Reflections on the readings of Sundays and feasts: September - November

Craig, Barry M The combination of 'the eyes of the blind shall be opened' in Isaiah 35:5 and the psalm's 'the Lord gives sight to the blind' seems to be preparing the way for an account of the restoration of sight in the gospel, but its focus is instead on restoring hearing and speech. In this story, which is shared with Matthew, as with the raising of the young girl told also by Matthew and Luke, Mark alone reports the Lord's command in Aramaic. In this case the Lord's word is transmitted in Greek transliteration as Ephphatha, but correctly it should be Ethphathach. The mispronunciation perhaps points to a particular fascination with the Lord's own words in Mark's Greek-speaking circles, and also to the attribution of magical power to such words that may then be borrowed in magical folk-medicine; think similarly of the conjectured origin of Hocus pocus in Hoc est Corpus from Mass in Latin. However, the Aramaic word is richly connected to the mission of Jesus. In the first reading, the Hebrew has two synonymous verbs in verse 5 for opening, respectively applied to the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. The first is not common and is always said of eyes, except in Isaiah 42:20, where it is used of ears. The second verb is common and refers to the opening of eyes and ears and mouths, but also to the untying of cords and to setting free. This is clear in the Syriac Peshitta's use of a single verb for both Hebrew verbs in Isaiah and the word Mark reports Jesus using, where it is applicable both to opening the man's ears to hear and to freeing his tongue to speak clearly. The Septuagint's version of Isaiah has 'will hear' instead of the Hebrew's second verb, 'will be opened', while the added translation in Mark matches only the Septuagint's translation of Isaiah's first verb. That Greek verb is fitting only for the ears, not for the tongue, so that the man's becoming able to speak clearly seems to be merely a consequence of the miraculous opening of his ears. Reading both passages via the Syriac, and reading them in parallel as the Lectionary has us do today, reveals the gospel encounter to be more than simply a story of a healing: the episode points to Christ's redeeming mission as being one of liberating, the scene becoming a fulfilment of Isaiah's prophetic passage in a demonstration of Christ's mission in the flesh and in the life of an actual person. Furthermore, Mark's transmission of the Aramaic commands Ethphathach and Kum in 5:41, together sum up Christ's twofold work: to redeem and raise those doomed to die. Both stories show this at work in the here and now of people's lives and not merely as a future hope for the end of time. If our mission as Church is to continue Christ's work, then it is likewise to be carried out among people in our own time. Thus the historical impetus to establish such works as schools, since education sets free from ignorance, and hospitals, since curing the sick frees them from ills or caring for them brings relief in time of suffering. But we should not think only in such institutional modes; not every parish can or should establish a school or hospital or hospice, or other such major works, but the question remains for each: What does this community do to proclaim Christ's saving mission in the lives of real people both near and far?
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