Sunday, September 9, 2012

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Through my son Denis, the percussionist,
I have recently been introduced to the work
of the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
She is a remarkable musician in a number of ways:
sustaining a career as a solo classical percussionist,
receiving over fifteen honorary doctorates,
winning a Grammy,
and being one of the featured performers
at the opening ceremonies of this past summer’s Olympics.
She also happens to be deaf.

Because she would much rather be known as a musician
than as a “deaf musician,”
she generally does not talk much about her deafness.
But when pressed she will say that while she is deaf,
in the sense that her ears do not work properly,
this does not mean that she cannot hear.
Hearing is simply being able to interpret vibrations,
to experience them as meaningful.
And while most of us do this most of the time 
with our ears,
we can also do it with other parts of the body,
as when we feel the rumble of a passing truck 
in our torsos
or see the reverberation of a guitar string or a drum head 
with our eyes.
If one does not have use of his or her ears,
then one must find other ways to connect 
to the vibrations that we call music,
which is what Evelyn Glennie has learned how to do.
Hearing, Glennie says, is in some ways 
just a specialized form of the sense of touch,
and what she has learned to do is to interpret pitch and tone
with the whole of her body,
building up in her brain what she calls a “sound picture”
by opening up her whole self and letting the music inhabit her
so that she can in turn let music flow out of her
through the medium of her instrument.

Evelyn Glennie shows us the power of human beings
to adapt to seeming limitations and to overcome obstacles
in pursuit of the things they love.
But she also shows us that hearing
is about far more than what we do with our ears.
In some ways, “hearing” is about our whole self
opening up to the reality around it.

This can help shed light on today’s Gospel reading.
This story involves much more than simply the healing
of one whose ears do not work properly.
The man’s deafness here is a symbol of spiritual deafness –
of the way in which we close ourselves off
to the vibrations produced by what God is doing in the world.
In the context of Mark’s Gospel,
the deafness of the man whom Jesus heals
is a symbol of the inability of the people of Jesus’s day,
of even his own disciples,
to recognize the presence of God’s messiah in their midst.
Their expectations of what God’s anointed would be like –
a powerful warrior and ruler like King David –
made them incapable of hearing God’s voice 
in Jesus, God’s Word.
In our second reading, from the letter of James,
we encounter another sort of spiritual deafness:
an inability to recognize 
in the poor person with shabby clothes
one whom God has chosen to be rich in faith
and heir of the kingdom that God promised 
to those who love him.
The people in Mark’s Gospel,
the Christians to whom James writes,
and even we ourselves,
depend perhaps too much 
on our normal way of perceiving things
and so are deaf 
to the presence and activity of God around us.

The example of Evelyn Glennie
learning to hear music with more than her ears
indicates to us that in order for us to overcome
our own spiritual deafness to the Word of God in all its forms
we need to open ourselves up to new ways of knowing,
new ways of sensing the presence of God.
When Jesus heals the deaf man, 
he touches his mouth and ears
and says, “Ephphatha – be opened!”
Today he says to us as well, “Be opened!”
We need to be opened by Christ,
so that we can hear with our whole self,
hear the voice of God that sounds all around us:
in the sometimes comforting 
and sometimes discomfiting words of Scripture,
in the cries of those who beg for food,
in the voices of those who cry out for justice,
in the words even of those who might disagree with us.
If Jesus touches our ears and opens our senses
our deafness can be overcome;
the music of God’s Word can inhabit us and transform us.
And as with the man in today’s Gospel,
the touch of Jesus opens not only our ears, 
but also our mouths,
so that the music of God’s Word that fills us
can also flow forth from us
to bring hope and comfort and challenge and good news
to all whom we encounter.
Ephphata – be opened!