This is a wonderful Gospel. And like every Gospel reading it goes beyond itself; it includes us.
Jesus at this point in the Gospel according to Mark, for some three chapters now, is on his way to Jerusalem. To be precise, he now has 23 miles to go. He is about to begin the last climb up to the Holy City. Jericho is in the Jordan valley. It is well below sea-level. It’s one of the lowest inhabited places in the world and also one of the oldest inhabited – so the archaeologists say. Again, it was near Jericho that the Israelites had entered the Promised Land some 1400 years before Jesus. We know the famous story of the conquest of the city and the collapse of its walls. All this is in the background. In the Creed we say that the Son of God ‘came down from heaven’. He came down to the depths in order to lift us up, to take us to the heavenly Jerusalem. When he was baptised in the River Jordan, he crossed it, as it were, to conquer our sin and lead us into the true Promised Land. And Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, is a man whose whole life is at a low point. He’s a man walled in by his blindness, confined, completely dependent on others. Jesus and the others are on the move, going up to Jerusalem for the Passover. But poor Bartimaeus is described as ‘sitting by the roadside’. He is static, has nowhere to go, no feast to go to. We see how the Gospel overflows itself. He’s more than himself, Bartimaeus; he’s humanity. He’s us blinded, disabled, diminished, sitting by the road of life, unable to see, unable to take part.
But there’s something remarkable here. Bartimaeus’ suffering has schooled him, excavated him, we could say. It has created a great space for hope and courage inside him. ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’ – a familiar psalm. Bartimaeus knows those depths and out of them he cries to the Lord. ‘When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout and to say, ‘”Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me’” – eleison. It’s the Jesus Prayer in embryo: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. And it comes out as a great shout. And when other people try to shut him up, he cries all the louder. Bartimaeus is a good patron for the forthcoming Year of Mercy – letting out this great cry, ‘have mercy on me!’
And he brings Jesus to a halt. He ambushes him, we might say. He way-lays him. Jesus stops and says, ‘Call him here’. And the crowd suddenly takes Bartimaeus’ side – there’s fickleness! ‘Courage, get up, he is calling you.’ It must have been a strange sight. This sedentary man springing up, throwing off his cloak and running towards Jesus’ voice – bumping into people, tripping up. ‘Then Jesus spoke, “What do you want me to do for you?”’ Jesus knew very well. Everybody knew. But he wanted Bartimaeus to say it. And he did, very simply, very strongly: ‘Master, that I may see again’. We see what a pattern, what an inspiration for us, Bartimaeus is. We might think of all those throughout the world who are already going up to the Jerusalem of the next Easter Vigil, to be baptised there. Bartimaeus is like a candidate for this. He professes his faith in Jesus, ‘Son of David, Master’. He confesses his need, ‘have mercy on me; that I may see again.’ And Jesus heals him, ‘“Go; your faith has saved you.” And immediately his sight returned.’ One name for baptism is illumination.
But the best is in the very last phrase: ‘And he followed him along the road’, on the way. Jesus didn’t ask him to do that. He did it spontaneously. And so Bartimaeus, who begins the Gospel sitting by the road ends it following Jesus along it. He goes from being static, from having nowhere to go, to being a man on the move. He becomes a pilgrim, going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and, still more, to witness the Passover of Jesus, his death and resurrection. It’s not by chance we have Bartimaeus, name. He must have been a known personality in the early Christian community. His healing is actually the last of Jesus’ miracles in this Gospel. The only other miracle to come is the miracle of miracles, the Resurrection. Perhaps Bartimaeus was among the wider circle of disciples who saw the risen Jesus: then he would realise what his eyes were for. And even if he only heard of it, then he would realise what Jesus meant when he said to him ‘Your faith has saved you’, and gave him back his sight. He would realise he had been resurrected. He would realise that to believe is to see again, to see afresh. It is to see Jesus, and to see the world with Jesus’ eyes. And therefore to be able to walk behind Jesus and share his mysteries. At the Easter Vigil, we hear that when we are baptized, we are baptised into his death, ‘so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life’ (Rom 6:4). Baptism is the sacrament of faith. It gives us back our spiritual sight.
But let’s focus on Christ. Really, it’s Christ who ambushes, way-lays Bartimaeus, us. He catches Bartimaeus up into his movement, sweeps him into it. This movement from the depths to the heights, Jericho to Jerusalem. This movement into the Promised Land. This movement back from exile (to mention the first reading and the Psalm). This priestly movement (to mention the 2nd), Christ’s Passover, his journey through death and resurrection to the house of the Father.
And as for Bartimaeus, so for us:
Through our faith, through the Sacraments and through our personal vocation and gifts, Jesus catches us up into his own journey to the house of the Father.
- He does this for all of us, in a fundamental way, through our Baptism and Confirmation.
- He does it, in a specific way, for the married through the Sacrament of Matrimony. He will do it in this Cathedral tomorrow evening when Peter Morris is ordained as a Redemptorist priest, to be caught up – in that specific way – in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- And in a supreme way, Sunday after Sunday, Christ does this for us all in the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion. ‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.’ That’s why we have eyes and faith: to see Jesus, to become his body, and follow him in the here and now of our lives.
‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ How much that prayer can unleash!