“Awesome,” is a word we use today to express appreciation for something we think is great. We might hear this word used in reaction to some good news. For example a friend tells us he or she just got engaged. We might respond, “Awesome.” Another use might be in response to a feat accomplished. For example, one of our favorite teams just executed a beautiful play in near perfect form, and we might say, “That was awesome.”
Such is the way we use the term today. The older use of the word is tied to wonder, amazement, surprise and astonishment. Many times it was used in association with God’s saving activity.
We might use this expression, in the older sense, in response to the readings for Sunday’s liturgy. The crowds who had brought Jesus the deaf man with a speech impediment certainly would have had this type of reaction. St. Mark tells us after Jesus cures the man, the crowds “were exceedingly astonished and they said, ‘He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”
Reflecting on this Gospel passage, we might give some consideration to the gift of hearing and speech that most people have from birth. We can hear someone speak to us and we can reply; the most basic form of communication that helps us form relationships and community. We can listen to the sounds of nature: the birds of the sky, waves crashing on the shore, crickets at night, and so forth. We can hear music and song, and we can sing along. We can put words to our thoughts and express them to another human being.
The ability to hear and speak is, in and of itself, an amazing gift that God gives us. At the same time, speaking and hearing are so much a part of our lives that many of us never give it much thought; that is, until we know someone who cannot hear or speak or has difficulty hearing or speaking or we lose one or the other gifts.
The crowd coming to Jesus brings the deaf man hoping for a cure. They beg Jesus to heal the man and he does. At the word of his command “Ephphatha!” the man’s ears are opened and his tongue loosed. He can now hear and speak. All the benefits of these senses are now his. He is healed. This truly is awesome and the crowd responds accordingly.
Jesus’ cure of the deaf man is a manifestation of God’s loving concern and compassion. The miracle also speaks to the identity of Jesus — he is the long hoped-for messiah, the Anointed One. The day of salvation is at hand. God’s saving activity is being accomplished in Jesus.
The first reading for Sunday’s liturgy comes from the Prophet Isaiah. In that reading, the Lord commands the prophet to bring a message of encouragement and hope to a people living in fear. He says, “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!”
He continues beautifully describing God’s saving activity: “Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.” Jesus brings this message to fulfillment. The day of salvation is here. And it is awesome.
Some people may find it interesting that Jesus orders the crowd not to speak of this miracle to anyone. One might ask: “If the day of salvation is dawning, why not proclaim it? Why would Jesus not want people to know?” Most scholars would suggest that Jesus’ command of silence has to deal with what the commonly shared expectations of the messiah were at that time. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries expected the Messiah to be a liberator, in a military sense. The messiah would throw off the Romans and establish the kingdom of Israel.
Jesus is the messiah but his authority is much greater than any political or worldly realm; and the liberation that he brings is likewise much greater. So Jesus asks them to keep the miracle private; not that they do, for they are so overcome with awe that they cannot keep silent, they have to express their amazement and their praise.
Awe is one of the aspects of our praise of God. We need to stand, or more to the point, bow down in amazement at his saving action in the life of the world and in our lives. God has acted in the life of mankind, and still continues to do so. Sometimes we see this in creation. Sometimes we hear of it in the saving deeds recalled in the Scriptures. Sometimes we see it and hear it in the loving compassion of our fellow Christians.
As we praise the Lord today, may we be filled with awe.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.