Trinity XII. September 8, 2019. All Saints’, Soddy Daisy, TN
Saint Mark vii, verse 34 – And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him: Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
There are several great feasts in the Church year that are very much feasts of light. Christmas, the Epiphany, Easter, and the Transfiguration all fall into this category. The Transfiguration, August 6th, for example, has lessons and propers and hymns that are full of light. In the Introit we have ‘lightenings [that] shone upon the ground’ (Ps. lxxvi); in the Gradual is reference to the ‘brightness of the everlasting light’ (Wisdom vii); its Gospel is about our Lord’s transfigured glory with his ‘raiment…white and glistering’ (S. Luke ix). In the Secret prayer for the day at the offertory the priest prays that ‘by the splendour of [Christ’s] brightness’ we might be cleansed from our iniquities. Splendor, brightness, light, and glory shine forth from the feast to lighten our darkness and to burn away our sin. These visual metaphors of light and shining glory reappear in our epistle today, in which Saint Paul contrasts the glory of the Old Testament Law, which shone forth from the countenance of Moses, with the still greater and exceeding glory of the gospel (II Cor. iii). Light and brightness are common themes in Scripture, in Christian hymns, and in the Church year.
In our gospel lesson today, however, we have another set of metaphors. This lesson switches from visual images to the senses of touch and hearing. Our Lord heals a deaf man by ‘[putting] his hand upon him’, by ‘[putting] his fingers into his ears’, and by ‘[touching] his tongue’. There is touch. And then also our Lord sighs and speaks to him, and the whole lesson is about ears and tongues, speaking and hearing. So this gospel is tactile and aural rather than visual.
The difference between these two sets of metaphors perhaps lies in their position within the Christian life. The glory which our Lord reveals at his Transfiguration is only shown to three of his closest and most favored apostles, namely Peter, James, and John. Likewise, Saint Paul ‘s references to the shining glory of the gospel are made in a letter to people who are already Christians. But the healing miracle in our gospel today is given to a man who is encountering Jesus for the first time: not to a close follower or to a committed disciple, but rather to someone who is brought to Christ apparently for the first time by other people (Mark vii.32).
This pattern is usual in the Christian life. Christmas – one of those other feasts full of light – speaks of Christ as he comes into our world personally and directly. But before Christ is conceived in the womb and then manifested at Christmas, first the message of the angel came to his mother by word. As Karl Barth says, the organ of our Lord’s conception was the ear. And Paul tells us that ‘faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (Romans x.17). And hearing presumes that we are capable of hearing, that we are not deaf, that our ears have been opened. Before the light is seen, the word is heard.
I heard on National Public Radio some years ago a little segment about a summer camp for juvenile agnostics and atheists. One little skeptical camper said that he thought that if there were a God that he should appear daily, say at 3:15 p.m., for ‘God time’, and then everybody would know about him. I thought to myself, ‘But God does appear every day, just as regularly as the junior agnostic would like, for God time.’ But of course neither junior nor senior atheists perceive our Lord’s daily Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar or his daily revelations in nature and grace. They do not perceive, they do not see, because they have not received the gospel into their hearts. They have not received the gospel into their hearts, because they have not heard it with their ears. And they have not heard it with their ears because they deaf, because their ears are closed. The psalmist tells us that
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handy-work…There is neither speech nor language; but their voices are heard among them. Their sound is gone out into all lands; and their words into the ends of the world. (xix.1, 3f.)
But then too the psalmist tells us elsewhere that the ‘fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.’ (xiv.1) In fact the psalmist says that twice (Psalm liii.1).
So, here is the mystery. We only come to God, to the brightness of his glory, by hearing; but we cannot hear unless God opens the ears of our hearts. Therefore, our gospel lesson today is a story about us all. The deaf man is everyman. We all need healing in order to hear God. This point is made clear in the liturgical history of the Church. In the Western Church in an ancient ceremony before baptism, the priest ‘touches the ears’ of the candidate and says, ‘Ephthatha, that is, Be opened.’ (English Ritual, p. 30) Likewise in our Prayer Book we pray for that which a child by nature cannot have before we proclaim to the child and his godparents the baptismal gospel. God has to do something for us before we can hear his gospel. God has to give us ears to hear and then open our ears before we will hear. We can, of course, choose to keep our ears shut, no matter what God does. But faith comes by hearing, and it is God that makes us hear. Only after we hear can we see God’s glory.
Before our Lord commands the man’s ears to ‘be opened’ we are told that ‘looking up to heaven, he sighed’. Because he looks to heaven, we see that the opening of the ears of faith is a grace from heaven, a gift from God, as I have already said. But between the look to heaven and the healing of hearing, ‘he sighed’. The word translated here as ‘sighed’ really has a stronger sense, something more like ‘he groaned’. In the next chapter when the Pharisees tempt Christ and demand from him ‘a sign from heaven’ (viii.11), Saint Mark shows us Christ’s reaction by use of a related word which our English version translates as ‘sighed’: ‘he sighed deeply in his spirit’ (12). Again, Saint Paul uses related words in Romans viii when he tells us that ‘the whole creation groaneth…in pain together until now’ (22) and that ‘the Spirit…maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered’ (26). So when we are told ‘he sighed’, we should understand a deep groan with an element of pain. We cannot see God without first hearing the gospel. We cannot hear the gospel unless God heals our hearing. And our hearing is not healed without the groans of Christ. Our healing is costly to God. A world of sin must be drowned in the Red Sea before Israel can leave Egypt. Good Friday must come before Easter. Christ must groan before we are healed.
But healed the man is, and his tongue is loosed, and he spake plain. Though in this life the disciple may only stand for a moment on the mountain of Transfiguration, yet we have those occasional glimpses of God’s glory even now. And so we pray that the splendor of God may purge away our sin and that we finally may behold ‘the king in his beauty’.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.