The Healing of the Deaf Man, fresco c. 830, Church of St. John Abbey, Müstair, Switzerland
The answer, I think, is that certain stories had a real resonance with the people of the time. In some cases, this was probably because of the sheer amazement that Jesus’s miracle produced. Think of the raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus from the dead or the feeding of the five thousand by the multiplication of the loaves. But other stories, in comparison at least, seem more ordinary; nonetheless, something in them made them worth remembering. Our Gospel today is one such story. On the surface, it seems like a fairly minor story – some people bring to Jesus a man who was deaf and who had a speech impediment, and Jesus heals him. Yet something in this story resonated so much with the disciples of Jesus, that it was remembered and recorded and passed down to us.
The key is in our first reading. The prophet Isaiah, speaking to all of Israel, says “Be strong, fear not. Here is your God.” He’s telling the people of Israel that the Lord will rescue them from their current state of trial and tribulation. God himself will come to them to be their salvation. And then, he gives some very specific signs that will announce this coming – namely, the blind will be made to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, and the mute to speak. It’s no accident then that when Jesus comes and begins to do these very things, the Jewish people who knew their religious tradition saw these signs as a clear, unmistakable indication of precisely who Jesus really was. Throughout his ministry, Jesus performed miracles not only because he had compassion for the people that came to him, but also because he wanted to show everyone that the prophesies of Isaiah have been fulfilled in him. God has come, he has entered our world as one of us, and it is through him that we are saved.
Today’s story of the healing of the deaf and mute man clearly resonated with the followers of Jesus, so much in fact that it was one of the relatively few stories included in the Gospels we have today. The Gospel writers highlighted it because it clearly shows that the ancient promise to Israel has come true in the person of Christ. But, I think, there is also another reason this story resonated with them, and perhaps also resonates still with us. And that is that there is something intensely personal about it. As we heard, Jesus and the man go off by themselves away from the crowd, and Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears and touches his tongues, and says, Ephphatha, “Be opened.”
These details may sound strange to us. But they also show unmistakably that the healing which the man experienced isn’t random, or out of the blue, or detached and impersonal. It happens as a result of the man physically encountering Jesus; it is the person of Jesus himself who transforms this man, who “opens” him and brings him into a new way of relating with the world around him. Jesus doesn’t bring healing; he is Healing – his very Presence is what restores the man to wholeness.
This is, I think, the deeper reality that so resonated with the disciples and should resonate also with us. Few of us know what it must be like to be deaf, to have a speech impediment, and then to be healed of those things. However, we are familiar with becoming at times deaf to the voice of God, incapable at various points of speaking his Word by the manner of our lives. As wonderful as the miracle in today’s Gospel was, it is the healing of spiritual impediments that is truly transformative, that opens us to a whole new way of being. Whenever we find ourselves isolated because of fear or anxiety, closed off to God or to others because of our sinfulness, oblivious to the presence of grace in and around us – it is precisely then that Jesus desires to reach out and touch us so that we can “be opened” again. Sometimes, he does so in the encounter with his living Word in the Scriptures, or in an encounter with his presence inside someone we interact with in our daily lives. Most often, the Lord’s healing touch comes through the intimate, sacramental encounters of Reconciliation and Holy Communion, when he breaks through our isolation and opens us again to newness of life.
Friends, the Gospel stories that we hear each Sunday, that we meditate upon again and again, should resonate with us because they can be insights into the story of our own relationship with Christ. In Jesus, we have experienced, and can experience again, the transformative power of the God who has shared our reality and wants to give us a share in his. He wishes to take away our spiritual deafness and empower us to proclaim the love of God to others – but we have to meet him halfway, with hearts that truly believe in his power to heal.
Let’s pray today that the Lord will grant each of us a deeper faith – the kind of faith shown by the deaf man, the kind of faith shown by those who brought him to Jesus, the kind of faith awakened in the hearts of those who saw that miracle, the kind of faith that resonated with those who recorded this story and passed it down to us through the centuries. Whatever our fears, or struggles, or weaknesses – with faith, we can sense the Lord’s presence this very day, this very Mass, reaching out to heal us and make us whole. “Be strong, fear not. Here is your God.”