Ephphatha: What does it mean to ‘Be Opened’?
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
When I was four years old, I stepped off a train, misjudged the distance and fell through the gap between the train and the platform. Were it not for the fact that I had been practising cartwheels all summer, I might have landed on the tracks.
Instead, I jutted out my well-toned arms and caught myself, one elbow on either side. As my legs dangled in the air, I recall someone lifting me out of danger. Shocked and bruised, all I wanted was for my mum to make it better. And isn’t that the catch cry of almost every child who has ever scraped a knee, banged their head or caught a finger in a door? For someone to make it better?
It’s not just children who have this impulse. How often do we as adults want God to take our pain away, be it emotional or physical? We believe that if only our discomfort can be eliminated, we can get back to the way things were before.
But what if that’s not how healing works?
I’ve been thinking more and more that healing isn’t about removing suffering so that we can return to our lives unchanged. Instead, it's an invitation to something greater: an opportunity to transform.
Jesus heals the deaf man
In Mark 7:31-37, Jesus has just arrived in the region of the Ten Towns when a deaf man with a significant speech impediment is brought to him for healing. We’re not told who took him but we can assume it’s people who care about him and want his suffering to end. Presumably, the man wants this too. This act of approaching Jesus contains the first two necessary steps to healing: a recognition of the need for healing and a request for help.
How Jesus heals
Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits on his own fingers and touches the man’s tongue (an act that, in these days of Covid, is a little confronting!). But the healing isn’t over yet. Jesus looks heavenwards and says, ‘Ephphatha’ (pronounced ef - far - tha) which is the Greek translation of the Aramaic word, ‘Pethach’ which means ‘Be opened’. Whether Jesus says this as a command or an invitation, we don’t know, but I’d venture to suggest it’s both.
What Jesus doesn’t say
Before we consider the true meaning of Ephphatha, it’s worth considering what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, ‘Your hearing is restored’. He doesn’t say, ‘You may now speak’. Instead, he chooses the phrase, ‘Be opened.’
‘Open’ is such an expansive word. Think of open waters, open air, open arms, open-hearted. You can be open to new ideas, open a conversation, open negotiations, bring things out in the open. You even have to open your mouth to sing, laugh and eat. Openness allows ideas, resources and feelings to pass from one person to another without hindrance. Openness speaks of new beginnings, free flowing energy, transparency, trust and endless possibilities. And as we learn in this Bible passage, openness is the means by which healing occurs.
When Jesus says, ‘Be opened,’ it becomes clear that healing is not about having our problems surgically removed so that we can get our lives back exactly the way they were. Nor is it simply about showing up and saying, ‘Here I am, God. Fix me.’ Rather, healing is a process that involves acknowledging that the way we’ve been operating isn’t working. And then we surrender. We surrender our old life, our old ways, our old perceptions, and we allow ourselves to be opened up to a new way of being.
It’s also worth noting that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Open yourself’ but rather, ‘Be opened’. It is God who does the opening. Our job is to allow it.
Receiving and perceiving
So what happens to the man in the Bible story after his encounter with Jesus? We learn that he is able to hear again and that his tongue is loosened so that he can speak plainly.
At a symbolic level, moving from deafness to hearing is about opening oneself up to experiencing the world in a different way. When we begin to truly hear for the first time, we allow in new information which in turn changes the way we understand and experience the world. Healing is therefore about changing the way we receive and perceive.
Similarly, the loosening of a tongue also has symbolic meaning. To speak plainly is to express oneself truthfully and fearlessly. So healing has an outward focus too. We don’t merely receive healing, we go out and do something with it.
Seen in this light, healing becomes so much more than just curing a problem. It’s an opportunity to open up to a new way of being. It is a chance to transform.