A reflection prepared for Immaculate Conception Parish, Durham NC
Offered on September 5, 2021 || The Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
by Casey Stanton
The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel doesn’t come to play. His mission is urgent and told at a breakneck speed. By Chapter 2, he can’t go anywhere without the crowds pressing in on him. The hunger and the need for Jesus practically overwhelms the narrative. He has to share the load — he sends out his disciples and gives them authority to drive out unclean spirits, to heal, to preach repentance.
Today’s Gospel (7:31-37) sits right around the midpoint in Mark’s breathless narrative. Wedged between miraculous feedings, tussles with the Pharisees, and a rather complex encounter with a Syrophoenician woman of tremendous faith and wit.
This story reveals a Jesus who seems to be squeezing the most out of his earthly, enfleshed existence. A Jesus who is fully God and fully human: for this is a healing that involves all of Jesus. It’s not just a touch of the cloak or a word spoken for a healing that gets worked out on the other side of town.
It is intimately physical: fingers in ears, spit on hands, hands on tongues. Eyes heaven bound.
And then: Jesus’ groan.
This word for groan (stenazō) appears nowhere else in Mark or in any of the Gospels. Mark is telling us something here. He’s stopping us. He wants us to pay attention. If the translation doesn’t seem peculiar enough to give us contemporary readers pause -then the Aramaiac will surely have most presiders pausing to practice the perplexing pronunciation: Ephphatha!
How do you say that word again? Ef-fath-ah’
Be thou opened.
An imperative sentence. A command and a prayer.
The Church in its wisdom has ritualized the significance of this encounter: recognized that there is something here to stop us in our tracks, something fundamental about who Jesus is and what we are to pray for if we hope to follow Him. On Holy Saturday morning, this marks a final rite for the elect before full initiation. It is also a part of our baptismal liturgy.
A priest or deacon goes to each Elect and touches the right and left ear and the closed lips of each of the with their thumb, saying:
Ephthetha, that is, be opened, that you may profess the faith you hear to the praise and glory of God.
A thick ritual gesture, charged with the faith that we profess — pressing each of us into a deeper examination.
What impedes our speech? Today. This morning.
What is it we look to the heavens for?
What is the groan – the ache of our greatest desire and hope and lament?
What is it we long to speak plainly?
For there are experiences that render us mute, no? Encounters that leave us shattered, which we cannot bring to speech. And the more we hear of a world suffering — I for one, can begin to grow deaf to it. Weary with demands and news and lectures — even sermons — that constantly remind me about the brokenness of the world while I sit here wondering what in the world AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ABOUT IT.
I have laundry and a mortgage and obligations. Not to mention crying children. A marriage that’s frayed and tired. Aging parents who increasingly rely on my care.
I’m not the president. Or a senator. Or a CEO. Or a bishop.
But what is it to enter in, to imaging Jesus alive – right now – turning his eyes to Heaven – groaning.
To enter into this miracle, we have to be willing to get real intimate with Jesus. To let him stick fingers in our ears and groan on behalf of the worst thing we’ve ever done, on behalf of the weight and grief we carry, on behalf of the pain and anxiety and fear we are holding in our flesh — and he holds our tongue in order to free it. His spit can save us – but have to choose to draw near enough for him to do it.
Perhaps as a Catholic tradition — carrying rites and liturgies thick with such miraculous promise — we might together stand inside of Jesus’ own groaning, and pray his words as our own prayer — over our lives, and over the life of the Church throughout the word.
This is exactly what Pope Francis is inviting us all to. I mean it — Rheba, Robert, Barbara, Ashley, Ken, Fr. Gonzalo, Kaylor, Christine, Jeanne…He is tasking the Bishops to consult with the entire people of God everywhere on planet earth – to listen. To be opened to hear what is deeply stirring in the hearts and minds of people — to trust, profoundly that the Holy Spirit can speak plainly through the people of God.
Pope Francis and a remarkable team he’s assembled are seeking to enflesh a corrective to the sin of clericalism that would have us showing partiality in our worship space & in our governing space — paying attention only to the ordained as if the rest of the assembly has no wisdom to offer in matters of the community’s life and mission!
The global synod which kicks off first in Rome next month – Oct 10 — and then around the world – Oct 17 — the theme is “participation, communion, and mission”
This is not a meeting on meetings! This is not just an online survey for church bureaucrats to fill out and for professional catholic elites to weigh in on. This is an experiment in a new way of exercising power, authority and accountability in the Church!
And of course — it will be MESSY…
But we are invited to stand within the power of our baptism, Our shared membership and role in Christ’s ministry: To heal – to cast out every demon that deals death and destruction and division — racism, xenophobia, misogyny — anything that would make someone feel they are anything less than the beloved of GOD
We are invited… as St. Francis, the deacon, did as he worked together with St. Clare to re-discover the communion that’s written into the fabric of creation, and as they transformed the Church’s understanding of what it meant to live a vocation. Of how to love the revelation of God in creation
Not seek God after we are dead.
But here – Where god wants to put a finger in our ear,
And free our tongue
And give us the freedom and courage to
Be strong, fear not — your God is come, listening and speaking in you.
Note: A version of this reflection was also published at Where Peter Is.