Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decap′olis. 32 And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him. 33 And taking him aside from the multitude privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; 34 and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Eph′phatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And he charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.” (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fourth Sunday following Assumption, Eve of the Fast of the Holy Cross), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Not Only Our Mouth and Ears
If you have ever witnessed a baptism in the Armenian Church you will recall when the priest anoints nine parts of the body of the person being baptized with holy muron as seals of incorruptible heavenly gifts, the point at which the newly baptized receives and is sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14). This is referred to as chrismation, one of the three parts making up the one sacrament of Baptism (the other two parts being immersion in water and receiving Holy Communion). The priest anoints nine parts of the newly baptized and prays the following after each:
- The forehead: “Sweet ointment in the name of Jesus Christ is poured upon you as a seal of incorruptible heavenly gifts.”
- The eyes: “This seal in the name of Jesus Christ enlighten your eyes, that you may never sleep unto death.”
- The ears: “This holy anointing be for the hearing of divine commandments
- The nostrils: This seal in the name of Jesus Christ be to you a sweet smell from life to life.”
- The mouth: “This seal in the name of Jesus Christ be to you a guard for your mouth and a strong door for your lips.”
- The hands: “This seal in the name of Jesus Christ be to you a cause for good works and for all virtuous deeds and conduct.”
- The heart: “This divine seal establish in you a pure heart and renew within you an upright spirit.”
- The back: “This seal in the name of Jesus Christ be to you a shield of strength thereby to quench all the fiery darts of the Evil One.”
- The feet: “This divine seal direct your goings to life everlasting that you may not be shaken.”
To what end are these nine parts of the body anointed? Well, in the Gospel reading, for what purpose did Jesus open the mute and deaf man’s ears and mouth? We may wonder what kind of life he lived after having this encounter with Jesus. After Jesus “released” his mouth to speak and his ears to hear, did he live the same as before? Did he use his newly opened ears and mouth for God’s glory? Through baptism we are sealed, given power to live the way we were created to live, placed on the path back to the Garden where we feed from the Tree of Life, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. St. Gregory of Narek admits his shortcoming in living the way he was called and anointed to live, impaired and obstructed by evil. We can think of our own trials and sinful habits as St. Gregory asks God to once again inhabit his body:
And these two feet, means of motion,
foundation of my body’s structure,
now lame and unsteady,
vanquished by evil,
impede my ascent to the tree of life-giving fruit.
May you again inhabit them, my only hope of cure.
And the organ of glorification with which you endowed
me, whose voice when moved by the magnanimity of
your mercy used to turn back the breath of the
Troublemaker, silencing him,
may you miraculously restore your living word to me,
so I might speak again without faltering,
like the one you healed in the Gospel. (18F)
Constantly distracted, we prefer other things to the life we were created to live. We believe in other promises to fulfill us rather than the promises of God made at our baptism, whether it be romance, the right career, a sufficient amount of money in the bank, or living in the perfect geographical location. We believe in other promise givers to create a good and happy life for us, such as friends, family members, spouses, politicians, and presidents. We experience suffering – physical, emotional, and mental. Our path of enlightenment becomes blocked with evil, darkened, and the lamps of our soul become dimmed or extinguished. While knowing the evil, we willingly give in to it, and we purposely keep away from good deeds. We get angry at God, at the Church, offended by our fellow parishioners, not focusing on the fact that we are united through our common baptism.
But there is healing, as we learn from the story of the man who is deaf and mute. We serve a God who is willing to open our mouths and our ears so that we can hear what he has to say to his people, so we can preach his love and forgiveness to the world. The prophet Isaiah foretold the deliverance and renewal that would take place when God rescued his people from exile and oppression:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. (35:5-6)
If baptism is what unites as the Body of Christ, have we become collectively deaf and mute? This is exactly the war against the Church that Satan wages, and exactly the tactic to which we need to be alert. Do we utilize our senses for the purpose for which they have been blessed, sealed, and released to do so? Have we become deaf to the suffering of the community that is local to our parishes, perhaps even within them? As members of Christ’s Body, has the Armenian Church become mute to a world starving for hope and promises beyond what movies, television shows, news channels, social media, health experts, and politicians can offer? At this point in history, wherever our respective communities are geographically found, what potential can be released from the Armenian Church that will impact a neighborhood, a city, a country, the globe? Keep in mind, the Gospel spread throughout the world from a small group of committed disciples from a small town in the Middle East.
As individuals, is our tongue full of poison, set on fire by hell, as St. James the Just, the first Bishop of Jerusalem puts it, or do we praise God and encourage others with our speech? Does blessing and cursing come from the same mouth? (see James 3:5-10) Are our nostrils closed to the aroma of Christ? (see II Corinthians 2:15-16) With our hands, do we feed the poor and in turn feed Christ, or with them do we dig a hole and bury our talents? (see Matthew 25) Do we love God with all of our heart, or do we give him only a portion to maintain a convenient life without much sacrifice or demand? Can we relate to St. Gregory of Narek when he prays,
My tongue, having lost the right to respond, is dumb.
My twisted lips have been justly silenced.
My mind whirls with anxiety
unable to concentrate
too stupefied to weigh and choose what is right.
The path of deliverance is blocked
by the wreckage of evil,
and the lamp of my soul is filled only with ash. (23B)
When it seems like we are faltering, even when it seems like we are not faltering, recall our one baptism. It is not meant to be a static event locked in the past on a calendar date and trapped inside dusty photo albums. Instead, our baptism is dynamic and living, meaningful and essential in everyday life. It unites us to one another and to God. In our hymn, Nor Sion (Նոր Սիոն) for the Feast of the Birth of the Holy Mother of God (Ծնունդ Աստուածածմի) on September 8, we sing:
Through the holy font children have been born as the New Sion, emblazened in the grace of the Holy Spirit. Praise the heavenly Father on the day of the birth of the holy Virgin, by whom you were liberated from the curse of her predecessor.
Through the holy font, we are liberated from the curse of sin to live freely in the love of Christ, to not only experience the healing of Jesus, but also to share it with the world. The seals of our baptism are for a lifetime of defense and guidance, and through them we are protected from the enemy and have been freed to live rightly.
Jesus says to us, “Եփփաթա, be opened!” Christianity is a proclamation, a celebration of thanksgiving for what Jesus has accomplished and is still accomplishing in our lives and in the world until he returns everything back to order – the Great Healing. Until then we struggle and we hold each other up. And we are thankful for those who have gone before us and demonstrated the faith rightly lived, such as our beloved Church Father, St. Nersess Shnorhali who prayed,
All caring Lord, place your holy fear as a guard before my eyes, that they may no more look shamefully, upon my ears, that they may not delight in hearing evil talk, upon my mouth, that it may speak no falsehood, upon my heart, that it may not think evil, upon my hands, that they may not do wrong, and upon my feet, that they may not walk the path of wickedness. Direct their motions that they may follow your commandments in all ways. (I Confess, 9)
Family trees play a fairly important role in our lives today, depending on one’s particular culture and heritage, but genealogies, which show up pretty often throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, were a vital part of the Jewish world. And they normally included only men. Why would Matthew depart from Jewish tradition in order to include the names of women in a genealogy that climaxes with the birth of the Messiah? Even more unusual is the particular women named: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, each being either not Jewish or known for something sinful or dishonorable.
Including these women in the genealogy, even if unnamed (Bathsheba) prefigures the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God, the Church, and prefigures the revolutionary inclusion and importance of women throughout the Gospels, especially anticipating the place the Virgin Mary holds in God’s plan of salvation:
Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. (1:16)
And so the celebration of the birth of the Mother of God is a celebration of not only the Virgin Mary, but her parents, her entire lineage, a sinful lineage out of which the sinless Messiah was born, he who is the salvation of the world.
Matthew’s genealogy makes it clear that Jesus participates in our human nature, and not just what we can brag about. Consider the characteristics of some of the people listed: Abraham, called by God “the father of many nations,” but also lied to his wife, twice. David, called by God “a man after God’s heart,” but also an adulterer and murderer. Rahab was a prostitute, Ruth entered into a marriage forbidden by Jewish law, and Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, was the one with whom David committed adultery. The tree that leads to the sinless Messiah, with all of its beauty and faithful people, has its share of gnarls and knots. It is far from sinless. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Armenian Church father, Stepanos Siwnetsi writes,
Out of his great and unsearchable love for man Christ deigned to be called a son of prostitutes and to name as mothers both prostitutes and foreigners.
In one of his sermons referring to Matthew’s genealogy, St. Severus, 6th century Patriarch of Antioch, venerated in the Oriental Orthodox Church explains why Jesus united his divinity with our humanity, our sinful condition:
By this means the genealogy revealed that it is our very sinful nature that Christ himself came to heal. It is that very nature which had fallen, revolted and plunged into inordinate desires. When our nature fled from God, he took hold of it. When it dashed out and ran away in revolt, he stopped it, held onto it, enabled it to return and blocked its downward spiral…Christ therefore took upon himself a blood relationship to that nature which fornicated, in order to purify it. He took on that very nature that was sick, in order to heal it. He took on that nature which fell, in order to lift it up…Although sinless, he became united to the flesh that is of the same essence as ours.
The seed of Abraham to which Matthew traces Jesus does not refer only to the physical lineage of Abraham, but as the father of all nations it refers to the people of God, the Church, a community in which our lives are joined by our one baptism in Christ, all of us ministers, baptized for his work. Out of this genealogy emerges the Church in that God chooses to use us in his plan, bent and broken as we are. Sin, imperfection, and failure cannot and will not thwart the will of God and his already accomplished plan of salvation, a plan in which we the Church and individuals within the body of Christ still play a part. The Church will withstand any obstacle, any philosophical trend, any political regime, any resistance or persecution, and any attack because the Church belongs to Jesus Christ. He said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” i.e. when the Church as the agent of salvation takes action against the powers of hell and knocks down its doors.
This does not give us license to be sinful while God works around us and in spite of us. When we become agents of salvation, a part of the genealogy of Christ’s love that reaches the nations, he raises us to do his will. Anything else, a life that is unholy is dishonest, unauthentic, and not from the heart. If we are honest, that is, if we are continually repentant and allowing ourselves to be conformed to the divinity of Christ in spite of our sinful humanity, that acknowledgement is faith and lifts us up to love God and neighbor. God’s partnering with humanity is not because he needs us for his divine plan to work, rather he chooses to include us. Why? Simply because he loves us! This means that each of us as individuals and collectively as the Church are a part of his plan of salvation, a direct link in the chain chosen by God for his purposes.
Blessed be the birth of the Mother of God, blessed be the coming of the Messiah.