One of the optional rituals which can be included in the Rite of Baptism of a child refers directly to this Gospel story. After pouring water over the child’s head and anointing the child’s head, the priest places a white garment or piece of white cloth on the child’s breast. Then the priest may touch the ears and the mouth of the child with his thumb and prays: “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb 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. Amen.” The Church refers to this ritual as the Ephphetha, the word Jesus uses in healing the man who is brought to him in the district of the Decapolis.
This healing story is found only in St. Mark’s Gospel. The details that are included in the story reveal St. Mark’s intention in the inclusion of this story. First, it is immediately preceded by Jesus’ interaction with a Syro-Phoenician woman who expresses faith in Jesus’ ability to cure her daughter. Jesus is obviously moved by this incident as he continues to frequent non-Jewish territory. The Decapolis is an aggregate of ten Gentile cities that enjoyed freedom from Jewish domination but which still was home to many Jews. Though he is outside of the land of Israel, Jesus seems to be finding people who have come to believe in his mission.
The description of the healing is distinctive in that it include the use of spittle as well as Jesus putting his fingers into the man’s ears and touching the man’s tongue. These actions are typical of the healing practices of the area. In the other healing stories, Jesus heals by simply speaking. Usually the Gospel writers portray Jesus exercising his healing power in a manner unique among the healers of his time. It seems that the Gentile setting of this story influenced the details of the story. They certainly add to the dramatic character of the story. Jesus also looks up to heaven and groans, which could be understood as a form of prayer. The healing itself is accomplished by Jesus’ command: Ephphetha! Be opened!
The culture of Israel at this time in history is an oral culture. Those who cannot hear are at a great disadvantage. They are marginalized in ways that others are not. The importance of hearing is reflected in Israel’s preeminent prayer, the Shema Israel. “Hear, O Israel. The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” This verse from Deuteronomy is placed in a small receptacle, the Mezusah, at every door. As a Jew enters his house, he or she kisses the fingers and touches the Mezuzah. Hearing symbolizes openness to God and God’s Law. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry is his teaching about the reign of God. In this episode, Jesus unstops the ears of a man who is unable to hear his words, so that now the man can hear them and be open to his message.
In the oracle from the prophet Isaiah which we read this morning, the prophet depicts two ways in which the renewal promised by God is manifested: those who suffer physical maladies will be healed of their infirmities, and the barren wilderness will be filled with the promise of new life. The promised salvation will not be limited to human beings. All creation will be renewed. The month of September has been set aside by the Holy Father as the “Season of Creation.” From September 1 to October 4, the Holy Father asks us to pray for an increased awareness of God’s love and protection of His creation.
Taking our cue from Isaiah and from St. Mark this morning, we ask God to open our ears and loose our tongues in proclamations of our faith, and to accept the challenge to be responsible in our care for our created universe. As we have been reminded frequently in the Scriptures: the one who has ears ought to hear!
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator