Sunday, September 6, 2015

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Ephphatha - Fear not, Be Open to God

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Today's readings are about trusting God and being open to Him so we can be made new.

In the first reading from Isaiah, God says to those who are afraid, "Be strong, fear not!"  Fear is a natural response in human beings. Biologists and evolutionary psychologists believe that we developed this feeling in order to survive. Some of us when we see an arachnid, automatically get nervous and our fight and flight processes get to work.  We either squish an arachnid, spray it with Raid or something, or we run like "Forrest Gump."  Fear allows us to survive in many cases.  However, God tells us to not fear.  He "comes with vindication; with divine recompense" we are told.  God will care for us and fight for us (Exodus 14:14, Deuteronomy 3:22). This is why we must "turn the other cheek" and not take revenge (Romans 12:19, 2 Samuel 22:48, Deuteronomy 32:35).  Today, we have many reasons to be afraid. Around the world, we have ISIS and others who take pride in beheading Christians and torturing them.  Even in our beloved USA, we now have the LGBT, secularists, atheists and pro-abortion advocates targeting us in many ways.  They are trying to push us into our church buildings and silence our public voice and witness.

As you may know, a Christian county clerk named Kim Davis was arrested for simply following her conscience (see: She refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples and for this she was sent to jail for contempt despite other politicians doing the same in regards to refusing to obey or enforce laws and getting scot free. Moreover, the Supreme Court did not even bother to hear her appeal. Justice Elena Kagan, a supporter of the LGBT agenda clearly showed her bias and rejected Davis' case demonstrating that Christians have no voice before the Supreme Court.  This is scary indeed. However, we must anticipate this and worse (John 16:33).  Because we believe in Christ the Lord, we will suffer greatly and will be brought before the powers that be (Luke 21:12). However, God will not be mocked and will avenge us if we remain faithful through this or any persecution that will come (Galatians 6:7, Romans 5:3-4).

We must not fear man and his pretenses to possessing power over other human beings; but instead only listen to and obey God (Matthew 6:24, Matthew 10:28-29, Acts 5:29).  Only God has the power (James 4:12 ).  If we trust God, we will see His marvels (Matthew 13:58, Matthew 8:13).  The eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will hear (Isaiah 35:5).  This is not just physical healing, but also a psychological and spiritual one as well.  Those who are blind to God and refuse to listen to Him will, once God intervenes.  God will restore creation (2 Corinthians 5:17, Revelation 21:5).  Today we are seeing many droughts around the world, especially in areas that have lost their way (Job 12:15, Psalm 32:4, Psalms 68:6, Amos 8:11, Jeremiah 17:5-6).  God will take those "burning sands" and turn them to pools.  He will bring springs of water to the "thirsty ground" (Isaiah 44:3).  However, first we must bring back our nation to God (2 Chronicles 7:14).  We must allow Him to change us from within without fear (Ezekiel 36:26).  As today's Psalm states, we must "praise the Lord."

"Praise the Lord, My soul!"  This has to be the essence of our lives. God is faithful to us (Psalms 86:15, 1 Corinthians 1:9, 1 Thessalonians 3:3).  He is just and secures this justice to those who are put down and oppressed (1 Corinthians 1:28,Psalm 9:9).  Refugees seeking help must trust God.  He will help them.  It is God who has the final say in the affairs of each one of us (Proverbs 19:21).  He gives sight to the blind, picks up those who are humbled, protects the strangers and those who society labels as pariahs or undesirable classes (Deuteronomy 10:18, Leviticus 19:34).  God has no favorites and treats everyone equally as we read in the second reading.

God shows no partiality we are told.  He does not favor one group over another (Acts 10:34, Galatians 3:28).  While He did choose Israel as His people, these people were a preparation for the redemption and salvation of the whole world (Isaiah 49:6, Acts 28:28).  God is not the father of just the Jews, but of the many nations He promised to Abraham (Genesis 17:4-5).  We on our part, must "adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ."  This is done not just by being pious, but by loving others regardless of their condition or where they come from (Mark 12:31).  If we see people not well dressed or maybe lacking hygiene enter our churches, we must not look at them with disgust. We must not judge them or separate them from the congregation as if they do not deserve to be there.  Instead, we must bear it all for Christ. The grace of God transforms us.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I do not like being touched or embraced. I tend to keep to myself in that regard.  However, as a Catholic I began to grow spiritually and as a human. The stoic atheist was dying in me.  I will never forget years ago in the Bronx.  I walking on 181st and Grand Concourse.  The event was so powerful that I still remember the location.  Anyhow, as I was walking with a cassock on, I passed by a small park on the Concourse. There were a group of homeless people sitting there.  One of them asks for money and I only had seven dollars so I gave it to him and asked him to share it with the others.  What happened next was just amazing.  After giving him the money, I had gone on my way walking. The man comes and calls me and I turn around. He is smiling and invites me to join them for lunch.  I was confuse as to what he meant.  Well, he took the money I gave and bought some slice Wonder bread and cold cuts, bologna I think which is cheap.  He got the food and was making sandwiches in the park and giving them to other homeless people (his friends).

Moreover, he invited me to join them. Now, naturally I was a bit hesitant to join them but did not show it outwardly.  The dying atheist in me was concerned about diseases, lack of hygiene etc.  But I felt a voice in me tell me to go eat, so I did.  We held hands and prayed on the street and ate this simple lunch. It was one of the greatest feelings ever and spoke to me better than any papal document, homily, theologian or spiritual director could.  I still remember this and always pray for those people I met that hot summer day. God spoke to me strongly using those people. Another more recent event was in Boston.  I was working at St. Francis House giving out clothing to people.  This young Caucasian male comes in about 18 or 19 years old, maybe younger.  He was shirtless and bare foot.  Mind you, it was about 28 degrees outside.  His milk-white smooth young skin was red from the cold. He was shivering and was just a sad sight to look at. Those who work at the place are only allowed to give one article of clothing per person. Well, I was stuck.  He needed a shirt, socks, shoes and coat.  I did not know what to do.  Again, the "stoic Mister Spock-like atheist" was still in me a bit and I was trying to judge the situation like a Utilitarian using calculus. The guy was nearly in tears obviously desperate. I tend to be very stoic so he probably interpreted my lack of emotions as "he doesn't believe me."

In response, he kept insisting, looking at me with piercing sky-blue eyes that he needed the clothes; that he was freezing and did not even have underwear. He even pulled the waist band of his jeans outward out of desperation revealing his male parts and buttocks as "proof" that he only had the pair of jeans and nothing more. Again, I did not know what to do. He was clearly poor, in need of clothing, and not lying. He was dirty and the odor of armpits and unwashed male genitals was obvious to all present.  In my head I was processing, "Should I or should I not?  What if I get in trouble with the religious brother supervising me?" However, again I felt that voice in me telling me to give him what he needed, so I did.  The young guy started crying and gave me a big hug which almost took the air out of me showing how hard he squeezed me.  When I saw the religious brother I told him what I did expecting to be scolded and instead, he smiled and told me that we do not get in trouble for doing God's work and told me not to worry about the rules.  Again, God was teaching me about the poor and what to do.  I have many more stories like this, but if I write them, then this post would be over 400,000 characters! Like the old Nike sneakers motto, "just do it."  Help others and do not worry. As the reading tells us, "Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?"

Finally in the Gospel, Jesus goes to the people who have all kinds of physical handicaps.  A deaf man with a speech impediment was presented to him. Mark when writing the Gospel even used the world for "speech impediment" in Greek which is mogilalon.  The same word is used in the Greek version of the first reading showing the connection between this Gospel event and Isaiah's words. Anyhow, the man with the handicap begs Jesus to lay His hands on him.  Jesus takes the man away from the crowd and does something strange.  He puts His finger inside the man's ears, spits, touched the man's tongue, and looked up to heaven saying "Ephphatha" which means, "Be Opened!"  The man was immediately healed. He tells the man not to tell anyone, but the man obviously does.  The people were amazed and said, "He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

This is a lot to take in, but let us simplify it.  The encounter here is clearly a fulfillment of the first reading.  In regards to the finger in the ears, spitting and the touching of tongue, these had to do with the beliefs of the time. The Romans and Jews of the time believed saliva had healing properties.  There were also many people at the time who believed in talismans claiming them to be able to heal others using these gestures and objects. Jesus used these gestures and spit to communicate to the people what He was doing (healing).  He was also indicating that healing comes from God because the healing took affect not when the touching and spitting happened, but after Jesus looked up to heaven.  This was not magic. One can see the body language at work here.  The looking up to heaven was conveying that God above does the healing and has the power. Moreover, the spitting on the ground shows how God "waters" the dust of the Earth (human beings),(Genesis 2:7, John 9).  This is why the Church uses Sacramentals which are sacred signs that are connected to the Sacraments, remind us of God and our faith, and which God uses to bless (Acts 5:14-16, Acts 19:11-12, CCC 1667-1679). God can do miracles easily without needing anything, however, we see in today's Gospel how God is a personal God who engages our senses and our physical existence via His human self in the person of Christ.  Jesus pulls the man aside in private showing that God has a personal relationship with each one of us (Isaiah 43:1). God deals with us individually, not just as a Church collective (Ezekiel 18, 1 Corinthians 7:17).

Now you may be wondering why did Jesus tell the man not to inform others of the healing, well, this was due to several reasons. Jesus clearly had people among the religious leaders who hated Him and were jealous of Him.  He did not want to draw attention to Himself in that regards.  Moreover, if news spread that Jesus was this healer, then people will flock to Him just to seek this and will never learn about the Kingdom of God nor the Gospel (John 4:48). Unfortunately, we see something similar today with Popes.  Whenever a Pope visits a location, millions go to see him and a lot of these do not even bother to process his message or internalize it. Finally, the reading ends stating that Jesus did well.  This is in relation to God making all things new (Genesis 1:31, Revelation 21:1-5).  Jesus restores all things (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Our past does not define us, Jesus does. Let us not be afraid and trust God.  Let us welcome all, especially the poor who need our love an care.  Like the deaf and mute man, let us go to Christ and ask Him to lay His hand on us to cover using grace; spit to water our dry souls, put His finger in our ears to take away our stubbornness and refusal to listen and let Him say "Ephphatha" so that we can be completely open to God.  May Jesus Christ be praised!


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