Sunday, 9 September 2012

Mark's Jesus: Open your ears before your mouth!


Muslim prayer begins with the admirable gesture of raising the hands to the ears to listen to God. Given Mark's account of the failure of the disciples to listen and their propensity to speak instead, there is surely something to learn here.

"I can't wait to get out and tell people about Jesus!"

My heart sunk at these words from the lips of an enthusiastic young ordinand training for supposedly Anglican ministry at an Evangelical seminary. The Bishop had asked him what he was looking forward to, why he wanted to do it, and this was his answer: 'Telling people about Jesus.'

Well, perhaps you're more generous and forbearing than I am, but when people come up to me and start 'telling me about Jesus' I start to remember my atheist past more fondly and frankly feel like lamping them. The sheer patronising presumption of those who think they can go around 'telling' people things about Jesus, that all their Bible study gives them privileged knowledge of Him that we poor infidels just don't get, drives me round the bend. One even drew me a neat little picture of salvation with stick figures in six boxes on a sheet of A4. I just about managed to smile and thank him. But this sort of tedious lecturing goes completely against what Jesus Himself wanted in today's Gospel passage.

We heard from Mark about two of Jesus' miracles in Tyre and Decapolis. I'm going to focus on the second miracle, but it's worth noticing from the outset of the first that when Jesus entered the house of the possessed girl, in Mark's words, he 'did not want anyone to know he was there.' He certainly wasn't going up to strangers and 'telling them' about himself. Instead, he was quietly moving among them, doing the work of God which speaks so much more loudly than words. To paraphrase the famous words of St Francis, He was teaching the Gospel, but using words only where He had to. He arrived like a thief in the night, without fanfare or announcement.

But it is the second miracle that interests me more, here. Even more than the first miracle, Jesus wants the second kept quiet: in fact, He explicitly orders the disciples not to tell anyone about it. Perhaps this is because the second miracle involves more secret stuff: the use of spittle and the touching of the tongue are widely recognised as fairly typical Middle Eastern magical formulae. So, perhaps Jesus did not want this particular healing advertised because the Jewish authorities would disapprove. That's possible.

Yet I think there's rather more to it than that, embedded in the nature of the miracle itself. Jesus is healing a deaf man who could barely speak. 'Ephphatha,' he commands: 'be opened.' First, the man's ears are opened and then his mouth begins to work so that he can speak plainly. An interesting paradox, no? Jesus is telling the disciples to keep schtum about a man He has just given the power of speech.

Let's look closer still. The man gains the power of speech only after his ears are open. Only once he has been enabled to listen can he truly speak. Compare this with the verbose disciples. You may remember from the last time I preached on Mark that in his account of the Gospel, the disciples are always failing. They fail to understand who Jesus really is right up until the Resurrection, and Jesus is constantly having to correct their misguided ideas and teachings. Yet this man, when Jesus has opened his ears, begins to speak plainly.

'Ephphatha,' 'be opened.' Our main job as the Christians is not to TELL people about Jesus, but to HEAR Him in them, to SEE Him in their faces and in their hearts. And the only way we can do that is by allowing Him to open us, to make us receptive to His presence in ourselves, in others and in all His creation. Our God is by nature communal, dialogical, not the stern Father issuing edicts, 'telling us' about Himself, all one way ; but Father and Son in conversation, listening to one another, bound in mutual receptivity by the love of the Holy Spirit. And that's how we need to be. Receptive, open, loving, seeking always for God, humbly aware that others may know His love far better than we do: seeking God, never imposing Him. 'Ephphatha,' says the Lord, 'be opened,' and your loving action will say far more about Jesus than any words.

But how? How do we let Jesus open us? It can't just be through the Bible, because the Bible is still human words, and Jesus doesn't seem to think much of those. It's always worth remembering that the only words He wrote Himself were scrawled with a stick in sand to be blown away, and we don't even know what they were. If Our Lord had wanted us to pass Him on just through words, surely He might have taken the trouble to write some down. But no: after the Resurrection, even when He spoke to them, His disciples did not recognise Him. It was not in words, but in the action of the breaking of the bread that Jesus opened their eyes. He opened us in baptism, too, when we died to self and were emptied to be filled by Him; but human sin congeals and blocks out the light. And so, it is by repentance and by reception of His living Body at the altar that we continue to be opened within: open like the emptiness of His Cross, the emptiness of His tomb, the emptiness of His Virgin Mother's womb, so His love can be born in us anew. Long before the Church had any Bible, its Bishops were repeating the action Our Lord had taught them in the breaking of the bread. It is the Mass, not the Bible, which makes the Church.

Well, after all I've said, the next time someone tries to tell me about Jesus I suppose I'd better surpress my violent urges and try my best to listen and to love. Quite probably, I'll fail. But at least I can try to follow Jesus own commands a bit better myself: 'Stop telling people about me. Shut your mouth and open your ears! Maybe then you'll hear me, from heart to heart, speaking without words.'

Anyway, following Jesus' words, it's probably about time I shut my mouth now, but please allow me one small announcement: as an exercise in listening deeply to Christ within, we are starting 45-minute sessions of meditation before the Blessed Sacrament every first and third Sunday at 5, starting next week. I'll be guiding the sessions following some of the principles of Zen meditation that I've been practising for years now and found helpful, so if you're interested in learning to meditate in a Christian idiom, then please do come along.

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