5TH SUNDAY OF LENT: GOD’S MERCY TRIUMPHS OVER JUDGMENT

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One would think that in today’s technologically, economically and socially advanced age, death penalty would have no place in our society.  Although most nations have abolished capital punishment, the reality is, over 60% of the world’s population live in countries where the death penalty is retained, such as China, India, the United States, Indonesia,Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among all mostly Islamic countries, as is maintained in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka.[1] Just recently Brunei introduced a new Islamic law that sexual relations between men are punishable by death through stoning. In the Philippines, although capital punishment has been outlawed in 2006, several politicians with the blessing of President Duterte, are advocating the relegalization of death penalty. 

In today’s gospel of the 5th Sunday of Lent, the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in adultery. As prescribed by Mosaic Law the punishment for someone like her is death penalty by stoning.

The pharisees and the scribes did this in order to trap Jesus.  This is a no-win situation for Jesus, or so they thought. On the one hand, if Jesus orders that she be stoned, he is in trouble with the Romans, who have taken the right to impose death penalty away from the Judeans.  On the other hand, if he advocates that she not be stoned, he would appear to deny the law of Moses and thereby put himself in a bad light with Jewish officials. 

Jesus, however, was a master not just of not falling into their traps but also of calling their bluff.  Jesus used their own trap to expose their hypocrisy. In response to their continual badgering, Jesus challenges this overzealous lynch mob to examine their motives: “Let the one among you who is without sin—let that one be first to east a stone at her?”  Appearing to be seekers after law and order, they are exposed as hypocrites simply bent on protecting their own power. Jesus’ delay tactic of scribbling on the ground has allowed some time for this reality to sink in. One by one, the accusers depart, leaving Jesus alone with the accused. 

Besides hypocrisy, Jesus exposed their discrimination against the poor woman. If this woman was caught in the very act of adultery, then there had to have been a man with her when she was caught. Where is he? Why isn’t he here with her? Did the scribes and Pharisees just let him go? The law of Moses prescribes stoning him too.

Jesus’ response, most of all, revealed the nature of God’s judgment in the face of our sins. When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive. As the letter of James (2:13) says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” And as Pope Francis said, “He has the ability to forget. … He kisses you, he embraces you, and he says to you: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now, on, sin no more.’ Only that counsel does he give you.[2]

God is not here giving approval to immorality. As Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.” St. Augustine commented on these words of Jesus, “You see then that the Lord does indeed pass sentence, but it is sin he condemns, not people.”[3]

Jesus’ attitude is reflected in the other readings today. In the first reading, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God said through the prophet Isaiah that he is preparing a new world order for them: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!”

In the second reading, Paul, writing to the Philippians about the legalistic teachers who would impose the fullness of Jewish tradition and practice upon Christian Gentiles, insists on the newness that faith in Jesus has brought into his life as a keeper of the Torah.

The readings today challenges our hypocrisy and self-righteousness. It is easy for us to take a self-righteous attitude toward the world; it is much more difficult to take Jesus’ attitude: “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” All of us have contributed to the darkness of the world; none of us can cast the first stone. 

Jesus action in the gospel today and belief in God’s infinite mercy has led the Church to seriously challenge capital punishment all throughout history—whether by stoning, hanging, gas, poison, or electric shock—as a moral means for pursuing justice and protecting the common good.

Our work during Lent is like that of the adulterous woman: to truthfully face our sinfulness and faithfully remain with Jesus. We too are sinners. We too are in need of mercy. Though we sin, Jesus only wishes new life for us. 

Let us today seek God’s mercy. Let us recognize our own shortcomings, and seek the help of Our Blessed Mother in confessing them before God.

Here is the Holy Week schedule at the shrine.

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[1] “Capital Punishment,” Wikipedia. Accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment

[2] Pope Francis, “Mercy is the Lord’s Most Powerful Message Today,” March 17, 2013

[3] St. Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 33, 4-6. 8: CCL 36, 307-310

 

 

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4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: LENT AS HOMECOMING

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The Return of the Prodigal Son, a Painting by Rembrandt

In today’s 4th Sunday of Lent we continue to dig deeper into the meaning of the Lenten discipline. For several Sundays now we have pointed out that repentance is a central challenge of the Lenten discipline. In today’s readings we shall come to understand repentance as homecoming.

In the First Reading, the Israelites have finally arrived from Exodus to their homeland–the land flowing with milk and honey, the land that God promised to give them. The sign that the Exodus was over was when they eat the parched grain from the produce of the land and no longer the manna that God provided for them during their journey in the wilderness. The parched grain was the beginning of life in the promised land, where the Israelites found a home. The consoling sweetness of manna came out of the harshness of the conditions of the Exodus. Out of the sorrow of trading manna for parched grain there came the consolation of home.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul implores the Corinthians to return to God, “We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God.” To return home to God is to reconcile with God which implies forgiveness, restoring harmony, rectifying the wrong deeds and reunion. 

The Gospel narrates the popular parable of the prodigal son. Luke reminds us that the parable of the prodigal was told to Pharisees who complained about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. The parable of the two lost sons (Lk 15:11-32) is Jesus’ self justification for “hosting” sinners at table fellowship (Lk 15:1-2).

For a long time, the focus of the parable, as suggested by its title, is on the younger son who was the prodigal son. He squandered all his inheritance on riotous living in a far away country. The younger son was lost and veered so far away from his home with the Father.  Listening to the whole parable, however, we realize that the younger son is not the only one lost who veered far away from his father. The elder son too was lost. Even if the elder son never left his Father’s home, his heart could not identify with the Father’s compassion for the wretched younger son. Indeed, the parable is about two lost sons in the face of the father’s prodigal love for both of them. 

Applying these readings to Lent, we can say that Lent is a call to return to home. Home is where our Father is. The first step to returning home is the realization of the darkness of our lives. Lent is the blessed season to examine and confront the dark side of our lives. It is to enter into the bottom of whatever hellish pit we have made of our  lives. In this darkness and hellish pit we realized how we veered away from our true home with God, from our fellowship with others and ultimately from our true selves. Like the younger son in the parable, we are prodigal children. We live prodigal lives. We have in many ways squandered our Father’s inheritance. We have wasted many opportunities in pursuit of our own glory. We have abused the love and trust of many people. We have destroyed the abundant and wonderful world God gave us to live in. We poison its air, we pollute its water, we erode its topsoil.

In the midst of the darkness and the bottomness of our pit,  we regain what we have forgotten–who we truly are, and whose we are. We realized once again that we are a redeemed people; we are loved unconditionally by God. This profound remembrance inspires us to do what the younger son did: “I will break away and return to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against you.’”

Repentance is not just, however, returning to the Father.  Repentance is not just between me and God. It has social implications. This is what the elder son found it hard to understand. We are called not only to be reconciled with God but to embrace God’s inclusive love for everyone especially the sinners and the rejects. We are called to be compassionate and forgiving just as the Father is compassionate and forgiving.

Thus, Lent as homecoming calls us to a ministry of reconciliation in the world. We live in a world where there is still so much division, brokenness and hatred. Wherever there is injustice in the world something is not reconciled. Lent is a time to ‘pass over,’ to pass from the world of injustice we have created over to a world of reconciliation. It is a time to “turn hatred to love, conflict to peace, death to eternal life.”

The ending of parable is rather abrupt. We are left with many questions. What did the elder son do? Did he join the party to celebrate the homecoming of his wretched brother or did he remain in his own regret that the Father could still love his younger brother after everything he has done? Did the younger son also sought the forgiveness of his elder brother? These are the questions the Pharisees and scribes (see Lk 15:2) and the contemporary believer must answer in their own accord.

What would you do?

3RD SUNDAY OF LENT: REPENTANCE AS BEARING FRUIT

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Photo courtesy of Ted Aljbe, AFP

Whenever there are man-made tragedies and natural calamities, we hear people say that these calamities are sent by God because of his wrath and punishment for our sins. Calamities, they say, are part of God’s will and God’s plan. We need to be careful, however, that this viewpoint does not give us a convenient way out of our own culpability for the tragedies and calamities like the destruction of nature and exploitation of our fellow humans.  Although, calamities and tragedies may indeed become wake up calls and offer us golden opportunities for the reform of our lives. This should not, however, distort the very nature of God as loving and compassionate. Our Lord Jesus did not come to punish us through the disasters, but came to be one with us, to live amongst us in the midst of despair and destruction and guide us towards transformation and to bear fruit.

In the gospel of today’s 3rd Sunday of Lent, people approached Jesus asking about his view on a tragic incident. Pilate has murdered a number of Galilean people. Worse, Pilate has mixed their blood with that of sacrificed animals. In the highly politically charged atmosphere of Roman-occupied Palestine, this was a trap. If Jesus ignores this event, He will be accused of insensitivity to His people. But if He criticizes Pilate, He will probably be reported to the Roman authorities and be punished by them.

Jesus connected this tragedy to an accident involving construction workers in Siloam. From both events he draws a warning for Israel. What took place in Galilee and at Siloam were not judgments of God but a call to repentanceUnless the nation repents, it too will perish. 

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

The bottom line here is that we all need to repent. Am I so often focused on the evils to be uprooted that I neglect the need for personal reform as well? Repentance calls all of us at all times of our lives. 

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, in the second reading today, conveys the same note of urgency and necessity for repentance. If the very people who experienced God’s liberating power in the Exodus could lose their sense of the divine presence sustaining and saving them, it requires all of us today not to remain complacent. In our own journey in the wilderness of life, we are subject to our own addictions and idolatries. Paul writes, 

These things happened to them as an example,
and they have been written down as a warning to us,
upon whom the end of the ages has come.
Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.

Luke shows the urgency of repentance in the parable of the fruitless fig tree. In the parable, the tree is symbolic. It stands for all of us who needs to heed Jesus’ call for repentance. Jesus’ call for repentance is our journey from fruitlessness to fruitfulness. In this journey, God constantly guide and transform us.   

The merciful God who guides his people towards transformation is indicated by the name of God as revealed to Moses in the first reading from the book of Exodus. When Moses asked God what shall he call him, God responded, “I am who I am,” or, as many contemporary exegetes interpret it, “He causes to be what comes into existence.”

Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites
and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’
if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”
God replied, “I am who am.”
Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites:
I AM sent me to you.”

The unnameable God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the God who intervenes powerfully in human history. God saw the affliction of his people. He “comes down,” that is, intervenes in history out of his transcendence, to deliver them from the slavery of sin and to bring them into the land “flowing with milk and honey.” God called Moses and sent him to lead his people out of Egypt through the wilderness, refreshing them with water from the rock and bringing them into the Promised Land.  Finally he sends his Son, offering his people the fullness of repentance by accepting his salvific and liberating life and mission.

The season of Lent is a most blessed time which calls all of us to a profound repentance. Thus, one of the highlights during Lent, is the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. During Lent, the church in many parishes abundantly celebrates the sacrament of reconciliation to give people plenty of opportunity to  experience genuine repentance. Repentance is not just expressing true sorrow for our sins but the eager desire to rebuild anew our lives. Thus, repenting takes hard work that is why it is a discipline. The discipline of Lent entails hard-work repentance which leads to the new life that Easter promises.

 

Ash Wednesday: Return to the Heart

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Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season which is a call to return to the heart. This implies that Lent most of all is a call to a transformation from the deepest core of our being.  Although in Lent we will be doing many sacrificial and penitential acts, all these will come to nothing if there is no genuine inner transformation.

At the heart of our faith is our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love. We are a being-in-connection not in-isolation. In this context, sin is the condition where we become separated or isolated from God, from others and from ourselves. Thus, during this Lent we are called to reconcile and heal whatever brokenness that has become of our relationship with God, others and ourselves.

Today is called Ash Wednesday because of the ritual of the imposition of ashes on the head during the liturgy of the day. The celebrant says the words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return, (cf. Gen 3:19).” The newer form is Jesus’ exhortation: “Repent and believe the gospel (Mk 1:15).” I kind of prefer the old formula even if is a bit morbid as it reminds us of our death. For me, however, it captures more the penitential character of Lent and the call to return to our origin as well as our end, symbolized by the dust, soil or earth. The earth more profoundly symbolizes the interconnectedness of all life rooted in God’s love.

The readings today expresses these calls to return to the heart and to our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love.

The first reading from the prophet Joel proclaims the call to a wholehearted return to God: “Return to me with all your heart” (2:12). To return to the Lord with all of our heart means an inner conversion that reaches the deepest place of our selves not merely superficial nor external one. As the prophet says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” The heart, as we all believe, is the symbol of love and also the core of our being where our decisions and our attitudes mature.

St. Paul in the second reading also repeats the call to return to God: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)” St. Paul insists that we can return to God not through our own effort but primarily through the love of the Father for us who did not hesitate to sacrifice his only Son.

In the Gospel from Matthew, Jesus reinterprets the three works of mercy prescribed by the Mosaic law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus warns the people that if these three pillars are not observed through the love and the mercy of God it will be hypocritical. This has been shown over time through the practices of false religious leaders by their insistence on external formalism and social reward. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation and public accolade, but only the reward of the love of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6,4.6.18).

On Ash Wednesday, we are called to return to where we came from. The dust or earth is where we originally came from. Remember the story of creation, God created Adam, the first human being from dust. But also the earth is where we shall all return when we die. I am reminded of a popular Tagalog song by the Philippine folk band Asin in the 80s:

Nagmula sa lupa, magbabalik na kusa,
(From earth we came, willingly we shall return)
Ang buhay mong sa lupa nagmula …
(your life from the earth came)

But not just human beings, all things shall fall and return to the earth. All will turn to dust when they die. Thus the earth symbolizes our oneness as created things. This implies further that all creation is connected with each other. We are all creatures in need of one another. No one can live alone and isolated from creation or worst can dominate over creation. The interconnection of all creation is not meant to serve human beings but on the contrary human being are meant to serve and maintain the harmony and interconnectedness of all creation.

All creation is interconnected because it comes from God. We believe in the one God, three persons. While three persons, God is one because of the interconnectedness of God as shown in God’s inner life and God’s mission to all creation. Hence, we are only interconnected because we participate in the interconnectedness of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains this profound belief in his notion of God as exitus-reditus of all creation. According to St. Thomas, all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus). For us human beings, however, the coming forth and returning in a special way reflects the inner life of the Trinity. In fact, the coming forth of the Son from the Father and the coming forth of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son are the cause and exemplar of our coming forth and our returning to God as creatures.[1]

Lent is the season of assessing how we have isolated our lives and endangered the web of interconnectedness of life. Lent is the time to examine the patterns of our lives which severed our need for God and one another through our pride, domination, power, self-centeredness, apathy, insecurity, fear, lust, jealousy and other patterns and tendencies that may lead us to sin. Lent is the realization of the drudgery and wretchedness of a life of separation from the love of God, family, others and ultimately our true selves. The spiritual exercises that we are to observe in the Lenten season like prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not merely private nor external show but our internal journey of reconnecting with the love of God in others, in creation and in ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday, let us once again begin the journey of returning to the heart and reconnecting with the web of the interconnectedness of life rooted in the love of God. Let us begin our preparation for the renewal of our baptismal participation in the resurrection of Jesus by our wholehearted desire to return to God’s love.

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[1] Why Thomism, Dominicana. Accessed 13/02/2018 at https://www.dominicanajournal.org/why-thomism/

30TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: FAITH IS A NEW WAY OF SEEING

Every day we are bombarded by visual and moving images—photos, bumper stickers, posters, billboards, newspapers and magazines not to mention youtube videos, facebook memes, and ads. Increasingly our culture has become a visual culture where “image is everything.” Yet, despite the thousands of images and videos we see daily in this hypervisual digital world, many times, we fail to see the true, good and beautiful. We continue to look but we do not see.

Seeing implies more than just physical eyesight. Many cultures use physical sight as a metaphor for understanding. We do that spontaneously when we suddenly catch on to an explanation and say, “Oh, now I see,” or even, paradoxically, “I see what you’re saying.”

Thus, even if we have eyes with 20/20 vision, we long to learn how to see. Ironically, the best persons who can teach us how to learn to truly see are the blind. I remember when I was assigned in Legaspi many years ago, we had a blind masseur whom we call often especially after coming from the missions for a much relaxing massage.  His name is Bert. Bert does not just give us a relaxing massage; while doing massage on us, he talks about a lot of people we commonly knew. It was amazing how despite his blindness he had a profound understanding of the character of people.

This calls to mind the life of Helen Keller, a famous American blind writer.  Helen Keller, who went blind and deaf at nineteenth months old, once narrated:

‘One day I asked a friend of mine who had just returned from a long walk in the forest what she had seen. She replied, “Nothing in particular.”

How was this possible? I asked myself, when I, who cannot hear or see, find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate shape and design of a leaf.

I pass my hands lovingly over the rough bark of a pine tree. Occasionally, I place my hand quietly on a small tree, and if I’m lucky, feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song.

The greatest calamity that can befall people, is not that they should be born blind, but that they should have eyes, yet fail to see.’

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This important truth is also demonstrated in the Gospel of today’s 30th Sunday of ordinary time. In the gospel, it was the blind Bartimaeus who saw Jesus for who he truly was. This beggar sitting beside the road shows immediately that he “sees” at least as much as Peter when he addresses Jesus with a Messianic title: “Son of David, have pity on me.”

To understand more fully the significance of this encounter between Jesus and the blind Bartimaeus we need to rewind a bit in the gospel of Mark. For two chapters prior to this account, Mark has been presenting Jesus on the road with his disciples. On the way, on three separate occasions, Jesus speaks of his approaching passion, death, and resurrection. Each time one or more of the disciples show some gross failure to comprehend what he has just said. And each time, Jesus takes them aside to teach that following him entails losing one’s life to find it, carrying a cross, becoming the servant of all. This is also sounded in the conversation in the boat, when Jesus asks, “Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?” (Mk 8:18).  In other words, Mark presents us with a picture of the disciples as spiritually blind. They do not really see who Jesus is and what he is about.

In the gospel account today, the disciples who were traveling with Jesus look upon Bartimaeus as an interruption of their missionary journey. Jesus, on the other hand, sees Bartimaeus as the point of the journey. Bartimaeus was a manifestation of why Jesus came: to bring “sight” not only to Bartimaeus but to all.

All four gospels in the New Testament use sight as a symbol for Christian faith. Believing is the deepest kind of “seeing.” The early Church called baptism enlightenment. It is not incidental that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is the word “metanoia” which means a new way of thinking. Faith is believing which inaugurates a new way of seeing and thinking.

Thus, the way the evangelists treat Jesus’ healings from physical blindness are not simply narrations of cures as marvels of the past. In their narratives, the evangelists present these healing from blindness as images of a healing process that happens through interaction between the risen Christ and any Christian.

Jesus, Son of David, have pity on us, as you did blind Bartimaeus. Give us faith as you did
blind Bartimaeus.

23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: BE OPENED

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In the Baclaran shrine, from among the thousands of thanksgiving letters we received, health and recovery from sickness top the list of specified blessings that the devotees received from God through the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Many of the devotees who come to Baclaran are suffering from various kinds of sickness not just physical but also emotional, mental and spiritual. In the novena every Wednesday, many of the devotees pray for healing and recovery from their illness. In the novena, there is a special Prayer for the Sick where devotees pray for healing for themselves and their loved ones.

In 2016, the Prayer for the Sick went through a major revision. The former prayer seemed to romanticize sickness by projecting an image of the sick who have nothing more they can do about their sickness except to embrace it. God’s compassion and strong desire for the healing of the sick is not much evident. Thus, the prayer was revised to express a more redemptive kind of healing not only for the sick person, but also for the whole family of the sick.

The theme of the readings for today’s 23rd Sunday in ordinary time is about God’s healing.  Salvation from God is not just salvation from our sins but also healing and recovery from sickness. Salvation comes from the Latin word, salūs which means to be well and healthy. God’s healing, however, is holistic; it is not just physical but also emotional, mental and spiritual.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah describes the vision of the coming of God’s kingdom as opening the eyes of the blind, clearing the ears of the deaf, and even brightening up the environment.

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

The responsorial psalm, Psalm 146, is a psalm of praise for the healing power of God, especially for his opening of the eyes of the blind.

The second reading from the Letter of James, focuses not on the physical but spiritual blindness. James warns against taking people according to their physical appearance. The example James gives is that of giving a well-dressed visitor special treatment while neglecting a poorly dressed person, forgetting the beatitude about the poor. That, he implies, is a symptom of spiritual blindness.

For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

In the Gospel, Mark presents Jesus as the kind of savior prophesied by Isaiah. Jesus did a miracle of healing: a man who was deaf and impaired in speech becomes able to hear and to speak plainly. What Isaiah communicates as vision through poetry, Jesus communicates through action in the here and now. We tend to think of salvation in terms of heaven and the hereafter. Jesus’ action open us to salvation as an event that is here and now.

And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment
and begged him to lay his hand on him.
He took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man’s ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
“Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” —
And immediately the man’s ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.

Jesus command to the deaf-mute man, Aramaic, ephphatha “Be opened” is more than a just a matter of physical healing. It is also a spiritual healing: God’s superabundant life breaking open our closed human condition. What Jesus commands with respect to the deaf-mute man before, he commands with respect to us today. In the gospel, Jesus commands us, “Be opened!” If we listened well and hard, we too are healed: our ears are opened to hear the Good News and our tongues are loosened to proclaim it.

What sickness and disability do we need to be healed and liberated from? Let us ask Jesus to loosen our tongues, open our deaf ears and touch our blind eyes so we may truly hear, see and speak of the truth and peace of the Word who is Jesus.