Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Ephphatha!"- Be opened!

Readings: Is 35:4-7a; Ps 146:7-10;Jas 2:1-5;Mark 7:31-37

I think the key to understanding our readings for this Sunday is found in the reading from the Letter of James. The key is stated in the form of a question: "Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" (Jas 2:5). Of course, this is what is commonly referred to as a rhetorical question, that is, a question to which the answer is already known by the questioner. Nonetheless, questions have a way of making us think about things a little more deeply. Even rhetorical questions serve this function. In case anyone is wondering, the answer to the question posed in James is, Yes, God chooses those who are poor in worldly terms "to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom."

In our first reading from Isaiah we encounter a prophetic utterance about the salvation God was to bring and give to us in Christ Jesus. What will the salvation of God look like to those who can see and hear? It's a world restored, one in which the blind see, the lame not only walk but leap, the mute speak, the desert blooms, sands become pools of refreshing water. It is a world transformed, unrecognizable to those who cannot see and hear.

If you were to refer to one of the maps in your Bible that show Israel in Jesus' time you would notice that in this pericope ("pericope" being a coherent unit in the canonical Gospels- most of the our Gospel readings at Mass are pericopes) Jesus covers a lot of territory. It is around 20 miles from Tyre to Sidon and some forty miles from Sidon back to the Sea of Galilee. Once at the Sea of Galilee He moves along its shore to area of the Decapolis, an area where ten pagan cities could be found, the same area in which the village of Gadara was located. It was outside of Gadara that Jesus, immediately upon His arrival after a tempestuous crossing of the Sea of Galilee, encountered the demoniac from whom He cast out demons into a herd of pigs (Mark 5:1-20). After possessing the pigs, the demons caused them to run headlong off a cliff and into the sea drowning them all. This is what our enemy desires, to kill us, causing both mortal and eternal death. So terrible was this demonstration of Jesus' power that the Gadarenes asked Him to leave.

The unnamed man from whom Jesus cast out the demons wanted to go with Him, but the Lord bid him to stay where was and to tell the people there what He had done for him. Our Lord's exhortation for him to stay behind and testify to what Jesus had done for him was a departure from Jesus telling others, particularly His fellow Jews, not tell anyone what He had done for them. Hence, I don't think it's too far-fetched to surmise that the reason there was a crowd that met Jesus upon His arrival was due to the ministry of the man from whom Jesus cast out the demons.

Virtually every Bible commentator links Jesus' healing of the deaf and mute man in today's Gospel with our first reading from Isaiah 35. It is also interesting to note, as Michael Card does, that the word used by Mark and translated as "groaned" is akin to the word "Paul uses for the Spirit's groaning on our behalf in Romans 8:26" (Mark: The Gospel of Passion 102). Card further notes that Mark depicts, not just here but throughout his Gospel, "the emotional Jesus" (102). From our Lord's deep groan He speaks the Aramaic word Ephphatha, which means, as Mark indicates, "Be opened!" (Mark 7:34)

Then, as now, those with disabilities were marginalized, set aside, not included in society. People with disabilities are usually among the poor and dispossessed of the world, which means they are beloved by the Lord and heirs of God's kingdom. The fact they are beloved is often made manifest in the beautiful faith many disabled people have, which they very often communicate by their joy. What we fail to see is that our need is not only not less than theirs, but is greater. Being well-off and possessing gifts that enable us to succeed in the world can be a greater handicap than those conditions we usually think of as being handicaps.

One of the prayers that constitute the Rite of Baptism for infants and small children is called "Ephphatha." It takes place after the child is baptized, anointed with chrism, clothed in the baptismal garment, and the parents and godparents are presented with a baptismal candle. As this prayer is said, the celebrant touches the child's ears and mouth while saying,
The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father
As Card discerns, "Jesus' groaning words, 'Be opened,' represent the deepest hope of the gospel: that you and I might truly hear and eventually clearly speak the good news" (Mark: The Gospel of Passion 102). The good news can be spoken in two words: Jesus Christ.

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