Dr. Oliver Sacks is Professor of Neurology at NYU School of Medicine but he’s best known for the dozen or so books he’s written. Most of these chronicle his clinical work over the years and deal with patients with unique and intriguing issues. The titles of his books tend to reflect this: The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, A Leg to Stand On, and An Anthropologist on Mars. His first book, Awakenings, was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.
In An Anthropologist on Mars, Sacks tells the story of Virgil, a fifty-year-old man who has been blind almost his entire life. At an early age he is diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the retina. Virgil is about to get married and his fiancée wants to understand more about his blindness. However, both his eyes have cataracts which make examining the retinas almost impossible. At her insistence the cataracts are removed and to everyone’s surprise Virgil can see!
If Hollywood was writing this the story would end here, but actually this is where the story begins. Virgil, who is a timid to begin with, is absolutely overwhelmed by the brightness, colors, textures, shapes, and movement that he now sees. This external world is completely new to him and has no correspondence to his previous internal world of darkness. Although he now possesses the ability to visualize, Virgil nonetheless has to learn how to see.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels. Synoptic means “to see together” and these gospels describe the life and ministry of Jesus from a similar perspective as opposed to John who uses a different framework for his presentation of Christ. There are two familiar stories in the synoptics that are found back-to-back: Peter’s confession of Jesus and the transfiguration of Christ. Although these two events occurred about a week apart, the writers link them because of their similar theme: they challenge us to see Jesus in new ways.
Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God. This is a new way for the disciples of seeing Jesus. The crowds suppose Him to be someone else—a resurrected prophet from the past, maybe John the Baptist or Elijah. But just as Virgil regaining his sight wasn’t the end of his story, it is not the end of this one either.
Jesus goes on to explain that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, be crucified and raised to life on the third day. Peter blows a gasket over this because even though he understands who Jesus is, he doesn’t grasp what this means—that it is His purpose as Messiah to suffer rejection. The transfiguration story echoes this confusion as two great prophets from the past appear with Jesus speaking of His exodus (Greek) and Peter’s response is to treat all three the same by building booths to them. Like Virgil, he has sight but he is still learning to see.
This is where we should plug into the story because though we might be quick and comfortable acknowledging Jesus in the way that Peter did, the truth is that we too are constantly learning to see Him in new ways. Perhaps we’re learning to see Him as our high priest as He is spoken of in the book of Hebrews, or the Faithful Witness as John presents Him in Revelation. Or maybe we’re learning to see Him as the Great Physician whom Luke shows us. He is the original doctor without borders and He doesn’t arrive on scene wearing a Hazmat suit but personally touches lepers and is known as the friend of sinners.
Of course, seeing Jesus in new ways is a lifetime pursuit. The only thing that can possibly get in the way is if we think we already see everything there is to see.