This week I am in Rome for a conference on interreligious dialogue. The lay and religious participants have come from all over the world, but especially from non-Christian majority nations, to share their experiences and to enter into a little dialogue of their own. I've been doing some translating (badly) and intermittently thinking about this Sunday's Gospel text. T.S. Eliot's words keep swirling in my mind:
Since our concern was speech and speech impelled us
to purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight…
The concern at the conference is speech - when to speak, how to speak, what to say to others in pluralist religious contexts. The Gospel's concern is also speech, the capacity to speak and the imperative to speak against (strangely!) a command not to speak.
At first glance, this is just another one of those patterned healing stories that fill the early chapters of Mark's Gospel. A suffering person is brought to Jesus by loving friends who ask for a healing. Jesus heals and then tells the person and the friends not to tell anyone about it. But they do exactly that, unwilling to keep quiet.
Two aspects draw our attention in this story. The first is that this man's encounter with Jesus results in a new capacity for speech. By touching his ears and his mouth, Jesus has given the man a voice for the first time. And did Jesus really expect the man not to exercise it? This leads to a second aspect which is the comment made by the Gospel writer: 'The more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.'
They don't take Jesus's order to keep silent seriously. I suspect Jesus himself doesn't take it seriously. After all, the Gospel shows his mind to be always urged 'to aftersight and foresight'. He knows beforehand that they are not going to keep quiet about the miracles he works. Jesus is a good pedagogue: he understands that sometimes the best way to get children to do something is to tell them not to do it. We can be disobedient to Jesus, it seems, when it's a matter of proclaiming his mighty deeds of salvation!
The Church seems to think so too. For this same story forms the background to one element of the baptismal rite, called the Ephphatha:
The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.
In baptism we are healed so that we may hear God's word and thus proclaim God's deeds. We have been given, as for the first time, a voice, which we are to raise to the praise and glory of God the Father.
The only question is how we use this new capacity to hear and speak that Jesus gives us. Of course it takes time to mature, to grow out of the infancy of faith, but the sad thing is that too many of the baptised seem to have taken seriously Jesus's command not to proclaim it. Too many seem to spend their Christian lives as if they would remain voluntarily deaf and dumb.
Not so the people at this conference. Many spoke of the obstacles they faced in some countries to living their Christianity freely. In such places, an unwanted silence is imposed by discrimination and persecution against Christians. Others, from other countries, spoke not so much of the danger of speaking of God but rather of the need first to 'purify the dialect of the tribe', to ensure that what we say in different religious and culture contexts will not raise fear and misunderstanding.
What most struck me in all this, however, was that everyone showed a profound wish to make use of that baptismal voice Jesus has given them to give praise and glory to God the Father. Though not all here were Dominicans, all had heard St Dominic's counsel to be always talking about or to God.
It made me wonder why we, who live in a country where the right to worship freely and speak freely has been so long established, do not exercise that voice. Why are we not more forthright in proclaiming what God has done for us? Perhaps it is because we can that we don't. But sometimes we can be disobedient to Jesus such that when he says don't, we can. And we should.