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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

That Primordial Ephphatha

Posted September 9, 2018

‘His ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. … And they were astonished beyond measure.’  (Mark 7: 35-37).

I suppose you would be astonished too, if you were deaf and spoke with a great stammer and a man came up to you and stuck his fingers in your ears and spat in your mouth, and suddenly you became as fluent as Mrs May and could hear everything as clear as a bell.  The sudden gift of the faculties of speech and hearing must be truly astonishing.  We are not told how this man reacted, but we can imagine that he went off dancing with joy.  The people, at any rate, were ‘astonished beyond measure’.  They must have talked about it for the rest of their lives.

For me, this miracle story points to a more wonderful miracle, but it is one that goes unnoticed.  I mean: the miracle of speech and hearing in the first place.  It is, of course, the most ordinary thing in the world for us that we can speak and hear.  When did you last go to bed thinking: ‘Well that was a day, that was!  I spoke, I conversed, I listened to music’?   Instead, we take it all for granted.  It’s just there.  No one came along  and said Ephphatha.  And yet the faculties of speech and hearing are among the most spectacular miracles of God the creator.  They spring from that original Ephphatha which is God’s word of creation spoken into our being the moment we came into existence.  Surgeons nowadays can perform marvels in restoring these faculties where they have been damaged or even where they have never functioned; and scientists can describe the stupendous complexity of it all.  But the gifts themselves are beyond the understanding of every human being: they come to us along with life’s mystery, as the gift of a gracious and infinitely imaginative God.

Two simple lessons can be drawn from this: The first is this: What we have in common with the man in today’s Gospel is that we too are deprived of a faculty: not the faculty of hearing and speaking, but the faculty of astonishment.  We need someone to pronounce Ephphatha over us, to release our spirits from the bonds of familiarity and ingratitude.  If only we could see God’s gifts with fresh eyes, as if for the first time; if only we could regain the ability  we have lost, or that lies dormant in us ‒ the ability to be ‘astonished beyond measure’.  It is a wonderful gift to be capable of astonishment not just at the miraculous healing of some individual, but at the miraculous gifts that are given to us from the moment we began to exist, while we were still developing in the womb.  Listen to the Psalmist expressing his gratitude and awe at the ever-fresh wonder of his being:

O God, you created my inmost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb.  For so many marvels ‒ I thank you; a wonder am I, and all your works are wonders.  When I was being formed in secret, textured in the depths of the earth, your eyes could see my unformed body.

The need for us to see familiar things as if for the first time, with the wide-eyed wonder of a baby, was a favourite theme of G. K. Chesterton.  I am struck by, for example, Chesterton’s reflections on fairy tales.  Why are these tales so fascinating, so appealing to the human spirit in every age and culture?  These stories that tell us of golden apples and rivers that run with wine ‒ how explain the magic of such stories?  Listen to Chesterton’s explanation: ‘These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.  They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.’

I think we can say of St Mark’s story in today’s Gospel: He presents us with the magic of Jesus’ healing only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that the all-too-familiar gifts of speech and hearing are the real, original wonders, the primordial miracles, that we have lost sight of in our pursuit of lesser miracles.  Here is Jesus instilling into us his own sense of astonishment at the true wonders of God’s creation.

A second lesson: We need to ask ourselves how we use the gifts of speech and hearing, whether to praise God or to disfigure his creation.  The Bible frequently speaks of the tongue as the God-given organ of praise and thanksgiving; but equally frequently of the tongue as the instrument of evil.  It speaks of the gift of hearing as the means by which our being is opened up to the truth of God and to the wonders of our vocation; but equally it speaks of the ears as the gateway through which malice gains entry into our souls: as the proverb says: ‘The liar gives ear to the mischievous tongue.’  The ears and the tongue can bring you God, or, alternatively, they can take you to hell, or at least bring hell to the world.  To use these faculties well is like receiving from a master craftsman a sublime instrument and using it to charm the world.  To abuse these faculties is like accepting the craftsman’s magical gift and using it to disfigure his face.

Next time you’re tempted to utter something hurtful or mendacious, ask yourself: Am I going to use the gift of speech for that?  Or when tempted to open yourself  to evil talk: Am I going to use the gift of hearing for that? When tempted to admit something horrid into yourself through your eyes, say to yourself: Am I going to use the miracle of sight for that?  Or, to put it positively: Use your sight and hearing and all your faculties exclusively for taking into your person all the nobility and loveliness of God’s creation.

Fr Tom Deidun

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