“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.”
I can imagine a child hearing these words and responding, “Ewww! Gross!” It is all very earthy with fingers in ears, spit, tongue touching, and groaning. The Jesus who is usually seen healing in other gospels with a word and in total command seems here to be a little less like God and a little more like a two-bit magician or snake oil salesman. Sure the man gets healed, but it’s hard to imagine that the all powerful God who created the universe out of nothing by the power of his word would need such paltry tricks to simply heal a person. Maybe this God-man is much more man than God. How embarrassing!
I think it reveals something much more wonderful, however. The earthiness in this gospel reading shows us how close God has come to us in Jesus. The all powerful, all knowing, ever present God has come down to be with us in all of our limitations and smallness. We say that the transcendent God is made immanent. The God outside of the created world has entered into it. Imagine catching the whole sun in a mason jar! Today’s reading, however, doesn’t just show immanence, but intimacy, as well. The God present in the created world puts fingers in ears, spits, touches a tongue, and groans before he speaks. Why?
As a child, I would care for my grandmother’s feet: cutting toe nails, filing, rubbing on lotion, massaging. Gross. Before my dog Hank died in February, he would get wax and dirt in his floppy hound dog ears causing them to itch. I would clean them out with my finger. Gross. Although it has been a while and was infrequent, I have changed my siblings diapers. Gross. These are all, like Jesus’s actions in the gospel reading, very intimate and very gross. Why do we do these intimate and gross actions for others? It reveals something of why Jesus acted as he did in today’s reading.
The mystery of the all powerful, all knowing, and ever present transcendent God, even before he became “God with us” through Jesus, is that God was, is, and ever shall be love. This love isn’t some esoteric concept or starry-eyed infatuation. It is love that has put on skin, unafraid to come so close to us that he enters our grossness, our neediness, and our suffering. So intimate that God even enters our death through his death on a cross. So intimate that he again touches our ears with his word. So intimate that he again touches our tongues with his body and blood. In the eucharist, God is more than just immanent or present in the things he has created. God is intimately close to us in our lives, our hearts, our minds, and our bodies. He comes this close because of love for us.
Jesus may have taken the man away from the crowds because his healing was meant to be an intimate, tender, and compassionate encounter with love in person. We are drawn together to the eucharist for the same purpose: the same intimacy, the same tenderness, the same compassion and the same encounter. “Be opened!” Jesus cries out. Will we let love in?