The Gospels were written in Greek, as far as we know, but there are a few places in the Gospel of Mark where we have the words of Jesus in his own Aramaic language. When Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead, in the fifth chapter of Mark, he says, “Talitha cum” or “Little girl, get up” (Mk. 5:41). When Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, the night of his arrest, he says, “Abba,” or “Father” (Mk. 14:36). When he speaks from the cross, Mark leaves Jesus’ words, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” alongside the translation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34). And, in our Gospel reading today, we hear the voice of Jesus himself, speaking words of healing to the man who cannot either hear, or speak.
Sometimes, words are left untranslated, either because they are very familiar, very significant, or both. We have some examples in our liturgy: “amen,” a Hebrew word meaning “so be it,” is a good example. It has moved through Aramaic, Greek, and Latin liturgies before arriving, undigested and unchanged, in the Book of Common Prayer. Another is “hosanna,” or “Save now!”, a sort of exclamatory prayer in Hebrew, embedded in our Eucharist, that has resisted assimilation. A counter example is “hallelujah,” which was at first literally translated in our Prayer Book as “Praise ye the Lord,” but then after a few centuries of mulling it over was turned back into its original “alleluia.”
There are not many examples in our common speech, because American English is an assimilative language. The Law has its own technical terms, in Latin and French, that have so far defied translation, but that’s not really common speech. I suppose analysts have the German word “angst,” with its own technical meaning, though this word has become pretty mainstream, an honorary English word of sorts. Even something uniquely French, like “joie de vivre,” is simply rendered in English by “joy of living.”
Here in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark, however, we have the Aramaic words of Jesus, preserved alongside the translation. “[Jesus] said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’” (Mk. 7:34). It’s possible that the story was familiar, and people had just gotten used to it in this form. When we’re young, we want the story to be repeated exactly the same way each time.
Or maybe Jesus’ words, in this imperative form, were adapted by early Christians for their own healing ministry, in the process of use becoming both more familiar, and acquiring additional significance that helped preserve them in this form in the Scriptures. Later Christians, in fact, adapted Jesus’ words for a prayer before baptism, to open the candidates to grace.
To be opened, in this story of miraculous healing, is to be unbound: to be freed for service and for proclamation. Jesus’ ministry exists for this purpose, to lead us all to that point where we can receive his grace in our lives, and be equipped for mission and ministry. The man is being healed: no doubt about that. But the story also reminds us of each person’s need to be opened, to be liberated from the effects of sin and death. So, it makes sense to leave a word like this in its original form, to remind us of its power.
Openness to grace is the sine qua non of the Christian life: there’s an example of the untranslatable power of a word or phrase! In other words, without grace there is no Christian life. All our existence depends upon it. Everything that we are as Christians comes from God as a gift, as a “grace” or gratuity from God. Without relationship to Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, we are at full stop, unable to move ahead and incapable of becoming something more than we are.
Our celebration of baptism today is a case in point. We are witnesses to a new birth, a new relationship with Jesus, made possible through water and the word. Christ is opening our candidate to a new identity and new possibilities through the grace of this sacrament. Our prayer today for the candidate is that he will be opened to be able to hear the word, and to proclaim it himself. Our prayer for ourselves is that we too may be opened to grace, to the word of power that Jesus is speaking to us. “‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’” (Mk. 7:34).