Because the Gospel for this 11th Sunday after Pentecost concerns the miraculous healing of a man’s deafness and inability to talk, before I drill into the Sunday passage and risk losing most of you because I go on and on and on, let me offer this from the top.
St. Gregory Nazianzen (+390) says that half of all vices may be charged to the account of the tongue. It would be better for many persons to have no tongue and to be unable to talk from their birth, for then they would be miserable only for this life, whereas owing to the sins of their tongue they plunge themselves into eternal damnation. Talk not inconsiderately, but bear in mind that you have to give an account of every idle word you speak.
How many sins could we avoid, if we would bridle our tongues! Or, rather, sheath them. The 17th c. Protestant preacher Thomas Brooks (+1680) said, our tongues can be likened to three fatal weapons, a razor, a sword and an arrow: the tongue slashes reputations, wounds deeply and can strike from afar. By our speech we reveal our inner selves to others. Thus, Brooks:
When the Pumpe goes you may quickly know whether the water that is in the Fountain or Well, be clear or muddy, sweet or stinking; and when the clapper strikes, you may soon guess of what mettal the Bell is made of: and so by mens tongues you may easily guess what is in their hearts; if the tongue be vil’d, the heart is so; if the tongue be bloody, the heart is so; if the tongue be adulterous, the heart is so; if the tongue be malicious, the heart is so; if the tongue be covetous, the heart is so; and if the tongue be cruel, the heart is so, &c. Mens minds are known by their mouthes; if the mouth be bad, the mind is not good; he that is rotten in his talk, is commonly rotten in the heart. Of all the members of the body, there is none so serviceable to Satan as an evil tongue….
With that in mind, I proceed in my weekly task invoking St. Francis de Sales, who wrote:
I wish I had buttons on both lips [hands?], which I should be obliged to unfasten when I had an occasion to speak [write?], for I should then gain more time to reflect, and to consider.
Let us now consider together the context of this Sunday’s Holy Mass and its readings.
Even as he warns against assuming conscious organization of the themes of Sundays of Ordered Time after Pentecost, the great commentator of the 20th century Liturgical Movement Pius Parsch suggests that one can find some rough groupings of Sundays. For example, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, Sundays he sees as “recruiting Sundays” especially because of the reading of parables about finding and reacquiring the lost for the Kingdom of Heaven. With the 5th Sunday, we see contrasts between, the Kingdom of God versus the kingdom of the world, the good Christian and the bad. Sundays 8-10 are a triplet about sin. The next three, 11-13, could have a theme of the effect of sacramental grace in the sacred mysteries we celebrate.
Also, our context for Sunday is, in the northern hemisphere where all the action was mostly located for a very long time, summertime. As I have mentioned before, whereas we have the great liturgical cycles that focus on certain aspects of Christ’s life and the history of salvation, in this green season after Pentecost we seem to be aided by Our Mother and Teacher, Mater et Magistra, the Church about their practical application in day to day life. Hence, we reflect on the beautiful fruits that we can harvest from God’s largesse, as is appropriate in summertime as our gardens and trees begin to produce.
I wonder if God didn’t intend the zucchini as a sign of superabundant grace.
Put another way, as Bl. Idelfonso Schuster (+1954) wrote about this Sunday, “now the heavy clusters are taking on luscious color upon the smiling hills of the Roman Campagna.”
Today’s Mass, for Bl. Idelfonso, was like the beautiful summer morning upon which it was celebrated.
That said, I’ll tersely dispatch the Epistle. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, admonishes them to stick to the Good News by which they have been saved. He then recounts factual events as confirmations of the salvation we have been offered. In keeping with the fruits and harvest theme, I suppose we could say that all that saving work of the Passion and Resurrection and the work of the Apostles has, by the grace of God informing human efforts, born fruit: “hold it fast” (1 Cor 15:2).
The Gospel is from Mark 7. It gives us context: “At that time, Jesus then returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis.” Jesus had gone, in Mark 6, into Gentile territory and fed the 5000, which by the symbolic numbers involved in the food left over recalled the pagan tribes that had been in the Promised Land when Moses and People arrived and foretold the ingathering of all non-Hebrews in Himself. Christ then crossed the sea back to Gennesaret, walking part of the way, and was immediately called on to heal people everywhere he went, people trying to touch the hem of His garment. In the region of Tyre and Sidon is the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. At the end of Mark 7 is our pericope for Sunday, the healing of a deaf man with a speech impediment.
In this passage there is an Aramaic word, “Ephphatha” (transliterated into Greek ἐφφαθά) which means “be opened.”
(Allow a digression for priests who have to say this word when baptizing. To pronounce properly, stress the final syllable: ephphathá. The theta, θ, in the 1st century had some aspiration, like English “tip” [th]. Later it shifted to a fricative, like English “thin.” If you can manage, the ancient phi, φ [ph], was also slightly plosive, like saying p and f as the same time. Later, like θ, φ shifted to a fricative “f.” Hence, give those two φ their own micropuffs and a tap of the tongue to that “th”: ephphathá. Easy peasy. Otherwise, just lengthen the “ffff” sound.)
The presence of this word gives authenticity that the miracle was witnessed, even though Christ does something a little different in this miraculous healing. People brought the deaf man to Jesus for Him to lay hands on him and heal him. Instead, Christ took him apart from the multitude “privately.” Since we have the description of what happened, the Apostles were surely with them, at least Peter, who was Mark’s mentor. Christ…
put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
At this point, Christ told people not to talk about this healing, but the more they were asked the more they talked about it. In the Gospel of Mark there is a theme of the “Messianic secret,” that is, Christ’s identity was not yet to be fully revealed. However, people knew their Scripture. In Isaiah 35, the prophet wrote of a new exodus and the coming of God, not just a new Moses:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
We can drill into this healing for a moment by looking at the Greek text about a curious detail.
When Jesus took the man apart, “privately,” He put His fingers in the man’s unhearing ears and, spitting, touched the man’s unspeaking tongue. Then Jesus looked up to Heaven and “sighed” and said “Ephphatha.” He didn’t talk to the Father or pray with words. He “sighed a deep sigh,” stenazo, “to groan,” which suggests the deep compassion with which the Eternal Word held the man who, all his life, had been cut off without words from his fellow men. That Christ was especially moved by this man’s plight is suggested in their going apart and the speechless sigh, which “said it all” a quiet uttering of the ruach, the Spirit.
I mentioned Greek, but we are perhaps distracted by that flashy “Ephphatha.” In Greek, Mark uses the verb dianoigo, “be opened,” dianoíxtheti in the aorist passive imperative form… 2nd person singular: “let you be opened.” Jesus didn’t command the ears and mouth to be opened, He commanded the man to be opened. As a result, “his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (v. 35).
Pope Benedict XVI talked about this healing in a 2012 Angelus address. For Benedict, Christ opened the whole person of the deaf and mute man.
[The Word] became man so that man, made inwardly deaf and dumb by sin, would become able to hear the voice of God, the voice of love speaking to his heart, and learn to speak in the language of love, to communicate with God and with others.
This is certainly behind the “Ephphatha” moment in the traditional Rite of Baptism, the opening of the entire person to all that God desires to give, saving grace, theological virtues, membership in Christ’s mystical Person, eternal life. Traditionally the priest takes a little of his own saliva – which for good reasons can be omitted – and touches both ears and nostrils of the one to be baptized saying, “Ephphata, that is to say, Be opened, for an odor of sweetness. But thou, devil, be gone; for the judgement of God has come.” We see again the constant connection of illness with demonic oppression. Most of the healings worked by the Lord mention also the driving out of demons.
Benedict XVI said that Ephphatha, “sums up the whole message and the whole work of Christ.”
Where are you when you hear this word offered solemnly in the holy rites of the Church? You are either at a baptism or, as you will be on Sunday, at Holy Mass. The readings of Scripture are Christ present to you, making the mysteries they contain present. Is there some place on earth where you ought to strive to be more opened to what God wants to give you than Holy Mass? To take part at Holy Mass with truly full, conscious and active participation? Consider what it is to watch carefully and to listen attentively, how much effort really goes into both of those means of active receptivity once you are opened up. You were “opened” by your baptism, which make it possible for you to receive all the other good things God offers in the way of a member of Christ’s Body the Church. But you have to make an effort with the gift you were given.
Benedict XVI in his address distinguished the opening of the ears and mouth for speech, which was important. The opening of the inner man, the heart is even more important. It is one thing to hear the words at Mass and register them. It is another thing to reach out with the ears of the heart to take them in. Hearing and listening are not the same thing. It is one thing to make the responses that are yours to make at Mass in a routine way. It is another to make them in the spirit of the baptismal priesthood sealed into you in baptism and opened up in grace.
Here is an exercise for you this Sunday. Upon entering the church or chapel and you make the sign of the cross with Holy Water, recalling your baptism, perhaps you might say quietly to yourself, “Ephphatha.” When it is time for the Collect or readings or consecration or any other part of Mass wherein you might be moved, say “Ephphatha.” Or maybe, “Ephphathá.”
Hear the compassionate groan of the Lord in each word of the Mass, touching you, commanding your inward being not just your outward ears, to be opened.