• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Becoming Human: From Glory to Glory

“I am like the deaf, who cannot hear; like the mute, who cannot speak.”

In the art of every culture across the world, whether in music, literature, or poetry, there’s one universal theme: desire. At essence, there’s very little difference between romance of the first century and romance today. It’s still the same story of a lover chasing after a beloved, and the beloved desiring to be loved. Desire lies behind all human achievements: science, philosophy, medicine, and everything else. If the human race were to be summed up in one short sentence, it could be said that we are the species that always yearns for more. Something in our heart is constantly unsatisfied, always craving, always reaching out. And this is a very good thing.

Our Holy Scriptures are no different. The Song of Songs describes a passionate dialogue between a man and a woman pursuing each other through gardens, and at the same time the story represents the relationship between God and humanity, in a constant state of desire. In Genesis, we find Adam and Eve walking in paradise, and even there they’re hunger for the fruits of the trees and the companionship of one another. Then there’s a brake. A separation occurs between Man and God, and the rest of history is one long story of our search for healing and fulfillment, our existential longing for paradise. The universe is, you can imagine, a stomach aching to be filled. Something is incomplete.

Perhaps, the most vivid example of this can be seen in Michelangelo’s painting, “The Creation of Adam.” I’m sure you’d all know it if you saw it, for the painting has captured the hearts of men for hundreds of years, and it’s imitated now in just about every medium, whether in great works of music or in comic books and even the Simpsons.

On the left side we see Adam stretched out on a bed of grass and stones, and on the right there is God, with all the heavenly hosts. Adam is reaching up to God, and God is reaching down to Adam. Michelangelo was a remarkable painter. You can see in his picture the strain and emotion in the faces of both God and Adam as well as the movement in their limbs as they’re yearning for one another, but if you look closely, you’ll see that their fingers aren’t quite touching. There’s a gap between humanity and God, an unfilled longing, and the painting tells us the whole story of human history, and the experiences of each and every one of us today. Something within us is incomplete and aching for completeness.

In psalm 38:13, King David expresses this yearning in a short prayer: “I am like the deaf, who cannot hear; like the mute, who cannot speak. I have become like one who does not hear, whose mouth can offer no reply. Lord, I wait for you.”

Deafness and muteness, in the Jewish world, was a symbol of humanity’s incompleteness.

You can imagine what it would be like to be deaf. You’d never hear the birds singing in the morning or the crickets at night. You would never be able to sit down and enjoy a piece of music. Far worse, you could never share a conversation with someone without resorting to hand gestures and sign language. Though these are a wonderful form of language, they can never substitute being able to hear the words of a group of friends and reply with similar words. There’s a gulf between you and everyone else around you.

From a biblical perspective, this is the same state of brokenness that each and everyone of us is in, due to the sins that we make, which separate us from God. Though our eyes might be working and our ears hearing as any normal, healthy person, we’re still only partially aware of the world around us. From a modern perspective, you could say that we’re only aware of a couple dimensions, but ignorant of all the others.

It’s the biggest myth of our times, when people say, “I only believe in what you can see and touch. Where then is your God?” But even physics has shown how ridiculous this is. There’s much more to life than what we can touch and taste. Something is broken in our senses. When we look around, taste something delicious, smell with our nose and hear with our ears, we’re only barely tapping into the world.

Modern man looks at dirt and merely sees dirt, but the more advanced man looks at dirt and sees God.

St. Paisius, who lived in our own times, describes the spiritual life as the attempt to tune our ears to God. Like the radio, he said, which we adjust to pick up the right station, our souls have to be adjusted to receive the channel of God.

Our ears our deaf and need healing.

We’re all mute, as well. The tongue was given to us for one purpose: to praise God unceasingly. The psalms describe the sun and moon, the stars, mountains, trees, and everything in the universe as being in a constant state of praising God, altogether in a single breath. This is the natural state of things, but somehow, we’re different. Instead of worshipping God, we end up worshipping ourselves; disconnected from the harmony around us; barely functioning the way we we’re intended to. Like Adam reaching out to God in the painting, there’s a gap, and we’re incomplete.

This, then, is the meaning of the psalm that cries out, “I am like the deaf, who cannot hear; like the mute, who cannot speak.”

If we look at our Gospel today, we’ll find a person who embodies this prayer, being deaf and mute, and in that person we can see how he represents all of us. And we also see what happens when this person draws close to our Lord Jesus Christ, just as it is for us when we turn to God.

In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7, we’re brought to the town of Decapolis, where Jesus Christ meets the deaf man. With compassion, our Lord looks at this suffering person, reaches out and touches his ears. Then Christ spits, and touches the man’s mouth, saying: “Ephphatha,” “Be Opened.”

“Straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed.” His curse was ended; he walked away hearing and speaking.

The man’s deafness and muteness were physical. On one level, this is a story of God’s power. He’s the God that works miracles, but there’s also much more to it. For, as we’ve said, this deaf man stands for all of us who are deaf and mute spiritually.

Like him, our ears don’t work right, our eyes are barely open, and our smell and touch just barely perceive the world around us. But, in relationship with Jesus Christ, everything changes. It is only in Jesus that we can slowly become fully living human beings.

What is it that wakes us up in the morning and drives us on through the day? Why bother go to mass in the middle of week, let alone on Sunday mornings, or drag yourself to your same prayers morning after morning and night and night? Why have your house blessed with holy water or bother making the sign of the cross at the mention of the Holy Trinity?

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory.”

St. Paul reminds us, in his second epistle to the Corinthians, what it is that we’re doing here as Christians. With every passing moment of meditating on God, contemplating His glory, communing with him in the sacraments, we are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory.

It’s a beautiful phrase. In Greek, Paul uses the word μεταμορφούμεθα, which, in English, means metamorphosis. You can think of the caterpillar who spends a season in a cocoon and comes out as a butterfly. Christ Himself is our cocoon, and the time we spend with Him transforms us in the same manner, into the fulfilled being that we’re called to become. In Christ, Preston becomes a truer Preston; Becky will becomes a truer Becky; Robin becomes a truer Robin. The person that we know and love here is just a shadow of the true person that is brought to life in relationship with Jesus Christ.

And then Paul tells us that this metamorphosis goes on and on and never ends: Aπὸ δόξης εἰς δόξαν, “From Glory to Glory.” No one says this better than C. S. Lewis in the last battle, when the horse finds himself in paradise and cries out: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now… Come further up, come further in!”

From Glory to Glory

In Michelangelo’s painting, “The Creation of Adam,” we see that straining between Man and God, their fingers reaching out to each other, so close, but not touching. But here, when Jesus encounters the deaf man, we see what happens when the touch does take place. God and man finally make an encounter, and the gap is bridged.

The real miracle wasn’t so much that a deaf person was cured of his hearing. A doctor can do that. But the richer miracle was the fact that the aching in our heart can be satisfied, when we draw close to God. When Christ healed the deaf man, he fulfilled King David’s prayer, “I am like the deaf, who cannot hear; like the mute, who cannot speak…Lord, I wait for you.” In Christ, the time has come when we no longer need to wait, but must merely reach out and be touched by our Savior.

From Glory to Glory

But let’s now turn back to the Gospel reading, and take a moment to think about the details in the miracle. Jesus Christ first touched the man’s ears. Then He spat, and touched his mouth while saying, “Be opened.”

Isn’t this a little strange?

God, who made heaven and earth simply by thinking about it, came down here and chose to spit? When I was a young boy, strolling around outdoors, I found some pleasure in spitting. I must have seen an old western and the habit made me feel tough. But we’re not talking about a 10 year old. We’re talking about God almighty, who wove together the stars and planets and cast the devil out of heaven. Why do you think he bothered spitting, in order to heal the deaf man? Why even take the time to reach out and touch the man’s ears or mouth, and why even speak the audible words, “Be opened”?

It’s very simple. God likes to use physical things. He created the world, and so I think it’s safe to assume that He likes it.

You see this on every page of the bible. Our God does not work through vapor or thought waves. He works in the world that we know and touch and breathe. Jesus Christ has a body, just as real as yours and mine, and we always encounter Him in a physical way.

The Jewish people, and all the Christians for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, believed in a union of body and soul. It never dawned on them, just as it never shows up in scripture, that the body is alien to the spirit. I once heard a preacher say, “When I die, put my body in a trash can. I don’t care about it. I’ll have gone up to the Lord.” This is Gnosticism, one of the greatest heresies of the early church. From the year 33 AD, when the Orthodox Church was founded, it has insisted that the body is good, the material world is good, and God’s relationship with us is always intermingled in physical stuff.

We see this in that reach of His hand and the spit of His saliva. Jesus Christ is showing us how it is that we encounter Him. It couldn’t get more physical.

This is why we need the sacraments.

We come to mass to taste God in the Eucharist, to hear Him in the chanting (when we’re in tune that is…), to smell Him in the incense, to see him in the paintings, to touch Him in the vestments and in embracing one another. This is why we stand so much while praying or kneel at the altar rail. There’s nothing invisible about the church. It is Christ on Earth, here among us in the most real way. There’s nothing ethereal about Christianity. It involves the body as much as Jesus Christ is a body.

He wasn’t a ghost then just as He isn’t a ghost now, and we need Him just as much as the deaf man needed Him 2,000 years ago, to become fully alive.

There isn’t anything radical here. This is Christianity 101 and was believed by every Christian soul until Martin Luther came around and secularism crept into the world, and now we have to work to get it back. Our faith in Jesus Christ is nothing if we don’t see how it affects every part of our lives. Rather, with all our heart and everything that we are, we must strive to be transformed into God’s likeness…from glory to glory.

“I am like the deaf, who cannot hear; like the mute, who cannot speak…Lord I wait for you.”

This is our constant state, whether we know it or not, and it was the fate of the man so long ago in Israel. God respects us far too much to force us from our sleep, but He waits patiently for us to wake. If we reach out and lift our finger towards God, He’ll bend down low and carry us with Him. That’s what it means to really begin to live.

May God inspire us to turn to Him that He might open our eyes and ears, awaken our taste, sanctify our sense of smell and touch, and wake us up, body and soul, so that we can start living, from glory to glory.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

3808 Seymour Road

Wichita Falls, TX, 76309