11 February 2010

"Ephphatha!": Obedience as the Dynamic of Authentic Humanity



Tomorrow's lections bring us face to face with who we are called to be, and with the results of the idolatry that occurs whenever we refuse that vocation. Both issues, vocation and true worship are rooted in the Scriptural notion of obedience, that is in the obligation which is our very nature, to hearken --- to listen and respond to God appropriately with our whole selves. When we are empowered to and respond with such obedience our very lives proclaim the Kingdom of God, not as some distant reality we are still merely waiting for, but as something at work in us here and now. In fact, when our lives are marked by this profound dynamic of obedience, today's readings remind us the reign of God cannot be hidden from others --- though its presence will be seen only with the eyes of faith.

In the Gospel, (Mark 7:31-37) A man who is deaf and also has a resultant speech impediment is brought by friends to Jesus; Jesus is begged to heal him. In what is an unusual process for Mark in its crude physicality (or for any of the Gospel writers), Jesus puts his fingers in the man's ears, and then, spitting on his fingers, touches the man's tongue. He looks up to heaven, groans, and says in Aramaic, "ephphatha!" (that is, "Be opened!"). Immediately the man is healed and "speaks plainly." Those who brought him to Jesus are astonished, joyful, and could not contain their need to proclaim Jesus and what he had done: "He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

I am convinced that the deaf and "mute" man (for he is not really mute, but impeded from clear speech by his inability to hear) is a type of each of us, a symbol for the persons we are and for the vocation we are each called to. Theologians speak of human beings as "language events." We are called to be by God, conceived from and an expression of the love of two people for one another, named so that we have the capacity for personal presence in the world and may be personally addressed by others, and we are shaped for good or ill, for wholeness or woundedness, by every word which is addressed to us. Language is the means and symbol of our capacity for relationship and transcendence.

Consider how it is that vocabulary of all sorts opens various worlds to us and makes the whole of the cosmos our own to understand, wonder at, and render more or less articulate; consider how a lack of vocabulary whether affective, theological, scientific, mathematical, psychological, etc, can cripple us and distance us from effectively relating to various dimensions of human life including our own heart. Note, for instance that physicians have found that in any form of mental illness there is a corresponding dimension of difficulty with or dysfunction of language. Consider the very young child's wonderful (and often really annoying!) incessant questioning. There, with every single question and answer, language mediates transcendence (a veritable explosion of transcendence in fact!) and initiates the child further and further into the world of human community, knowledge, understanding, reflection, celebration, and commitment. Language marks us as essentially communal, fundamentally dependent upon others to call us beyond ourselves, essentially temporal AND transcendent, and, by virtue of our being imago dei, responsive and responsible (obedient) at the core of our existence.

One theologian (Gerhard Ebeling), in fact, notes that the most truly human thing about us is our addressiblity and our ability to address others. Addressibility includes and empowers responsiveness; that is, it has both receptive and expressive dimensions. It is the characteristically human form of language which creates community. It marks us as those whose coming to be is dependent upon the dynamic of obedience --- but also on the generosity of those who would address us and give us a place to stand as persons we cannot assume on our own. We spend our lives responsively -- coming (and often struggling) to attend to and embody or express more fully the deepest potentials within us in myriad ways and means.

But a lot can hinder this most foundational vocational accomplishment. Sometimes our own woundedness prevents the achievement of this goal to greater degrees. Sometimes we are not given the tools or education we need to develop this capacity. Sometimes, we are badly or ineffectually loved and rendered relatively deaf and "mute" in the process. Oftentimes we muddle the clarity of that expression through cowardice, ignorance, or even willful disregard. Our hearts, as I have noted here before, are dialogical realities. That is, they are the place where God bears witness to himself, the event marked in a defining way by God's continuing and creative address and our own embodied response. In every way our lives are either an expression of the Word or logos of God which glorifies (him), or they are, to whatever extent, a dishonoring lie and an evasion.




And so, faced with a man who is crippled in so many fundamental ways --- one, that is, for whom the world of community, knowledge, and celebration is largely closed by disability, Jesus prays to God, touches, and addresses the man directly, "Ephphatha!" ---Be thou opened!" It is the essence of what Christians refer to as salvation, the event in which a word of command and power heals the brokennesses which cripple and isolate, and which, by empowering obedience reconciles the man to himself, his God, his people and world. As a result of Jesus' Word, and in response, the man speaks plainly --- for the first time (potentially) transparent to himself and to those who know him; he is more truly a revelatory or language event, authentically human and capable, through the grace of God, of bringing others to the same humanity through direct response and address.

Our own coming to wholeness, to a full and clear articulation of our truest selves is a communal achievement. Even (or even especially) in the lives of hermits this has always been true insofar as solitude is NOT isolation, but is instead a form of communion marked by profound dependence on the Word of God and lived specifically for the salvation of others. In today's gospel friends bring the man to Jesus, Jesus prays to God before acting to heal him. The presence of friends is another sign not only of the man's nature as made-for-communion and the fact that none of us come to language (or, that is, to the essentially human capacity for responsiveness or obedience) alone, but similarly, of the deaf man's total inability to approach Jesus on his own. At the same time, Jesus takes the man aside and what happens to him in this encounter is thus signalled to be profoundly personal, intimate, and beyond the merely evident. Friends are necessary, but at bottom, the ultimate healing and humanizing encounter can only happen between the deaf man and Christ.

In each of our lives there is deafness and "muteness" or inarticulateness. So many things are unheard by us, fail to touch or resonate in our hearts. So many things call forth embittered and cynical reactions which wound and isolate when what is needed is a response of genuine compassion and welcoming. Similarly, so many things render us speechless: bereavement, illness, ignorance, personal woundedness, etc. As a result we live our commitments half-heartedly, our loves guardedly, our joys tentatively, our pains self-consciously and noisily --- but helplessly and without meaning in ways which do not edify --- and in all these ways therefore, we are less human, less articulate, less the obedient or responsive language event we are called to be.

To each of us, then, and in whatever way or degree we need, Jesus says, "EPHPHATHA!" "Be thou opened!" He sighs in compassion and desire, unites himself with his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, and touches us with his own hands and spittle. May we each allow ourselves to be brought to Jesus for healing. May we be broken open and rendered responsive and transparent by his powerful Word of command and authority. Especially, may we each become the clear gospel-founded words of joy in a world marked extensively and profoundly by deafness and the helplessness and despair of noisy inarticulateness.