Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. At every Mass, just before the Gospel is proclaimed, we all join in an action that is simple but very profound. We mark the sign of the cross on our foreheads, on our lips and on our hearts. The reason for this is simple. It is a prayer that the words of Jesus that we are about to hear might reach our understanding (why we mark our heads) and that the message may touch our hearts (why we trace the cross on our breast). If the message reaches our heads, our hearts then the third part is easy - that we might speak the message that we are about to hear (why we mark our lips). Marking the cross on our heads, lips and hearts is also a prayer that God may unblock anything that prevents the Word of God getting through to us so that it may speak powerfully to us as we hear it. This gesture at Mass goes back to the rite of baptism when, just after the newly baptised is wrapped in a white garment, he or she is marked with the sign of the cross on their ears and mouth – a gesture that is accompanied by this prayer: ‘May the Lord soon open your ears that you may hear his Word and your mouth that you may proclaim his praise to the glory of God the Father’.
In the Gospel today, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and who had an impediment in his speech. Whoever the man was, because he couldn’t hear words, he couldn’t speak them either. You can’t repeat sounds you have never heard. Like so often in the Gospels, Jesus heals people but once again, restoring the man’s gift of hearing and speech has a deeper spiritual meaning that is addressed to everyone. The man represents us all.
The first thing we notice is that the Lord calls him away from the crowd to be alone with him. In the Scriptures, crowds can be noisy and confusing places that make it difficult to be alone with God in prayer and contemplation. Crowds can also be lonely places, especially if you are like the man who was deaf and dumb and stand out if you are different. The crowd can also symbolise the culture that we have become part of and accustomed to – the place where we just go with the flow, think and do what everyone else does but at the expense of what I really believe and how I want to live. A frog thrown into a bucket of hot water will immediately jump out. But if the frog is thrown into a bucket of cold water that is slowly heated up, it will die as the water reaches boiling point. It will not jump out. So too with us. If we suddenly find ourselves in a foreign culture we can quickly see what is good and bad but if we are living in that culture we can slowly come to accept values, ways of thinking and acting that are not always consistent with the Gospel.
From time to time we need to come away from the crowd to be alone in prayer with the Lord. If and when we find that quiet time, it gives us a chance to listen to what the Spirit is saying to us. Silence unblocks the noise that prevents us hearing what God wishes to communicate. It gives us the time and space to listen to our conscience and reminds us of the readings we heard at Mass earlier in the day and what message they might have for me, for our community and for the world. Take for example the second reading where St James warns Christians not to make class distinctions. How does that reading effect how I think and act? Going back to the gesture we make before we hear the Gospel, how does it change what I think or decide (my head), what I feel (my heart) and what I say (my lips)?
If and when we hear the Word of God, then like the man in the Gospel, we are now free to speak that message as well. We have the ability to pass on the message that we have received. So often we get tongue-tied when it comes to passing on our faith or defending it. We simply don’t know what to say or how to respond to people who question us. But the more we know and internalise God’s Word, the better we will be able to do this with a calm and a confidence with the same result as the man who was healed by Jesus: ‘His ears were opened and the ligament of his tongue was loosened and he spoke clearly’.
It is not distance that separates us from God and other people but lack of communication. It starts with us listening carefully to God’s Word today and allowing it to penetrate our heads, hearts and speech.