Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 5, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah  35:4-7a
Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
James 2:1-5
Mark 7:31-37

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark recounts for us how, somewhere in the vicinity of the Greek cities in Syria known as the Decapolis, or Ten Cities, Jesus heals a deaf man who because of his inability to hear had not learned to speak properly. Curiously, the route that Mark tells us Jesus took to get to the Decapolis is not geographically possible. Also curious is the way that Jesus healed this man. His actions, putting fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, touching the man’s tongue and looking at the sky and groaning, are typical of Greek and Jewish healers, but not the usual way Jesus healed. People watching Jesus do this would have seen nothing out of the ordinary, but we know that it was a miracle.

The gospel is more than an illusion to the passage in Isaiah that we heard in the first reading. The word for speech impediment occurs only in Isaiah and here in the gospel of Mark. Mark means to show how Christ fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah and brings to fulfillment the saving work of God. Jesus is the Messiah who makes the deaf hear and the mute and muddled speak.

Yet, there is a further connection to the confessional cry of Israel known as the Shema. This daily prayer begins with the words “Listen, Oh Israel,” as revealed in the sixth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy. The perennial and required disposition and posture of the faithful Jew was to listen, to pay attention to God. Salvation history recorded in the Old Testament reveals that because of original sin, in many instances the chosen people refused to listen. The fact that the capacity to listen is restored to a Greek-speaking pagan shows that the message of God’s predilection of Israel is now extended to all people through Jesus’ universal mission of salvation. All humanity is invited to listen, to hear and thus respond. We have heard the Gospel and been not closed to it because of the grace given us through our Baptism. We are not present here today because of our own initiative. As the Apostle James reminds us in his epistle that we read today, “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?”

Baptism saves us from the obstacle preventing us from following Christ, that is, intentional deafness. If we refuse the grace to hear and to understand Christ’s call, we cannot be his disciple. Mark makes this point in the word Jesus utters: “Ephphatha, be opened. Immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. The same word is spoken by the priest or deacon at our Baptism asking that our hearts and lives be open to the grace of the Holy Spirit and free from the attachment to sin.

It is significant that while the Gospel of Mark records Jesus as preaching and healing in Greek and Gentile territory, in the same instance this Gospel records Jesus’ words not with a Greek translation but in the Aramaic. This emphasizes the importance and authenticity of Christ’s words and actions. It emphasizes that Jesus is not simply healing physical deafness, but He is healing the moral and intellectual darkness and isolation as the effects of original sin into which every human being is born. The man healed by Christ was cut off from hearing others and from speaking with others. So, when Jesus healed him and spoke the words, be opened, Christ tore down the walls that kept this man from the fullness of life. The way to life was opened by God. Now, this man could be part of the laughter, the conversations, the sacred stories after having been excluded from doing so. Now, he could be an active part of the history of God’s loving relationship with Israel, the accounts of God’s action on behalf of His people, he could hear Jesus and be able to testify to God’s love for him. Now, because of his graced openness, this man could belong.

There are many ways we are closed off to the Word of God or are actively resistant to the grace of the Spirit. Mostly, we become embroiled in our own problems, or we presume that we have already fully grasped what Jesus taught. What he teaches needs to be appropriated and repeated. Our awareness and understanding of Jesus’ message of love deepens as we attempt to live it daily, and then we hear new and further opportunities that, without the grace of openness, appear to us as problems.       

The grace of the Holy Spirit opens not just our ears and but also our souls — our hearts, and we become able and willing to hear and to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is always more for us to learn. So, we pray always that we be a little less closed and a little more open to the call of our Savior, as we try every day to live his love more fully. Then, we can proclaim with faith born of openness and the clarity of honest speech with the words of today’s Gospel: “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

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