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!”
Hearing this Gospel as a child, I thought it was so nasty. Why was something like this in the Bible? Why would Jesus even do this gross thing as he was healing someone. Couldn’t he just say the words and the man would be healed? Yes, of course he could. Obviously. So, why put your fingers in someone’s ears? Why spit (I’d be reprimanded for that one!)? Why put your hands on his mouth?
The short answer (although I would not have understood it then) is because, even when healing, Jesus is incarnational.
As moms, we know all about healing incarnationally. We hold, sing to, and rock our littles when they are sick. We clean up vomit, even in the middle of the night, telling our children not to worry, that we don’t mind at all. We wipe runny noses many, many times a day. We have all changed a mountain of diapers, knowing that if we didn’t, diaper rash would soon follow. Many of us have pulled seeds, beans, peas, or raisins out of a child’s nose or ear, and lice out of a child’s hair. All of these actions bring healing. Most of us kiss our toddlers’ boo-boos. I always told my children, “I have medicine in these lips.” They instinctively knew the truth of this, and many a child has been seen kissing a younger child’s boo-boo.
None of this is surprising. Because we are human, we need “stuff,” even to understand abstract concepts. While teaching for thirty years, I was always on the lookout for stuff to help my students understand better. For instance, did you know that words can be more than one part of speech? Middle school children find this so hard to wrap their minds around. So, I brought in a brown teddy bear that was wearing a white rabbit costume. I first showed it to them wearing the costume. Everyone agreed it was a rabbit. Then I’d quickly take off the rabbit costume. “Now what kind of an animal is this?” “It’s a bear.” Pretty soon, we were doing the same thing with nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. We simply need stuff.
God knows this about us. After all, he created us, so he gave us his son, born of a woman in the usual, messy way. His mom performed all the usual messy tasks for him as he grew. Jesus performed his first public miracle with stuff—changing water into wine. He ate and drank with his disciples. He taught them using colorful stories, so that they could understand concepts better. He told us to eat (literally, “gnaw on”) his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. He gave us bread and wine. Every sacrament contains an outward sign, like oil for healing. So, of course Jesus sometimes used stuff to heal.
As a child, I just wanted Jesus to be more otherworldly when he healed. (So did the Gnostics—there I was a heretic, and I didn’t know it).
The importance of today’s Gospel is not how he healed, but that he healed. He always heals. He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.