Jesus had completed his ministry among the Gentiles after the healing of the Syrophoenician Woman’s daughter in Tyre. At least that is what seems to be the case. But Jesus does not immediately head back down to the Galilee, to Jewish country, his “home turf.” Instead, he heads north from Tyre even further into Gentile territory to Sidon, about twenty-five miles up the coast. Then, according to the theological cartography of St. Mark, Jesus now heads south east and winds up after a long journey in the midst of the Gentiles “Ten Towns,” the Decapolis,” over east of the Sea of Galilee. “He came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee,” the Greek has it, “through the midst of the region of the Decapolis.” It’s hard to even chart this trip out on a map! But here is what is at the heart of the matter: Jesus does not right away leave Gentile land and Gentile people, but winds up in the midst of the Ten Towns, all filled with those Gentiles. Certainly Jewish folks lived in that area, too, but mainly this is Gentile country. Still, two things can be identified as to Jesus’ new destination. On one hand, this is not a region of happy prosperity and important politics. No, he places himself in the midst of a people rather on the margins, outside any center of influence. On the other hand, when we look through the lens of Mark’s Gospel at the community of the Second Apostle, the affinity with this region is striking: Jew and Gentile, poor and of no influence. As one African American preacher described such places, “No place, no city, BoDiddy!”
Now at this no-name place, a man was afflicted by a terrible condition. He was totally deaf,…couldn’t hear a thing. Then, to make matters worse, he had a speech impediment. He only spoke with great difficulty. In a sense, he was worse off in one way than a person suffering from leprosy. Lepers could, and did, gather together in groups during their exile from the community. But in an oral culture like first century Israel, if you could not communicate with anyone, you were really alone. Fortunately, though, this man had friends, not a “crowd,” by any means, but enough friends to be with him and to bring him to Jesus. See, a lot of times, it doesn’t take a crowd, but simply some friends who care for you and know “from whence cometh your help” (Ps. 121). This ministry of some friends is not all that foreign to us, is it? Every year those who inquire about Jesus are met up with some friends in the parish. They talk with a newcomer to the faith, answer questions, and enjoy their company. Then comes the day, that First Sunday of Lent. The friends go to the cathedral (or name the parish church) along with the one about to be elected into the catechumenate. There are introductions, celebrations of the one to be elected, and applause, perhaps, as the person entering the catechumenate signs the book and is welcomed into this journey in Christ. This amazing “society of friends” joins in celebration at the cathedral. We may have friends like that. Very similar to the friends who brought this deaf man with the speech impediment to Jesus. It is what friends in Christ do,…they introduce a person to the Lord.
Being brought to Jesus, the man is now taken away from his friends, taken to a close nearby place for some actions and a word. Jesus puts his finger into the deaf man’s ear and, “spitting, touched his tongue.” Jesus utters a groan or sign and looks up to heaven. Then comes the word: “Ephphatha,” “Be opened,” it means. Immediately, Mark announces, the man’s ears were opened and his speech impediment was removed. The man could hear and speak, with no lingering effects of the handicaps. “Ephphatha” was the first word he could hear and it was spoken by Jesus. The church remembered this Aramaic word, the one translated “Be opened.” In the 4th century, St. Ambrose would gather the catechumens on Easter Eve in a place near the baptistery. There he would touch the ears and nostrils of those who would be baptized that evening at the Vigil. “Ephphatha, St. Ambrose announced, “Be opened to an odor of sweetness.”1 Later in the tradition, the “Be opened” focused more centrally on openness to the Word of God. Some of us may have been baptized with the Ephphatha as part of the rite. Others of us may have had a child baptized when the Ephphatha was used. After the word is spoken, the minister adds a pronouncement that dates back at least to St. Ambrose,
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.2
But these promises really are made to every baptized Christian. Be opened to the Word of God and be proclaiming the faith to the world. So this “Ephphatha Sunday,” people of God, renew your baptism and be opened, to the Word and proclaim God’s glory in Christ.
“Be opened,” then, to speak the Word to one another, and to hear and believe.
“Be opened” to feed the hungry and to care for the poor.
“Be opened” to learn of the damage and destruction to the environment and to care for our earthly home.3
“Be opened” to speak words of compassion into an uncaring and violent world.
“Be opened,” so that “your loosened tongues” may sing of the triumphs of God’s grace.4
So Ephphatha, people of God. Be opened! Hear and speak and sing the truth of the Gospel.
What follows is a familiar scene as St. Mark tells us of the miraculous deeds of the Lord. Jesus “ordered them not to tell anyone.” But as we well know by now, did the friends and healed man remain silent about this miracle? Right, they did not! The more Jesus attempts to quash their enthusiasm, the more they proclaim it, including, of course the loud and clear voice of the man who was healed. Not only that, they were “exceedingly astonished.” Perhaps they were even “beyond astonishment”! Finally, their joyous clamor centers down to this: “He has done
all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute to speak.” Old Isaiah had prophesied about this remarkable occurrence as he shared God’s promises about the coming reign of Peace.
The eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
And the lame shall leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isa. 35:5-6)
“He has done all things well,” they proclaim. Much like God has done all things well at the creation.
So look what St. Mark has done by way of a complete surprise in his telling of this story. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of the prophets, comes “with healing in his wings,” and works such majestic deeds right before our eyes,…here in Gentile country. We citizens of “BoDiddy” have every reason to be exceedingly astonished. Our ears are opened to hear the Gospel and our tongues loosened to proclaim the Good News.
1 Ambrose of Milan, De Mysteriis, 1.3-4. 2 “Rite of Baptism for One Child.” 3 See: Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home (accessed August 24, 2021, https://www.usccb.org/offices/general-secretariat/laudato-si-care-our-common-home. 4 Charles Wesley, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”