There is a little ritual in the rite of baptism — alas it is often omitted — whose name and form is taken from today’s gospel: ‘The Ephphatha’. Ephphatha means ‘be opened.’ The celebrant touches the ears and then the lips of the one to be baptised saying: ‘The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word and your mouth to proclaim his faith …’ This simple ceremony captures not only what is the kernel of today’s gospel, but a most profound aspect of our faith: its ‘giftedness’.
In the first reading we hear the prophet describing the people in terms of their disabilities: stumbling, hard of hearing, with poor sight — the sad reality of the human condition. But Isaiah holds out for the promise of God’s help, aid and mercy. It is the Promised One who will be the gift of new sight, new hearing, and new lips. And the miracle in today’s gospel is a demonstration that this time has come: Jesus is the gift of the Father to us.
One of the chief insights of St. Ignatius of Loyola was that God is to be found in all things. This calls for a keen spiritual awareness, not an easy task in today’s busy world. The Ephphatha ritual symbolises the gift of openess to finding God everywhere, to seeing and hearing of God in our everyday life. And the readings today assist us by lending themselves to a spiritual interpretation. Thus the gift of new sight shows us the true nature of the creation. Try look at this vast universe some starry night without the gift of faith. You may well marvel at its huge expanse but in the end it has to be very cold and lonely place without any purpose. Our faith, on the other hand, tells us that everything exists in dependence on God’s will. The eyes of faith also tell us that we human creatures exist because of God’s love, and our destiny is not within the creation, but in union with God.
The person in the Gospel story can neither hear nor speak and is therefore a truly touching symbol of those who cannot communicate. This brings me back to my early days in Zambia when I was learning the language there. I remember one night in particular when I stayed in a remote village. We were all around a fire under a starry universe yet not one person spoke a word of English and I had little or no Chinyanja. I didn’t understand one word they were saying nor could I speak anything beyond the bare greetings. Even though my hearing is good and I have a tongue that works, in this instance I was virtually deaf and dumb. I was not a happy camper. Could this be the same for the spiritually deaf and dumb? Jesus seems to intimate so. In John 9 after healing the blind man, it’s the Pharisees who though well able to see are really blind.
The gift of spiritual hearing allows us to hear the word of God in our gatherings, in the situations and ups and downs of life, and in our consciences. We can come to know that God loves us, cares for us, and calls us to be his ministers and his witnesses. And from our hearing comes speech, the ability to praise God in prayer, to proclaim the truth to sisters and brothers, and to announce the good news of Jesus.
We can get baptised in a day but growing into our baptism is a life-time’s work. And the challenge that our baptism places before us each day is Ephphatha: that of opening our minds and hearts to God in our everyday life. How well do we do this? It is easy enough to become aware of our own personal needs and there are many, like the need for love, recognition, forgiveness, trust, health and a decent standard of living. Yet our baptism calls us to be aware of others around us less fortunate than we are – the homeless, the unemployed, the sick, the addicted, the abused and the lonely. Ephphatha means seeing God in all these situations as well and responding generously. Furthermore St James reminds us that we must make no distinctions between rich and poor.
This applies to the migrant crisis. They are not a swarm as one politician recently said. They are human beings and for a long time the world has more or less chosen to merely look on – from a distance. But that has all changed last week. A certain tragic image went viral which has shocked us all to the core. It was the picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was found washed ashore at the edge of the sea. His older brother of five was found not far away. But it was Aylan’s picture that served as a shocking reminder of the dangers children and families are taking in search of a better life. People around the world wept at the images of Aylan and shared them on social media raising an intense global consciousness about the horror which refugees face.
There has been a huge response worldwide to little Aylan’s plight. Money, food and blankets are now coming in from all over the world. Even bicycles to Calais for the migrants to help get them to the nearest supermarket seven kilometres away. It seems that little Aylan has now concentrated minds and forced the EU to come together and agree to a plan to tackle the refugee crisis.
Aylan, if you like, has been a true Ephphatha moment. Where everything else has failed he has managed to open the minds and hearts of the world. But perhaps the real issue for us Christians is to pay more attention to the Ephphatha ritual in our own baptism. If Christians worldwide were to do this then there might never have been a migrant crisis to begin with.
Sunday, 6th September 2015