I’ve been reflecting recently on the several times in the gospels when we come across Jesus’ original Aramaic words being kept instead of being translated into Greek, the original language of the gospels. Instances where Jesus’ original words in his home tongue of Aramaic are used include Ephphatha, Abba, Talitha Koum and Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachtani. Retaining these words, the gospel writers wanted to emphasise the original power of Christ’s original utterance. A short and sharp word or phrase to express an emotion that welled up from within his depths. When these Aramaic words are used in the gospels we understand that they are used deliberately to underscore the intimacy of the moment and the personal relationship of Jesus with the one with whom He is communicating.
Ephphatha, is the word that fascinates me. It means be opened, and is used by Jesus when he heals the deaf man in Mark’s gospel. This man, being deaf and unable to speak resulted in virtual isolation from the community. He was cut off from hearing others and from speaking with others. So, when Jesus healed him and spoke the words, be opened, he literally tore down the walls that kept this man from the fullness of life. The way to life was opened by God. Now, he could hear the laughter, the conversations, the sacred stories after having been blocked from doing so. Now, he could hear the history of God’s loving relationship with Israel, the accounts of God’s action on behalf of His people, he could hear Jesus speak of God’s love for him.
The original sin described in our first reading, is the cause of our separation from God, the moment the human person isolated himself from the source of life, love and grace. Locked into our own wills and deaf to the voice of God, we become self-absorbed and are unable to break free from the bondage to the self. The result is sin – bringing sadness, fear and anger, and an emotional, spiritual and physical destructiveness inflicted on ourselves and those around us.
Our fundamental inclination to turn first to ourselves, to our own interests, ignorant to the voice of life, deaf to the word of God and the cries of our brothers and sisters, is the pervasive effects of original sin. We are trapped in our own minds, our hearts are hardened and our spirits are paralysed. We need the healing touch of Christ and to hear the words, be opened! This is a direct command from the Lord and has the power to release us from our bondage to self and sin. At our baptism, the priest signed our ears and mouth with the cross and announced, Ephphatha. With that sign our ears were opened to hear the word of God and our lips were opened to proclaim, under the power of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ is Lord. As we live out the truth of our baptism and nurture the graces of that sacrament, we allow ourselves to hear each day the command of Jesus – ephphatha!
St. Bonaventure, in his life of St. Francis of Assisi describes how at prayer in a lonely place one day and full of sorrow for his sins, the joy of the Holy Spirit suddenly came upon Francis and his heart was expanded and the horizons of his mind were enlarged. This was an ephphatha moment for Francis, when the graces of his baptism flowered freely and abundantly in his spirit. This is the grace we seek – that the spiritual energies in our soul, given to us at baptism and confirmation may be released to flow freely and powerfully within us. We all, and all too often, experience a spiritual and emotional paralysis that blocks us from receptivity to God’s love and a sensitivity to the spiritual energies within our souls. Our minds are narrowed and our hearts constricted. We are at odds with ourselves and with others. We are internally restless and irritable. Not only is prayer difficult, but we also have very little desire to prayer. We are weary and tire easily, and quickly irritated by the relentless demands of our daily lives. We resent others and our minds are quick to find fault and make judgement on them. Or there are times when we are overcome with despair, the future looks bleak or we don’t know if we will have the strength to endure what will be demanded of us. We lose confidence in ourselves and no longer think and live from our deepest centre. In these moments, and all those times when we are closed off from grace and truth, we need an ephphatha experience. We need Christ to touch us and to whisper into our depths – ephphatha!
But first, we need to approach the Lord and ask for His mercy. Like St. Francis in that lonely place, filled with sorrow for his sinfulness, and as described by Thomas of Celano this time, “he ceaselessly repeated the phrase: ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Gradually, an indescribable joy and tremendous sweetness began to well up deep in his heart. Certainty of the forgiveness of all his sins poured in, and the assurance of being revived in grace was given to him. Then his inmost soul opened wide, he clearly saw the future. As that sweetness and light withdrew, he was renewed in spirit.”
To experience the grace of ephphata, we need to come before the Lord in humility and sorrow, praying, “Have mercy on me O Lord and heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.” And then like the deaf man and St. Francis, wait patiently on the mercy of the Lord to touch our hearts and minds, to release us from isolation and renew us within, allowing us to experience the healing energy of his grace freeing our minds to believe and our hearts to love.