When a baby is baptized, after the actual baptism itself come a series of so-called “explanatory rites” – rituals that symbolically explain more fully the complete meaning of baptism. The last of these “explanatory rites” is called the Ephphatha - the Aramaic word Jesus used in today’s Gospel [Mark 7:31-37]. The fact that the actual word was remembered and repeated in its original language in the Gospel suggests that what Jesus said and did on that occasion must have made quite a memorable impression on his followers!
At a Baptism, in imitation of Jesus, the priest (or deacon) touches the newly baptized baby’s ears and mouth, saying: The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the mute 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.” In other words, Baptism initiates a person into a new way of life - opening one’s ears to hear God’s word and one’s mouth to proclaim his faith – a new way of life for the rest of one’s life, just as the life of the man Jesus healed in today’s Gospel was totally and irrevocably transformed.
Who was this man, forever immortalized by Jesus’ healing touch that day? Apart from his disability, we know nothing about him. He could have been anyone. He could, in short, be you or me. If anything, his anonymous status makes him a sort of “Everyman” character – further reinforced by the only other thing we can guess about him, suggested by the geography lesson at the beginning of the story. Jesus left the district of Tyre and went into the district of the Decapolis. Here, Jesus has gone beyond the borders of Israel into unambiguously Gentile territory. The salvation promised by God to Israel in the words of the prophet Isaiah - Then will the ears of the deaf be cleared; then the tongue of the mute will sing – is coming true. And one of the first to benefit is a deaf Gentile, his ears suddenly opened to hear God’s word, a pagan, his mouth now opened to proclaim his faith!
The story highlights not just the man and the miracle, but (significantly) what happened next. The man spoke plainly. The people were astonished and proclaimed it. Sometimes astonishment has a silencing effect on people. In this case, however, it led directly to action. The people proclaimed the good news. So this is a story about change – not just the dramatic healing of one individual in need, but the total transformation of his life and the creation of a community of disciples who have suddenly seen something new and different made possible by Christ.
So what might such a transformed way of life and such a transformational community actually look life?
The letter of James, from which we are reading these several Sundays until the end of September, reminds us that our faith must not be something somehow incidental in our lives, but must be transformative in every aspect of life. The exhortation we heard last week, Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves, gets “unpacked” in a series of practical exhortations today [James 2:1-5] to judge, value, and treat people according to completely new and different criteria from those predominating in secular society – a tall order, to be sure, in any time and place, and certainly in a society such as ours where we all seem so enamored with the rich and famous, a society in which the average CEO earns several hundred times what his or her average worker earns, fostering an economic, cultural, and moral gap of a magnitude that would have been almost unimaginable as recently as 50 years ago.
As members of Christ’s Church, who receive his word and proclaim his faith, we are now witnesses of the change God is effecting in us – and through us in the world. Like the bystanders in the Gospel, we will have no viable authentic alternative but to proclaim what we have heard and seen, something we do in fact by becoming something new, by becoming new people, something that should show – must show – in our behavior towards one another.
As the letter of James illustrates, that is a challenge in any time & place. And it is, if anything, that much more so in an anxiety-ridden, individualized society of narrow niche markets such as ours.
The same Jesus is present among us today in his Church to open our ears and mouths. What we proclaim here on Sunday is intended to be proclaimed all week, every week, in our own words and actions and in all aspects of our lives. As Saint James’s challenging examples illustrate, God’s presence and action in our here and now life together is intended to be every bit as transformative & permanent in its effect on us and in our world, as that unforgettable Ephphatha was for that anonymous 1st-century “Everyman” in the district of the Decapolis.
Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 9, 2012.