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Be opened

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GOSPEL COMMENTARY SEPT. 5, MK 7:31-37

When an infant is baptized, there is a part of the rite in which the priest or deacon touches the ears and mouth of the newly baptized child. This strange gesture is meant to resemble what Our Lord does in today’s Gospel. When a deaf man with a speech impediment approaches him, Jesus puts his finger into the man’s ears and touches his tongue. And then, to heal him from both of his incapacities, he says one Aramaic word, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.”

That gesture during the baptismal rite, called the ephphatha rite, puts the child in the place of the deaf and mute man. Why this identification? That man and this child each approached Christ to be granted a new capacity. For the man in the Gospel, this was a physical healing, and he was granted the capacity both to hear and to speak. He could now communicate verbally with others. He was “opened” to enjoy this important aspect of interpersonal relationships. For the child who was just baptized, there is an even greater capacity given. During the gesture of touching the child’s ears and mouth, the priest or deacon also says this prayer: “May the Lord Jesus, who made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak, grant that you may soon receive his word with your ears and profess the faith with your lips, to the glory and praise of God the Father.”

We are created to be in communication with God, receiving his word through our ears and into our hearts, and then returning praise to him from our hearts and through our mouths. So why does the child need to be granted such a capacity? You could say that it is not so much the granting of a new capacity as it is the restoring of a capacity lost by sin. When the human race turned away from God and toward idols, we made ourselves deaf and dumb.

The Book of Psalms speaks of this poignantly. Idolatry diminishes our human capacities because we become like what we worship. Two psalms speak of this, almost in identical language: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but they cannot speak; they have eyes but they cannot see; they have ears but they cannot hear; they have nostrils but they cannot smell. With their hands they cannot feel; with their feet they cannot walk. No sound comes from their throats. Their makers will come to be like them and so will all who trust in them” (Ps 115:4-8; cf. Ps 135:15-18).

The meaning of the first few verses may be obvious. Although the idols fashioned by man may have humanlike features, they are in fact lifeless and cannot do the things man can do. It’s that last verse that adds a punch. “Their makers will come to be like them.” We become like what we worship, or more generally, we become like what we love. Those who worship what is beneath them end up diminishing their own capacities.

This is true physically. Our senses are dulled to the pleasures we seek inordinately through gluttony, lust and greed. For the person enslaved to these things, what once brought pleasure is no longer enough. The person who enjoys earthly goods in a properly ordered way, on the other hand, is actually more capable of enjoying pleasure and of experiencing joy.

It is also true spiritually. Inordinate love of wealth and pleasure has an effect on our soul as well, as does such a love of honor or power. Our own selfishness deafens us to the needs of others and the call of God.

Our Lord says to us, “Be opened.” In fact, he spoke this to us at our baptism. Baptism turned us away from the devil, his works, and his empty show, and it oriented us toward the true and living God. And so, it gives us first of all a new capacity to hear, that is, the grace of faith. From that moment, our ears were made capable of receiving Christ’s word in a new way, if only we listen. Next, there is a new capacity to speak. When we allow his word to enter, then we can profess the faith with our lips. We can glorify God. We can worship God in spirit and in truth. Living like this, we are opened to life abundant.

Fr. Oetjen is studying canon law at Catholic University in Washington, with residence at St. Agnes Church in Arlington. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021