Symbols in Christ's Healing and the Mass

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Incense, bells, silence, Latin—why do we have all of these things? All of these things seem to hide rather than explain the action which is unfolding during Mass. These are only some of the many possible critiques of the ancient liturgy, which we monks solemnly celebrate every day. We live in a time of great contrast. Everyday realities of the civil world are overflowing with superfluous things. Every material purchase is necessarily followed by another. If my car breaks, what do I do? I purchase another so that I have two. We have many symbols, too. A pair of Armani jeans, a pair of Dolce & Gabana sunglasses—always with the brand name in full view. The brand name is a symbol of taste or of riches, which we don't want to forget, let go, or leave behind. But, unfortunately, the Church is suffering precisely this contrary reality in recent years. In an attempt, of course understandable, to drink from the fount of simplicity of the life of Christ, we have forgotten that it is Christ himself who gives importance to the symbol.

Mark 7:31-37 makes this principle clear. We have other accounts in which miracles happen immediately. Therefore, we know that, if Christ wants to, he can heal in an instant, without any means, without any symbols. It isn't necessary for him to use other means. The fact that despite this, Christ used some means, some symbols to heal the deaf and dumb man, sanctifies, so to speak, the reality of symbols. He makes holy not that which is strictly necessary, but makes holy the unnecessary. The supreme example of this generosity of that which is unnecessary is the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. In today's Gospel, we see not only important symbols in themselves, but also symbols which give an explanation of the Mass itself.

The first unnecessary gesture was separating the deaf and dumb man from the crowd. It wasn't necessary. Christ performed other miracles in the midst of people. This shows that sacred things have a need of their own place. Sure, he could have healed among the people, but he preferred to choose a special place. This helps us understand not only the importance of the Church as a structure and a place for worship, but also the plan that deals with the Church, with the altar and the sanctuary being separated from the people. We can understand how sacred things and sacred actions have necessary sacred spaces which are designed and set apart for them. We monks often hear: "But Father, I can pray at home!" Certainly one can, and it's important to do so. But Christ wanted to dedicate a special place for the miracle of the Mass. Naturally we are filled with a certain sadness when we see people enter church dressed more for the beach with a gelato in one hand, and a dog in the other.

The second unnecessary gesture is maybe more shocking. Christ not only heals this deaf and dumb man with words, but he puts his saliva in the mouth of the deaf man. An act so intimate that it's fearful! Sure, it was not necessary to act in this way, but Christ wanted to intimately unite himself in the cure with this man, using his very own saliva and directly touching his tongue with his finger. Here, it is impossible not to see the natural link with receiving the Eucharist on the tongue, while kneeling. The Liturgy prescribes that the priest, in persona Christi, carries Christ himself directly to the tongue of the communicant. It is a very intimate gesture of a friend, of a lover. Instead of raising the priest to the status of a god, the priest disappears to assert a direct and personal relationship between you and Christ.

And finally, there is the word, Ephphatha, "Be opened." Christ does not limit himself to performing miracles using the ground and body; he wants to include man. In other words, he leaves to the man the possibility of participating in the cure, asking him to open his mouth. It is not necessary that the man do anything; Christ could have healed him in an instant, without the participation of this command, without the cooperation of this man. But this way, the man himself, as a mediator, becomes part of the miracle. It is this aspect which is maybe the more important symbol of the Mass because the people and the priest are found together, both gazing toward Christ, both participating in the mystery of Redemption. It is not a question of the priest having his back towards the people, as is sometimes asserted, but instead, the priest makes it clear that he is one of them, that everyone, together, participates in the same sacrifice, all looking eastward together, toward the Cross.

My dear brethren, let's not forget the importance of symbols. Our minds are weak. Colors, gestures, tastes, and smells are all important elements which help us to understand the profundity of the mystery. Let's try to enter ever more into the richness of these instruments. It's true, there are few things which are, strictly-speaking, necessary, but in his mercy, God has chosen to give us much more than those strictly necessary things. In the words of the Collect: Almighty everlasting God, who in the abundance of Thy kindness art wont to go beyond our merits and our prayers; pour down Thy mercy on us: forgive us aught whereof our conscience is afraid, and grant us all we dare not ask in prayer."

9/5/2011 4:00:00 AM
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