September 9, 2012

HOMILY for 23rd Sunday per annum (B)

Isa 35:4-7; Ps 145; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

Ephphatha! “Be opened”!

Would you prefer to be described as an open person, or closed? Open-minded, or not? I think we tend to think it’s better to be open. But what are we open to? After all, we can’t be indiscriminately open, can we? You may have noticed that the doors of our basement room now have ‘closers’ so that they shut by themselves because as the cold season approaches we don’t want them to be left wide open to the elements. Neither would we want to leave our homes open to let in thieves and other undesirables. So, we want to be open but only to those things which we desire. But if this is what we mean by open-mindedness, or openness to another person, then it might just amount to prejudice. For, often, we’re merely open to what we already like, or find agreeable because it confirms our present positions, or to whom we are attracted – hardly a paragon of true openness! But our inclination to be open to that which we find desireable does point out what we should be open to. We should be open to the desireable, that is, to the good, and, so, ultimately, we should be open to the Truth, who is the person of Jesus Christ. 

Real openness, then, places us in a position of encounter with another person. It requires of us a certain vulnerability, of readiness to encounter Another, to discover new perspectives, and, even, to be changed by Another. It is this genuine openness which underlies every good relationship. Such openness is the foundation of friendship because it is inherent to love. So, if we have love, then we are open to Another, above all, to God who is Other from us. With openness, we can love God with that open, respectful, mutual love that makes for true friendship. 

But although our society claims to value openness and Britain prides itself on its tolerance, in fact, ours is a society that risks becoming ever more self-affirming and closed in on itself. Because it is not open to the truth of God, to Him who is Other, to faith. Indeed, we increasingly find that our tolerant society is intolerant of people who openly challenge the prevailing prejudice against faith. Not infrequently, religious people find themselves excluded, closed off, from various groups and discussions. Recently, I heard of a doctoral student whose thesis on coping with climate change was rejected because he’d based part of his solution on St Thomas’ virtue ethics. He was told that as St Thomas was a religious person, Thomas’ views were biased and didn’t count! The irony is that the one who excludes faith is the actual biased person, but he or she doesn’t recognize this: it’s a kind of blindness. 

It would seem that this was the kind of blindness and deafness that Isaiah was thinking of: spiritual blindness in which Mankind is closed off from God, unwilling to recognize Him, the Other; shutting out the Truth that challenges, and demands, even, a conversion – change – in oneself. As the prophet says earlier on, there are those whose ears are “heavy” and whose eyes are “shut…  lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isa 6:10). Hence, atheism often has at its root, not an intellectual issue, but a moral issue. It’s not about philosophical truth but moral truth. Or rather, that truth of who we are that we hide from ourselves and from God, unwilling to accept our vulnerability and need to turn to God and be healed. Hence people claim: “I don’t need God; I don’t see how he’s relevant to my life”. 

St Augustine knew well this way of thinking because he once thought like this. He says: “Errors and false opinions contaminate life if the reasoning mind is itself flawed”, coloured by passions and addictions. So, he says, one is in darkness without knowing it: “For I did not know that the soul needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth”. So, Augustine, like so many of us, was closed to God, closed to truth, thinking that his own intellect and reason was the sole independent arbiter of truth. But this, as we’ve noted, is not openness, just prejudice. And it is this malady that causes the Lord to look up to heaven, and sigh, because he feels deeply for our predicament and desires to heal us. He wants us to be ephphatha-ed, to be opened! 

Being opened to God, to the revealed Truth that is known to us through faith, leads us beyond our pre-conceived notions and accepted world views, beyond knowledge that is known purely through the natural sciences and our senses to include the knowledge known through revealed Truth, through faith in Christ and his authoritative teaching. St James gives just one example which challenged the thinking of his contemporaries but perhaps we’ve taken it for granted so that we fail to see how radical it was. His teaching is that we should not favour the rich and well-dressed, indeed, what we find desireable, over the poor, which we may desire less. Rather, we should honour both equally. That is to say, we should be open to them both, genuinely open to the Other so that we see them – rich or poor – as human persons, equal in dignity. Because with openness, we can love one another with that open, respectful, mutual love that makes for true friendship.

This openness towards God and neighbour, then, is what we Christians are called to. At our baptism, the Ephphatha rite was performed over us, and the priest touched our ears and mouth, saying: “May [Jesus] touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith”. So, we’re called to open our hearts and minds to listen to God’s Word, to encounter Truth in Christ’s teaching and example, and to be converted to it. This is what real open-mindedness consists in. 

And when the man in the Gospel is healed, he speaks rightly, orthos. So, when we are healed in baptism, and opened through an on-going conversion to God’s Truth, to right belief – orthodoxy, as it’s called – then, we will speak rightly, properly. And this means, primarily, a proclamation of our faith in words, encouraging others, and joyfully proclaiming our faith in Christ our Saviour. As Isaiah said: “Be strong, fear not! Behold… [your God] will come and save you”. However, ‘right speaking’ also means proclaiming our faith in loving actions, giving hospitality and friendship to all, rich and poor alike. For this is what it means to really be opened: it means we love as God has loved us. 

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