23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen (Broadcast); St. Pius X
September 5, 2021
Ads for Senior Citizens
These days, the T.V. ads that get my attention feature walk-in tubs, enhanced Medicare benefits, and most important of all, the latest in hearing aids. Like millions of people my age, I have experienced some loss of hearing. Years ago, I had a complete physical exam that included a hearing test. When I returned from that physical, my priest-secretary asked me about the results. I told him I was just fine except that my hearing was not as good as it should be. To which my good priest-assistant replied, “I could have told you that!”
The point here is not to tell you about my hearing capacity, but rather to set the stage for a reflection about today’s Gospel from St. Mark, a Gospel reading which describes how Jesus cured a man who could not hear or speak. And let’s begin with this: prone as we are to sickness and impairment of all kinds, we sometimes forget that our physical selves, our bodies, are God’s gift to us. The Jesuit theologian Father Karl Rahner described the human body as a kind of “outward sign” or “sacrament” of the soul. Similarly, Pope Saint John Paul II developed “the theology of the body”. He taught us that “[t]he body…is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine.”
The ‘Theology of the Body’ in St. Mark’s Gospel
Today’s Gospel is a case in point. Notice how detailed Mark’s description of this miracle is. Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue with a bit of spittle; he looked up to heaven as to indicate his prayerful reliance on his heavenly Father; he groaned to express his distress over the man’s plight as also to emit the Holy Spirit. Then he pronounced over the man the powerful word, “Ephphatha!” “Be opened!” In paying so much attention Jesus pays to the man’s physicality, Jesus illustrate the ‘sacramental’ quality of the body. The body, our physical selves, is capable of being a sign and instrument of God’s grace. Thus we are to respect our bodies and never to degrade them by sinning against them.
This helps us to see more readily that, in curing the man who could not hear or speak, Jesus healed not only his physical organs but also the whole person. In fact, Jesus’ actions and his powerful word were very much like a sacrament – outward signs and a powerful word which are addressed to the senses but which penetrate the soul, and thus engage the whole person–body, mind, & spirit. Jesus’ concern for this individual was more than “skin-deep”, so to speak. In opening his ears and in loosing his tongue, Jesus was opening the man’s heart, his inmost self, his soul, to hear God’s Word and enabling him to bear witness to God’s amazing love by word and deed.
This shows us the importance of the sacraments in our lives of faith. We sometimes think that the Church invented the sacraments, or that the evidence for the sacraments in Scripture is flimsy. But as today’s Gospel shows, a sacramental way of thinking runs deep in the Bible, runs deep in the marvelous way we were created, and runs deep in the marvelous way God’s grace and love reaches us . . . not just our consciousness but indeed the fathomless depths of our eternal souls. In the sacraments, God’s grace reaches us “from the outside-in” – with signs that convey God’s grace through our bodies to the depths of our soul – so that we may in turn bear witness to the Lord “from the inside-out” – that is to say, from the depth of our hearts . . . in words and deeds that bespeak a soul touched by God’s grace and glory. So it is that the Church learned to think, speak, and act sacramentally from the Lord, and will never cease to do so until the dawning of eternity.
Jesus Touches Us in the Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation
Now, if you have witnessed a baptism in the recent past, you will remember that the priest or deacon repeats the actions of Jesus found in today’s Gospel. The minister touches the ears of the newly baptized and then touches the tongue, adding,
“The Lord made the deaf to hear and the dumb to 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 Baptism, the Lord does for us what he did for the man we met in today’s Gospel. He opens our ears and looses our tongues!
But we may protest that our hearing is fine, and our speech articulate, and thus we have no need for the cure that Jesus performed in our Gospel. Yet, even if our physical hearing and speech are unimpaired, nonetheless our spiritual hearing and speech can easily be compromised. We may block out God’s Word because we are ensnared by serious sin, or because we are swept up by the anger and division so prevalent in our culture, or because we are preoccupied with the ebb and flow of daily life. And once we block out God’s Word, hearing it perhaps but not listening to it, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to speak convincingly of our faith or to bear witness to it by a distinctive way of life that betokens the hope that is ours. Sadly, we may wake up to find ourselves to be Christian and Catholic in name only.
That is why we must ask the Lord who cured the man who could not hear or speak to touch us again, sacramentally, to open the ears of our soul to his Word so that we might take his Word to heart and act on it in our lives. How, then, can we avail ourselves now to the healing touch of the Savior? One important way to do this is by worthily receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When we examine our consciences honestly in light of God’s Word and come to terms with ourselves as we really are – we too may groan over our spiritual plight, in true contrition for our sins. Yet, already, we are hearing God’s Word anew and taking it to heart; already we are allowing God’s Word to turn our lives around. When we confess our sins, our tongue is already loosed and our spirit freed, as we confide to the Lord and to the Church how we have stifled God’s Word. In the moment of absolution, the Holy Spirit overshadows us as the priest, acting in the Person of Christ, absolves us from our sins – removing from our inmost souls sins whatever hinders us from hearing God’s Word and acting upon it in all our relationships with God and the people all around us.
Finally, let us be clear about one further point. In removing the blockage of our sins and in urging us to sin no more, the Lord is not taking from us something to which we have a right, or something that will make us happy, as our own experience amply demonstrates. Rather, the Lord is freeing us, no less than he freed the man in the Gospel, to attain that deep-down joy and satisfaction for which our spirits long. When that happens, we, like the man in the Gospel, will not be able to restrain ourselves from singing the Lord’s praises and proclaiming his mighty works. Thanks for listening and may God bless us and keep us in his love!