In the gospels we occasionally meet a word which, in order to emphasize its particular importance, is left in its original language. This is the case not simply in the English translation we hear proclaimed in the Sacred Liturgy or read in our homes, but in the text of the gospels themselves. We think particularly of the words of Our Lord from the throne of his cross: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27: 46). Or, conversely, of the beautiful moment when Saint Mary Magdalene, recognizing the Lord after his resurrection, cries with a single word, Rabboni, which means “teacher” (Jn 20: 16). Today, too, we find Ephphatha, an Aramaic word which means “be opened” (Mk 7: 34). That this remains untranslated, then, indicates not simply an immediate exterior importance in the healing of the dumb-mute, but a deeper interior significance that reveals something of the very person of Christ.
Speaking of this passage, Pope Benedict XVI remarked that the word, Ephphatha, “in its deepest meaning sums up the whole message and the whole work of Christ” (Angelus, 9.ix.2012). This is a bold claim, yet we can quickly see its truth. The literal meaning of the word which causes the healing of the deaf-mute, indicates the opening of the ears to hear and of the tongue to speak. What was closed in the physical senses of the deaf-mute is opened by the authority of Christ. Yet, by this we also begin to see that the sensual and physical disability of the man, debilitating as it is, is merely a sign of the more serious spiritual disability of mankind, which we might describe as our closure to the illuminating Word of God in Christ, and our concupiscence—that is, our inclination to sin; to choose our way over the way, which is the life offered us in the life of Christ in the sureness and security of his Holy Catholic Church.
Here, then, we can see what Pope Benedict meant when he said that this single word, Ephphatha, “sums up the whole message and the whole work of Christ”. For we know that it is in Christ, who comes to heal us from not simply physical but spiritual infirmity and sickness, that we discover the reason and means to be open to Almighty God; to have a heart docile to his will, and receptive to his transformative grace. As Pope Benedict goes on to say, “[Christ] was made man so that man, rendered inwardly deaf and mute by sin, might be able to hear God’s voice, the voice of Love that speaks to his heart, and thus in his turn learn to speak the language of love, to communicate with God and with others.”
How, then, might we seek more fully to be open to the Lord? First, we note that being open to Christ does not mean being “open” in the sense of being receptive to doctrinal laxity, or to a desire to alter or select the teachings of Christ which we choose, but rather to be open to him as he really is; to be docile to Christ’s will and teaching as the highest, unique means of winning salvation. As the psalmist puts it, “The designs of his Heart are from age to age” (Ps. 33: 11). Thus we seek to place our hearts into his Most Sacred Heart, the furnace of his refining charity; to make of our lives a holocaust offering—a sacrificial oblation consumed wholly for God.
Secondly, we note that the restorative power and this word, Ephphatha, is accompanied by an equally significant gesture. In the gospel we hear these words: “he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” (Mk 7: 34). Thus the action of the Lord—the outward sign he performs—reveals as much about the fruit of this work as the word we have just considered. Here we see the foundation of the sacramental life—the “streams in the desert” of the Prophet Isaiah (Is. 35: 6). We know from our catechism class that “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace” (Baltimore Catechism). As we observe the outward sign of the healing of the deaf-mute we acknowledge this as a precursor to the sacraments, the signs which effect true grace and thereby cause the interior healing of our injured soul, allowing us to be open to the will of Almighty God in order that we might live lives worthy of eternal salvation.
By using his own spittle, and elsewhere healing with his own hands (even when using water or mud), we might also observe that the action Christ performs with the deaf-mute reveals that it is by his own authority that this restoration is effected. So, in the sacraments, it is by the authority of Christ himself, given to his Church, that interior healing is brought about. This connection is made all the more explicit when discover in the Rite of Baptism that, touching the ears and the mouth of the candidate, the minister of the sacrament says, Ephphatha, praying that the candidate may hear the word of God with his ears, and profess the faith of Christ’s Church with his mouth. Indeed, in the older ritual the Priest first moistens his thumb with saliva: a further sign that it is in the very action of Christ that salvation is offered to us in the sacraments.
As we hear again these words of the holy gospel, then, may we seek to reflect more and more the truths they reveal. May we unite ourselves to those who experience physical hardships, praying that a knowledge of the person of Christ may bring them consolation and healing in their suffering. May we seek ourselves to share in the restorative grace offered to us by Christ in the sacramental life of his mystical body, the Church. And, being open to that grace, may we continue to grow in union with the life of the Lord, that our hearts may be more finely tuned to his heart, and that one with him in faith and charity we might remain in his love, and come to abide with him for all eternity.