Sunday, September 6, 2009

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37In today’s Gospel we hear of Jesus
engaging in what might seem to us unusual behavior.
Confronted with a man who cannot hear or speak,
he touches the body part to be healed,
sticking his fingers in the man’s ears.
He puts his spit on the man’s tongue,
as if it were possessed of magical properties.
He groans, perhaps in effort or for dramatic effect?
And he speaks a magical word — Ephphatha!
which our Gospel writer Mark
is careful to keep in its original, Aramaic form.
In short, he acts very much like a typical magical healer
in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Such a depiction of Jesus as a “magician” makes Christians nervous.
Indeed, it made the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke nervous enough
that this is one of the few incidents recounted in Mark’s Gospel
that they do not include it in their own Gospels.
The idea that Jesus might have behaved in such a way
that people would have seen him as a magician
seems to trivialize what he was about;
it seems to reduce Christianity to a superstitious cult
that is about manipulation of occult forces
rather than the worship of God in spirit and in truth.
We Catholics might be particularly sensitive to this,
since the sacramental nature of our worship
sometimes strikes other Christians as indistinguishable
from various forms of religious magic
that can be found in many so-called “primitive” cultures.
We want to say that our sacraments are radically different
from the ritualistic magic of tribal peoples.

But perhaps we protest too much.
Maybe these so-called “primitive” cultures recognize something
that we modernized,
rationalized people have forgotten.
We human beings are ritual animals;
we make meaning with bodily gestures.
Symbolic action is the DNA of human cultures,
the means by which tradition is transmitted and imbibed,
an effective means of communicating
that which is distinctively human.
Even more, our rituals are signs of a deep mystery
that lies at the heart of the world’s existence,
and they are the means by which that mystery gives itself to us.
So there is really no reason for us Catholics to apologize
for believing that our ritual actions actually make something happen,
that they are, for lack of a better word, magical.
After all, if Mark’s Gospel is to be trusted,
Jesus did not hesitate to engage in “magical” behavior.

But perhaps we do need to make some distinctions
between different sorts of “magic.”
The kind that is probably most familiar to us,
the sort traditionally performed by men on stages
wearing tuxedos and top hats and waving magic wands,
the kind you see at a “magic show,”
is really a matter of illusion, clever and entertaining,
but not really magic at all.
I think it is safe to say that this is not the sort of magic
that is going on
either in today’s Gospel or in the sacraments.

Then there is the “magic” that is associated with incantations and spells —
potions, crystals, amulets, curses, voodoo dolls, the evil eye, and so forth.
This crops up in a variety of places:
from ancient folk beliefs to new age religions to the Harry Potter books.
This magic seeks to control unseen forces in the universe
in order to attain a desired result --
asort of primitive technology
by which people have sought some measure of control
over cosmic forces.
At its best, it expresses our human desire to live in an enchanted world
with hidden possibilities.
But in any case, I think it is safe to say that this is not the sort of magic
that is going on
either in today’s Gospel or in the sacraments.
Jesus is not manipulating hidden forces in order to heal the man;
rather, the healing power of God is manifesting itself
through his symbolic actions.
Likewise, the sacraments are not about our power to control,
but about God’s power to act through our human rituals.

This is a third form of magic.
At least, I cannot think of a better word than “magic”
to convey the idea
of that which makes possible
what we normally consider impossible.
This is the real magic
that will satisfy the desire for an enchanted world.
In literary terms, the world of Christian faith
is a world of “magical realism” —
the magic of God’s hidden power manifesting itself in our reality,
transforming our symbols and rituals
so that they become effective signs of God’s grace.
Jesus’ actions —
involving touch and spit and groaning and ritual phrases —
show us that there is real magic in the world:
there is hope for the hopeless,
there is forgiveness for sinners,
there is release for captives,
there is a home for the outcast.
The world of dead ends and limited possibilities
is not the final truth about the world.
To believe in real magic, the magic of God,
is to believe that when you are in a situation
in which you can see no way forward —
whether depression or addiction
or a broken relationship or professional failure —
that is not the end of the story:
when you cannot hear, cannot speak, cannot see a future,
God can touch you,
God can release you,
God can show you a way forward.
And in the sacraments, the real magic of God touches us
just like Jesus touched the man in today’s Gospel.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be embarrassed by Jesus acting like a magician.
The world is hungry for magic, for real magic.
The world is hungry for the hope that what appears possible to us
is not in fact the limit of the possible.
Let us have confidence that in our sacramental celebration
Jesus will touch us and say to us ephphatha — be opened:
be opened to hear the silent music that sustains the world;
be opened to speak a word of hope to the hopeless,
be opened to embrace
the impossible possibility of the kingdom of God.