A reflection on the readings for Sunday, September 5, 2021 — The Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel doesn’t come to play. His mission is urgent and told at a breakneck speed. By Chapter 2, he can’t go anywhere without the crowds pressing in on him. The hunger and the need for Jesus practically overwhelms the narrative. He has to share the load—he sends out his disciples with his authority to drive out unclean spirits, to heal, to preach repentance.
Today’s Gospel (7:31-37) sits right around the midpoint in Mark’s breathless narrative. Wedged between miraculous feedings, tussles with the Pharisees, and a rather complex encounter with a Syrophonecian woman of tremendous faith.
This story reveals a Jesus who seems to be squeezing the most out of his earthly, enfleshed existence. A Jesus who is fully God and fully human: for this is a healing that involves all of Jesus. It’s not just a touch of the cloak or a word spoken for a healing that gets worked out on the other side of town.
It’s intimately physical: fingers in ears, spit on hands, hands on tongues. Eyes heaven bound.
And then: Jesus’ groan.
This word for groan (stenazō) appears nowhere else in Mark or in any of the Gospels. Mark is telling us something here. He’s stopping us. He wants us to pay attention. If the translation doesn’t seem peculiar enough to give us contemporary readers pause—then the Aramaiac will surely have most presiders pausing to practice the perplexing pronunciation: Ephphatha!
How do you say that word again? Ef-fath-ah’
Be thou opened.
A declarative prayer. A prayer spoken by the one who is the power in which we pray, and the power by which our prayers are answered. The Church has ritualized the significance of this encounter. In wisdom recognized that there is something here to stop us in our tracks: something fundamental about who Jesus is and what we are to pray for if we hope to follow Him. On Holy Saturday as the elect prepare to enter into the life of Jesus communion with the Church at the Easter vigil—this marks a final rite for the elect before full initiation. It is also a part of our baptismal liturgy (though who could remember it?)
A priest or deacon goes to each Elect and touches the right and left ear and the closed lips of each of the with their thumb, saying:
Ephphetha, that is, be opened, that you may profess the faith you hear to the praise and glory of God.
A thick ritual gesture, charged with the faith that we profess—pressing each of us into a deeper examination.
Are we in need of this miracle still? What is it that makes it hard for us to hear, today, in this time and season? What is impeding our speech? Keeping us from speaking plainly.
For there are experiences that render us mute, no? Encounters that leave us shattered, which we cannot bring to speech. And the more we hear of a world suffering—I for one, can begin to grow deaf to it. Weary with demands and news and homilies that constantly remind me about the brokenness of the world while I sit here wondering what in the world AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ABOUT IT.
Fix it Jesus! I have a mountain of dishes and laundry to do on this here Sabbath and obligations abounding. I’m not the President. I’m not a US Senator. I’m not a Bishop or even a parish priest.
As my scripts get rolling I can almost hear the urgency of Mark’s Gospel interrupting my garbage thinking. Pressing me into the urgent invitation the Gospel presses into us.
A marginalized man, came for the margins of a marginalized community. So hear the good news: a mustard seed size of faith can perhaps give us the gumption we need.
We have to get real intimate with Jesus—let him stick fingers in our ears and groan on behalf of the worst thing we’ve ever done, on behalf of the weight and grief we carry, on behalf of the pain and anxiety and fear we are holding in our flesh—and he holds our tongue in order to free it. His spit can save us—but have to choose to draw near enough for him to do it.
Perhaps as a Catholic tradition—carrying rites and liturgies thick with such miraculous promise—we might together stand inside of Jesus’ own groaning, and pray his words as our own prayer—over our lives, and over the life of the Church throughout the word.
Is this not what Pope Francis is inviting us all to? To be ones open—to listen. And in so doing, free our tongues and hearts for the work of the kingdom come.
I’m reminded of a favorite Rilke poem. I’ll leave it here as closing meditation.
Blessings on your Sunday and your week.
You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
the darkness of each endless fall,
the shimmering light of each assent.
So many are alive who don’t seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
as though untouched.
But you take pleasure in the faces
of those who know they thirst.
You cherish those
who grip you for survival.
You are not dead yet, it’s not too late
to open your depths by plunging into them
and drink in the life
that reveals itself quietly there.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, 1905
translated from the German by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, 2005
Image: Painting of five miracles of Our Lord by Alexander Gibbs (1832–1886) on the north wall of the chancel, executed in 1883/4. Inscriptions at the bottom: Matthew 8:3: “I will; be thou clean.” Luke 8:48: “Daughter, go in peace. Thy faith hath saved thee.” Matthew 9:29: “According to your faith be it unto you.” Mark 7:34: “Ephphatha be thou opened.” Matthew 12:13: “Stretch forth thy hand.” (See Brian M. Walker, A History of St George’s Church Belfast, p. 92–93.)
Photo by Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73751405