Today’s Holy Mass unfolds around the story of Ezechias (4 Kings 20: 1–11) that was read at Matins. Ezechias was the son of the wicked king Achaz. After a spectacular triumph over the Assyrians, obtained by his humble and confident prayer (4 Kings 19:15–19), Ezechias was stricken with a terrible, debilitating illness. He fell sick unto death.
Turned to the Wall
In his commentary on the sickness of Ezechias, Saint Jerome dwells on the fact that Ezechias, lying in his bed, turned his face against the wall in order to pray. “Ezechias”, says Saint Jerome, “turned his face to the wall because he was unable to go to the temple”. Saint Jerome suggests that the temple was built adjacent to the palace of Ezechias and that, in turning his face to wall, Ezechias was, in fact, turning his face towards the sanctuary of the temple, towards the place where God dwells. Saint Jerome also admits that Ezechias may have done this because he was praying with tears, and did not want his tears to be seen of men, but only of God.
God In His Holy Place
The temple is a type of Jesus Christ. Does not Our Lord say, «Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up»? And does not Saint John add, «But he spoke of the temple of his body» (John 2:19–21)? Every turning towards the temple in the Old Dispensation points to a turning to Christ in the New. Instinctively one turns towards the tabernacle to pray to Christ; there He is truly present and wholly turned toward us. One is reminded of the hagioscope or squint that the recluses of the middle ages had in the wall of their cells: a way of being able to peer into the adjoining church and so pour out one’s heart in prayer to God truly present in the Most Holy Sacrament. The prayer of Ezechias is, I think, the reason for today’s Introit, which begins with a grand affirmation of the presence of God: Deus in loco sancto suo, “God is in His holy place” (Psalm 67:6).
We sang Ezechias’ prayer at the Magnificat Antiphon last evening:
I beseech thee, O Lord, remember how I have walked before thee in truth, and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is pleasing before thee. (4 Kings 20:3)
The antiphon did not, however, give us the last poignant sentence of the relevant verse. It is this: Flevit itaque Ezechias fletu magno. “And Ezechias wept with great weeping” (4 Kings 20:3). Tears are the sign of a prayer that comes from the heart. Saint Benedict, summing up the whole monastic tradition, says that tears of compunction make one’s prayer acceptable to God.
If, when we wish to make any request to men in power, we presume not to do so except with humility and reverence; how much more ought we with all lowliness and purity of devotion to offer our supplications to the Lord God of all things? And let us remember that not for our much speaking, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction shall we be heard. (Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter XX)
The Divine Response
Ezechias begs God to spare his life and restore him to health. The prayer of Ezechias reaches the ear of God and inclines the heart of God to grant his request. The prophet Isaias, who had visited Ezechias on his deathbed, had barely left the king’s house when God told him that the king’s prayer was granted. God ordered to go back and announce this to Ezechias in these comforting words:
Thus saith the Lord the God of David thy father: I have heard thy prayer, and I have seen thy tears: and behold I have healed thee; on the third day thou shalt go up to the temple of the Lord. (4 Kings 20:5)
The Gradual of the Mass, taken from Psalm 27, expresses Ezechias’ response to these words:
In God hath my heart confided, and I have been helped. And my flesh hath flourished again, and with my will I will give praise to him. V. Unto thee will I cry, O Lord: O my God, be not thou silent to me. (Psalm 27:7, 1)
In the Gospel, Saint Mark recounts the spectacular healing of a deaf mute by Jesus. This healing is obtained by the intercessory prayer of others:
And they bring to him one deaf and dumb; and they besought him that he would lay his hand upon him. (Mark 7:32)
Our Lord works this healing sacramentally, that is to say, by means of outward signs. Saint Mark gives seven details of this sacramental healing.
And taking him from the multitude apart, he put his fingers into his ears, and spitting, he touched his tongue: And looking up to heaven, he groaned and said to him: Ephpheta, which is, Be thou opened. And immediately his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke right. (Mark 7:33–35)
1. Our Lord takes the man to a place apart. The man could neither hear nor speak clearly, but he could see Jesus and, on the face of Jesus, he read the merciful goodness of His Heart. God is pleased to work in silence and in hiddenness. It was so with the prophets Elias and Eliseus. It was so with Christ and with the Apostles, with the daughter of Jairus, and with the blind man of Bethsaida.
2. Our Lord put His fingers into the man’s ears. The finger of the Son of God indicates the operation of the Holy Ghost, Dextrae Dei Digitus. The insertion of Jesus’ finger into the deaf man’s ears effects an infusion of the healing power of God.
3. Our Lord makes use of spittle. In Saint John’s account of the man born blind (John 9:6), Our Lord makes a kind of eye medicine by mixing earth with His own spittle. Spittle was believed to have healing properties. Jesus sacramentalises a generally acknowledged property of spittle, and so makes it a means of grace.
4. Our Lord touches the man. The contact is immediate and real. It is the touch of the Saviour, charged with divine power. No infirmity can resist the healing touch of God–in–the–Flesh.
5. Our Lord looks up to heaven, just as He will do in his prayer before the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:41), and at the beginning of His priestly prayer in the Cenacle:
These things Jesus spoke, and lifting up his eyes to heaven, he said: Father, the hour is come, glorify thy Son, that thy Son may glorify thee. (John 17:1)
6. Our Lord groans. One might also understand this groan as a sigh from deep inside Our Lord. He groans de profundis (Psalm 129:1) in an appeal to the might of His Father. Here, Jesus expresses in Himself the Godward groaning of all creation, “for we know that every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain, even till now” (Romans 8:22). This groaning seems to have characterised the prayer of Jesus in a variety of circumstances.
Who in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to him that was able to save him from death, was heard for his reverence. (Hebrews 5:7)
7. Our Lord utters Ephetha, that is, “Be thou opened”. This utterance is more than the cure of a physical deafness. It signifies the opening of what Saint Benedict calls “the ear of the heart”. The Ephetha is part of the rite of Holy Baptism. Concerning this rite, Saint Ambrose says:
Open, therefore, your ears, and draw in the sweet savour of eternal life breathed on you by the office of the sacraments, which we indicated to you when in performing the mystery of the “opening” we said, Ephpheta, which is, Be opened, that each one who is coming to grace might know what he is asked, should be bound to remember what he answered. This mystery Christ performed in the Gospel, as we read, when he cured a deaf and dumb man. (Saint Ambrose, On the Mysteries, 1:3)
The effect of Jesus’ prayer is immediate and astonishing:
And immediately his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke right. (Mark 7:35)
As is often the case, the Offertory Antiphon today continues the Gospel. It is the prayer of the man who, having recovered his hearing, begins to praise God rightly, this being the meaning of orthodoxy. At the same time, the Offertory Antiphon give voice to the sentiments of King Ezechias when on the third day, after his healing, he returns to the liturgy of the temple:
I will extol thee, O Lord, for thou hast upheld me: and hast not made my enemies to rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I have cried to thee, and thou hast healed me. (Psalm 29:2–3)
The Communion Antiphon makes us thank God for the healing He works in our lives by offering Him our very substance: Honora Dominum de tua substantia.
Honour the Lord with thy substance, and give him of the first of all thy fruits: And thy barns shall be filled with abundance, and thy presses shall run over with wine.(Proverbs 3: 9–10)
The substance with which we honour God is our very life, and all that is necessary to sustain life. It is a question of making everything over to God, and, even, of offering back to Him the Supersubstantial Daily Bread that He gives us in Holy Communion. The gift we receive becomes the very gift we offer back to God in thanksgiving. And this Gift shall never be found wanting. For the man who gives thanks, the Eucharistic man, there will always be barns filled with wheat and presses overflowing with wine.
Finally, the Postcommunion prayer, with its images of healing and of remedy is most significant today.
Having received Thy holy sacrament, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that we may feel supported in soul and body, that being healed in both (in utroque salvati), we may glory in the fulness of the heavenly remedy.
There is no one who is beyond healing. There is a remedy for every ill. Even if one can do no more than pray with one’s face turned to the wall and in a flood of tears, one must do this, trusting that God will say, as once to Ezechias:
I have heard thy prayer, and I have seen thy tears: and behold I have healed thee; on the third day thou shalt go up to the temple of the Lord. (4 Kings 20:5)