Isaiah 35:4–7a; James 2:1–5; Mark 7:31–37
I’m sure you’ve heard people comment negatively on the wealth of the Church and suggest that it really should sell everything off and give the proceeds to the poor. Of course, there will be plenty of time for that in the future. Pope emeritus Benedict predicted that the Church would become smaller and lose much of the grandeur of its glory days. We are, at least in the West, becoming a smaller Church. People are leaving… and it’s not just because of the horrific abuse scandal and the ham-handed way that some bishops have handled it. We’re also losing a sense of the good, the beautiful, and the mysterious—what can also be called the numinous. Part of that is because we are becoming too materialistic in many ways, but in others it’s because we don’t value the material enough. So I want to talk today about why the material matters, pun completely intended. And I want to talk about how the material world reveals the numinous—the mystery at the heart of our faith.
Our first reading is focused on the themes of liberation and healing. God will open the eyes of the blind, clear the ears of the deaf, and enable the mute or dumb to speak. The healing goes beyond human healing, to healing of the earth where those areas once arid will become wet and fruitful. Recall that in Genesis 1, God separates the waters from heavens, concentrates light, and brings forth land, vegetation, and finally animals and humanity, and He declares them all good. He declares Humanity very good. Now if the physical world does not matter, it’s not something that God would proclaim to be good, and not something worth redeeming. But scripture reveals to us both: that it was created and that He intended to redeem it. Our responsorial psalm reinforces this message, but also adds justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, and release for prisoners. Note the healing begins with healing of two of the five senses—sight and hearing—two primary ways that we interact with and learn about the world. And He restores the ability to speak, so sound is actually represented twice, as if there were something particularly good about speaking or hearing. As a musician, I agree, and I would add singing to that list as well.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is traveling through the Decapolis—the region of the ten cities. These are ten Greek cities which mostly lie on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River. So the man who is brought to him may not be Judean. Jesus puts his fingers in his ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue, and says, “Ephphatha” or “be opened.” If you’ve had a child baptized recently, you probably recall this moment where we sign the child’s ear to hear the Word of God and the child’s lips to proclaim it. This moment is called the Ephphatha for this reason. In our action, we are saying, “Be opened to the Word of God.”
But let’s back up again and look at the passage. There are three elements here to be aware of: the touch of Jesus’ fingers, the spittle he uses—which strikes us modern hearers as a bit icky—and the sound of His voice. All of these are material signs, and we see others in scripture as well. The sign of water during baptism, the use of oil in anointing, the offering of bread and wine at the last supper. So these material signs are part of what makes something sacramental. All sacraments require form, which is the words that affect the sacrament, and matter, which is whatever material substance is used during the sacrament: wine, bread, oil, the act of confessing and repenting, the physical exchange of selves and consent in the Rite of Matrimony.
Just as Jesus uses form and matter—material things—in his healing, He gives us material things as conduits of His grace to us. That is what a sacrament is: a visible sign instituted by Christ to give us invisible grace. And scripture abounds with these sacramental signs. God always reveals Himself to us in the material universe, in the morning sunrise, in the complex beauty of a flower or tree, in the beauty of the human body, which He deemed very good.
But there is an old strain of heresy that creeps into the mainstream from time to time. We refer to its early form as Gnosticism and is sort of a grouping of mystical traditions that shunned the material world and claimed that it was evil. Only the spiritual was good. It showed up again during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries under the name Manichaeism, and one of our greatest saints, St. Augustine, was for a time a follower, until he rejected it for neo-Platonism and finally Christianity. It popped up again during the late middle ages in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the Cathars or Albigensians. More recently, we can look at a lot of New Age mysticism that espouses the same sort of dualism. Even our separated Christian brothers and sisters in evangelical circles often seem to have this same notion of the body as simply a shell that we inhabit, a physical prison or “dirt suit” as some call it.
But how does that comport with God’s view that the body is very good? What do we make of the Incarnation, Jesus’ taking of a human body and redeeming fallen humanity by joining in the hypostatic union Divine and human natures? Simply put, an orthodox Christian cannot be a dualist. The body matters. The material world matters. It is what God has given us to communicate Himself to us. And here at this liturgy, He gives Himself daily to us in the forms of bread and wine that He transforms into His body and blood. And all of this is very good.
And all of that brings me back to the good, the beautiful, and the mysterious. We sit in a beautiful cathedral. If you’ve traveled anywhere abroad in Europe or in the Holy Land, you’ll also find churches and shrines of extraordinary beauty. You can’t help but to be touched by the exquisite works of stone and stained glass. And it’s here for everyone—not just the wealthy, not even just for believers. Just a few months ago, two Muslim girls came here to leave flowers and light candles in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother. We open our doors to everyone to come and sit in this splendor, as do churches, cathedrals, and shrines all over the world. Could we sell everything and feed the poor? Perhaps, but for how long? And then who would have these beautiful things? The wealthy? The elite? Where would the rest of us go to enjoy a piece of heaven? Where does the homeless person go to offer prayers to our Savior? This place is as much for the poor as it is for the wealthy. And that goes for all of the works of art and architecture held in trust by the Church. As such, it remains accessible to everyone. To sell it off would simply be to deprive the poor and disenfranchised even more. They need these places as much as we do.
We may one day go back to being home churches—hidden, secret churches. We should never take for granted what we have. And while we have the privilege of gathering here for our Eucharist, let the beauty speak to you something of God’s beauty, which is reflected in all the things He creates and deems very good.