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The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church, Windsor, Nova Scotia, AD 2004



“Ephphatha”. It is Aramaic, not Hebrew but a related Semitic language commonly spoken in the New Testament world; not Greek either, of course, but translated into Greek in Mark’s Gospel.  “Be opened” is the English translation of the Greek translation of this Aramaic word related to the Hebrew language of the Jewish or Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, as Christians refer to it.


A merely pedantic display of some utterly esoteric and totally useless bit of knowledge?  No.  There is, I think, something rather profound and at least philosophically suggestive about what is presented in the texts which are set before us.  For example, Judaism and Christianity, as distinct from Islam on this point, allow for the translation of their Holy Scriptures into languages other than the original.  For Islam, on the other hand, the Qu’ran is only the Qu’ran when it is in Arabic.  It is not the Qu’ran when translated into some other language.  It is, in principle, we might say, untranslatable.  This implies an entirely different philosophic sensibility about the text.


For Judaism and, to an even greater extent, for Christianity, the mere positivity of the text, the Scripture in its simple giveness, gives way more directly to its philosophical meaning.  Honouring the text means being open to the understanding, the understanding which cannot remain captive to one human language but is capable of being conveyed successively from one language to another even across the seas of culture.  Somehow the language of God can be revealed through those many tongues – the tongues of many nations at Pentecost – which are all one in singing the praises of God, the God who is not the projection of human hopes and aspirations but the God who has entered into the tragedy of the human condition bringing hope and glory, healing and salvation.


This raises important and difficult questions about translation.  What do we mean by translation?  Is translation treason, a traducing or betrayal of a text, as some would suggest, implying, at the very least, that something of the original is always and invariably lost in translation?  Is translation merely interpretation, as others would suggest, thereby advancing a cynical viewpoint or, at the very least, a kind of skepticism about the possibility of capturing in one language the thought and ideas of another?  The danger is that everything then becomes relative to the reader and the text itself is essentially lost to view.  Or literature becomes an instrument in the politics of power.


Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran chronicles the story of a woman professor of English literature’s persistence in continuing to read and teach under the oppressive tyranny of a totalitarian regime that has subordinated religion, in this case, Islam, to its ideological goals.  The story demonstrates, to my mind, the liberating power of literature which crosses, even as it challenges, cultural boundaries.  There can be “a cultural translation” even under the least auspicious of circumstances.


In her story what comes out is the deeper understanding of such works as Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Henry James’ Daisy Miller & Washington Square, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, works which were regarded as subversive and were proscribed as subversive precisely because they are not read openly but only on a shallow and superficial level.  The deeper reading that Nafisi encourages brings out the profounder understanding of such works than the easy dismissal of them as examples of western decadence.  Lolita, for example, is not about pornography but about the far more serious problem of “the usurpation of another person’s life”The Great Gatsby is put on trial in her class to show how it is actually a critique of the “carelessness” of a rich and decadent culture, America, from within America and that the biggest sin is the lack of empathy.  “The biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains.  Not seeing them means denying their existence”.  The problem, we might say, lies precisely in not being open to the text in its understanding.


Our text suggests a similar positive view of translation.  Perhaps, just perhaps, there can be a gain and not just a loss in translation, the capturing in another language of a nuance or an emphasis which helps to deepen the understanding even across the vast divides of culture.  And indeed, perhaps, there is even the understanding itself which transcends the mere positivism of language and culture.  The Greek word here – διανοιχθητι from διανοιγω – appears frequently in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and invariably in the context of the opening of the eyes or the ears or the mouth to receive the Word of God which speaks to the heart and the mind of our humanity.  The emphasis is very much on the understanding, upon what is grasped by heart and mind.


“Hear, O Israel” is one of the most frequently repeated exhortations in the Scriptures.  God repeatedly calls to Israel to attend to his creative and redemptive word in the face of our unwillingness and our stubborn refusals to see and to ear.  “Ears have they and hear not, eyes have they and see not” describes not only the idols fashioned out of the vain imaginations of our hearts, things which we make literally with our hands, but also the vanity of ourselves in the hardness of our hearts that are closed to the things of God.


“Ephphatha”, “Be opened”, Jesus says in a context which conveys sacramental overtones – the action of touching the man’s ears and his tongue effect what they signify, namely, the opening of his ears and the loosening of his tongue.  Equally, the entire scene invokes the whole pageant of God’s creative and redemptive work in the mind of the multitude who are the witnesses to this healing.  “Be opened” to what we may ask?  To the one who “hath done all things well”, it is said, to the God who made the world and all that is in it and “behold, it was good” and behold, the whole of it was “very good”.  Here that superlative quality of divine action in creation is invoked in a divine act of redemption.  “And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain”.  And the multitude, too, is opened to the presence of the glory of God in their midst.  A host of prophecies about the healing and the restoration of our wounded and broken humanity have their realization in the actions of Jesus who “maketh both the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak”.  His actions reveal God in their midst.


The epistle reading makes the doctrinal claim which has its fitting illustration in the gospel.  The ministration of the spirit is more glorious than the ministration of the law.  The contrast is between life and death.  The law, meaning the covenantal bond between God and man, has become, as Paul puts it, “the ministration of death written and engraven in stones”.  There is something glorious about the law, to be sure – it is the revelation of God’s will after all – but it convicts us, condemns us in the realization that we are not what we should be.  We are not right with God.  That realization is a kind of death because we cannot make ourselves right with God.  We have no sufficiency of ourselves.  Far more glorious is “the ministration of righteousness” since we are opened out to the righteousness of Christ, the one who makes us right with God and who raises us into the life of God, if we have “the ears to ear and the eyes to see” and “the tongues” to proclaim his truth and his righteousness.  In Jesus Christ we are opened to the glory of God in our midst.


We are opened to the glory of God because that glory wills to be open towards us.  Such is grace.  The Collect captures this further sense that our hearing God radically depends upon God’s hearing us, the God who is “always more ready to hear than we to pray”.  The inmost thoughts and desires of our hearts and minds are more transparent to God than to ourselves.  In the actions of Jesus, “looking up to heaven” and “sigh[ing]” and “sa[ying]”…ephphatha,” we are made aware of the intimacy of the Son and the Father in the bond of the Holy Spirit into which intimacy we are gathered through prayer and praise in the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated.  It is wanted that we should be open to the God who is open to us and who has revealed his glory.  As Irenaeus so wonderfully puts it, “the glory of God is mankind restored.”  And to that end, “ephphatha.”


In the sultry heat of the closing down of summer, we are bidden to “be opened”, not closed, to the things of God revealed in our very midst.  Here in the liturgy of Word and Sacrament, he “maketh both the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak”.