is about to happen!! Beautiful reflection.

    This is a somewhat related story you might find fascinating. This girl received her sight while on a train trip.
    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/2698893/posts
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5S-mW36lMew
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6ju4HeobGM

  • grok87

    Great Post Leah!- I loved your visualization of the Bartimaeus story. It’s inspiring to see you entering into the lives of those in the Gospel narrative as you prepare to be received into the Church this weekend.

    Today’s gospel is one of my favorites. While it is less dramatic than the Bartimaeus story, it seems somehow related to it, if only tangentially, by the concepts of observing and looking:
    http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/111512.cfm

    Asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus said in reply,
    “The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.”

    Heisenberg uncertainty principle anyone?
    cheers,
    grok

  • Dan C

    The blind man begged. His cloak on which he sat and likely the sole garment with which he wrapped himself certainly contained coins dropped as alms. His cloak, his most important possession, with the day’s alms in pennies scattered on it, is cast aside.

    This response of this man, with nothing, is starkly contrasted with the story of the rich young man from several weeks ago (and in the text, several sentences prior). Both ask Jesus for access to Him, one on how to attain the Kingdom, the other for healing (was Jesus prescribing a healing balm for the rich man too?). One can contrast their approaches to Jesus- the blind beggar is calling out in faith, asking for help while the rich man approaches in dignity in a question and answer dialogue. Mark is illustrating who it is who is open to the Kingdom, and that the beggar, blind man, the man without anything is the one who called out in trust and faith while the rich young man (which is recorded as Jesus looking on him lovingly-something not noted for the blind beggar) went away sad. The apposition of the two stories has meaning too.

    • ivan_the_mad

      I never knew that about the cloak, thanks Dan C!

  • Staircaseghost

    Upon what evidence was the blind man relying when he addressed him as “son of David”?

    • TerryC

      That is a good question and depends on what you believe.
      It is quite possible that Jesus’ identity as a descendant of David was public knowledge. Lots of people were descendants of David, just as lots of people are related to the House of Windsor, for example Diana Spencer was actually related to her husband, though not closely. I believe Humphrey Bogart was actually more closely related.
      The point is that the Jews actually cared about such things. So genealogy was recorded. Mary was most likely related also to the tribe of Levi, and we know they certainly kept records about the priestly families. So one answer is that everybody in Israel knew that Jesus was a descendant of David. It might explain why the Sanhedrin was so nervous about Jesus riding in on a donkey. They couldn’t have thought the Romans would be all that happy about a descendant of Israel’s greatest king coming to town, while the crowd acclaims him.
      The other answer is the “Son or David” like “Son of Man” are Messianic phrases. By using it Bartimaeus is acknowledging that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah.

      • Mark Shea

        That’s exactly what the Sanhedrin was nervous about. And the Triumphal Entry was a very calculated messianic claim. Solomon had ridden into Jerusalem on an ass 1000 years before and everybody in that crowd–including Jesus–was perfectly aware of that. If you want to get the hang of it, imagine, say, Marco Rubio donning a powdered wig and going to Valley Forge to give a speech about the need for a *real* patriot to be elected to the Presidency. Jesus is very consciously appealing to the entire national history of Israel by the gesture and announcing himself as the Son of David and the True Heir to the Throne of Israel. Not for nothing was the titulus over his cross, “IESUS NAZARENUS REX IUDEORUM”. Of course everybody misunderstood what he meant by kingship. But he did mean something and it was totally rooted in the promises made to David by God.

      • Staircaseghost

        The blind man certainly might have inferred this, but that stands in tension to to what is said only 2 chapters earlier, when Peter guesses that he is the Messiah, but Jesus specifically instructs them to tell no one.

        Suppose someone makes a TV movie that is a biography of Barack Obama. Suppose there is a scene set in his college dorm room, and an acquaintance of his says something like, “you’re so ambitious — someday you’re going to president of the United States!” to which another acquaintance replies, “A black president? The only way that could happen is if his opponent were gay, or even a Mormon!”

        Now, it is certainly *possible* that such a conversation could have taken place. But it is much more likely that the authors of the account simply inserted into the verbiage information they knew their audience would already be familiar with. You see this all over the NT, in things like “take up your cross and follow me”, which would have been meaningless in the original context.

        None of this necessarily means the event itself didn’t happen, or that whatever moral lesson you choose to take from the tale is “wrong”. But it does underscore the human authorship of it all, which undermines any claim to privileged status over any other human tale.

        • Mark Shea

          The blind man certainly might have inferred this, but that stands in tension to to what is said only 2 chapters earlier, when Peter guesses that he is the Messiah, but Jesus specifically instructs them to tell no one.

          Why does it stand in tension? Peter made the inference. Bartimaeus made the inference. The crowd at the Triumphal Entry makes the inference too. Jesus’ instruction is not “You and you alone have figured this out”. It is basically “Don’t make a public thing about this”. And with good reason, since everybody has a false idea of what the Messiah is going to do. The apostles still aren’t clear on the concept even at the Ascension.

          But it is much more likely that the authors of the account simply inserted into the verbiage information they knew their audience would already be familiar with.

          If that is the case, then the entire story makes *no* sense. Bartimaeus is, after all, healed because of his faith. Faith in what? Faith that Jesus is the son of David. If he never made the profession, the healing makes no sense. We can, I suppose, say that there was no healing, and no Bartimaeus, but it’s pretty odd that the evangelists all tell this story, all situate it in Jericho, at about the same time (as Jesus is going to Jerusalem for the last time). And it’s weird that they name this figure instead of just keeping him anonymous. The attempt to just chuck the story as a fabrication looks very dubious to me. But if we accept it as eyewitness testimony which I think is the sensible thing to do, I see good reason not to think that Bartimaeus made the same intuitive leap that Peter had and that, in fact, various figures in the account seem to have made.

          You see this all over the NT, in things like “take up your cross and follow me”, which would have been meaningless in the original context.

          Not at all. The followers of Spartacus could tell you all about taking up their cross and following a leader. The idea that following a leader could involve sacrifice is not exactly original to Christianity. And the knowledge of what following a leader who was not a Roman citizen could entail was not a secret in occupied Judea. And, of course, there is the fact that Jesus was *famous* for making cryptic remarks that puzzled people at the time and only later snapped into focus (“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”) Your argument depends on the assumption that Jesus did not know what was going to happen to him, while the gospel writers are, in fact, quite adamant that he did know, that he repeatedly foretold it to their bafflement, that he even established the central rite of Eucharist based on his foreknowledge, and that the lights only came on for his followers after his Resurrection. In short, they are very explicit in denying that the sayings of Jesus are being retrojected into his mouth and very clear that their experience was that he really did foretell his own death and resurrection.

    • Martha

      There is also the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew, which traces the descent from Abraham through David down to Joseph, and the infancy narrative in Luke 2: 4 “4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”

      So, by knowing that this rabbi or wonder-worker was from Galilee, the son of Joseph who was of the lineage of David, addressing him as “Son of David” in order to beg a boon from him would be reminding him of his obligations as one of a royal line to the common people.

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  • mickey

    I’m grateful to God for you :-)

  • kmk

    Sort of makes me wish I had been an adult convert. Thanks so much for this writing, and I will be reading more, I hope!

  • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

    Only mentioning this because this is a thought I have seen a few people in RCIA have: It isn’t to late to back off. It isn’t too late to wait a year, or until the next time your parish confirms people. While you cannot know this is right in the same way you cannot know that the person you marry will stay sane, but nevertheless you are making a commitment. (If you’re curious: one of these people was me (I joined despite reservations), one was a good friend of mine (who came into the Church after a few other issues got sorted out), and I have a third friend who simply never joined the Church).

    My suspicion is that this will not matter at all. The same evidences which convinced you to join the Church are likely just as strong today as they were a few months ago, but one more “please be sure” does not seem like it will hurt and it could very well help.

    Godspeed.

  • Mark Shea

    “Upon what evidence was the blind man relying when he addressed him as “son of David”?”

    We don’t know, but presumably it was the same evidence that motivated huge crowds to follow Jesus, in short, his preaching and his signs–all the stuff the New Testament describes him saying and doing. Bartimaeus, like Peter, came to the conclusion that it all pointed to the conclusion that he was the Christ(=”son of David”=”Messiah”). By the way, note how completely Judeocentric the entire conversation is. Despite the endless assertions in contemporaary culture about how the story of Jesus is just a warmed-over pagan myth (on the basis of a few weak tea similarities between Jesus and a couple of themes in pagan mythology that you equally use to say he is a “warmed-over DC comic”) what is blazingly obvious from the NT is that nobody is thinking about paganism, except in passing. Everybody is hyper-focused on Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and of the promises to the House of David of a Messiah. Later on, when the Church begins its mission, it will ocassionally note dim resemblances between Jesus and some aspects of pagan culture (as, for instance, Paul does on the Areopagus in Acts 17). But quite obviously, what the apostles are interested in is how Jesus fulfils the Jewish prophecies and the Jewish cultic practices because they devoutly believe that God really has made a covenant with the Jews (several of them actually) that he did not make with the Gentiles and that therefore “salvation is of the Jews”. To be sure, the Chosen are chosen for the sake of the unchosen. But Chosen they are. And Jesus is, for the New Testament writers, the Chosen of the Chosen: it was for the sake of his coming that Israel was chosen out of all the nations of the earth.

    Bottom line: if you want to understand the New Testament, don’t waste time looking for sketchy and highly dubious parallels with Osiris or Diana or Mithras. Look at the Old Testament. The NT writers have one eye on Jesus and the other on the revelation to the Jews. They frankly don’t much care about pagan religons beyond that. That’s because, when they met the risen Christ on the Emmaus road, he didn’t preach to them about the Messiah who affirms the universal equality of all religions as equal paths to God. He spoke as a Jew who said that the entirety of Moses and the Prophets (not the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Iliad) was really about him, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and intended to give them insights into his mission and the mission of the Church. The apostle and the Church after them simply follow suit and therefore walk the tightrope of subordinating the message of the Old Testament to Jesus, yet never following heretics like Marcion and chucking the Old Testament. They believe Jesus that he comes to fulfil, not abolish, the Law and the Prophets. They will occasionally press into service some image from paganism to illustrate their message (i.e. the Monument to the Unknown God or, later, things like wedding rings, Christmas trees, or Easter eggs). But note that the pagan image is always filled with Christian content. The Christian or Jewish image is never filled with pagan content.

  • http://larebe.blogspot.com Rebekkah

    “Walking forward in anticipation and encountering someone who’s already enough to overload the senses you’ve got, before you can ask for any others to be dazzled by.”

    Lovely. I’ve been a happy visitor to the blog for a couple of months, and for this and other writings: thank you, Leah.

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  • Sarah

    I quit reading the New Testament at John, which is where it started to get weird. Probably should have kept going. Thanks for this post — one more thing added to my reading list.

    This is an incredible story. I don’t always have a good sense of what Jesus would be like, but I do know Richard Rowan, (and have met his real-life counterparts) and this is the sort of thing he would do.

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