“Look, your God is coming”: The Messiah is here!
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity.” May be you’ve heard this expression before. It was written by one of the Church Fathers, Tertullian (197 AD). This sentence does not sadistically justify the suffering of Christians. In fact, Tertullian uses this expression in his Apology that he writes to the Roman Governor defending the Christians. However, he says, “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is the seed.”
I think, the high level of indifference to Christianity prevalent in some societies, could be seen as a contemporary form of ‘persecution’. In some societies today, it takes a lot of courage to exhibit in public any form of Christian affiliation. Even in these societies, the encouraging surprise is that we often come across individuals who are so deep in their Christian convictions – not just in the externals of the religion but in the true living of the Christian life.
The Liturgy of the Word today suggests: Yes, the Messiah is here! The Lord has visited his people! But it is also that the Lord invites us to a personal encounter with him and to a spontaneous attraction towards him.
Messianic Times: “He has done all things well” (Mk 7:37)
The miracles of Jesus are signs that suggest that the messianic times have already arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Particularly in the Gospel of Mark, right from Mk 1:21, Jesus goes about liberating people from all types of ailments as a sign that the times proclaimed by the prophets have already arrived. In the first reading of today, Isaiah prophesies about those times:
“Look, your God is coming… he is coming to save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy” (Is 35:4-6).
And the reaction of people in terms of amazement and wonder to the works of Jesus confirms the fulfilment of that prophesy: “He has done all things well” (Mk 7:37). However, that exuberant mass reaction is not sufficient (for salvation). It is not the most authentic manner of reacting to the messianic times.
Messianic Encounter: “He took him aside in private” (Mk 7:33)
The deaf man in the gospel text of today was brought to Jesus by the crowd. Jesus takes him aside away from the multitude. Was he doing this to demonstrate that basically an encounter with God in the person of Jesus is a private experience even if it is often mediated by the community? And in this case, what an intimate encounter it was! Jesus “put his fingers into the man’s ears and touched his tongue with spittle.” Spittle is a body fluid that carries the identity of the person. With this man who has some speech impediment, Jesus shares something of his own identity.
And Jesus says, “Ephphatha” (Mk 7:34). The body language of Jesus, including the sigh, and the “Ephphatha” suggest an act of liberation. The people of Israel had expected the messiah to be a liberator – of a political type. But here it seems Jesus wants to avoid public spectacle. The messianic encounter is a private experience. Jesus is the messiah who wants to establish the kingdom of hearts marked by the transformation of individuals.
Ephphatha is an Aramaic expression. Aramaic – which was the mother-tongue of Jesus – was the language spoken in the regions surrounding Galilee and may be also in parts of Syria. In Hebrew, Syria is referred to as ‘Aram’. It is interesting that the Gospel of Mark which was written is Greek, often uses Aramaic expressions. The other examples include: Talitha Kum (Mk 5:41), Abba (Mk 14:36), Hosanna (Mk 11:9); “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” (Mk 15:34). It is possible that wherever Aramaic expressions appear in the Gospels there was an eyewitness account. That is, someone who remembered the story with all its details narrated it to the gospel writers. So did the deaf man himself live to tell this story in the Markan church? Or does it have some allusion to the rite of Baptism? Or is it that this story had become so powerful for the early Christian community that they remembered the details of the expressions of Jesus? After all, the crowd had brought the man to Jesus. So they witnessed it from a distance and may be heard the expression of Jesus. In any case, the story of the private encounter of the deaf man had come into public domain. Therefore, private experiences are not always hidden. This, despite the fact that Jesus warned them not to tell others. But why was Jesus wanting this to be a secret?
Messianic Secrecy: “And Jesus ordered them to tell no one…” (Mk 7:36a)
Messianic Secrecy is another of the peculiarities found in the synoptic gospels, particularly in Mark (Mk 7:36, 8:30, 9:9). There are several possible explanations for this. Consistent with our interpretation of the gospel text of today, we can say that Jesus does not want to mobilize a crowd of people around him who would politically rally around him as the messiah who could solve all their problems. Jesus wants to insist that the extraordinary phenomena associated with his public ministry are only signs. Jesus’ concern is the real transformation of the hearts of people that happens without force or seduction. He wants our own response to him to be spontaneous and deep.
In conclusion then, could we say that in the context of the contemporary indifference and even antagonism towards Christian traditions, it is our own personal encounter with Jesus which will make the difference?
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.