A parishioner sent me a story from the internet the other day that’s worth sharing.
A Catholic, who previously had been attending Mass regularly, stopped going. After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him.
It was a chilly evening. The priest found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for the visit, the man welcomed the pastor, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited.
Father made himself at home but said nothing. In the silence, he contemplated the dancing flames around the burning logs. After some minutes, he took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth. Then he sat back in his chair, still silent.
The host watched all this thoughtfully. As the lone ember’s flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow, and then its fire was out. Soon it was cold. Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting. The priest glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave.
He stood up slowly, picked up the dead ember, and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.
As the priest reached the door to leave, his host said “Thank you so much for your visit—and especially for the fiery sermon. I’ll be back in church next Sunday.”
The story shows how much we can communicate without words. But not for a moment should we think that the man we’ve just met in today’s Gospel was anything but handicapped by his inability to hear and speak. He was born in different times than ours, when neither doctors nor teachers could help him communicate. This disability meant no education. It meant poverty, along with social isolation.
But that’s not all. I imagine the man was a Jew—when our Lord worked a miracle for a non-Jew, the Gospel writers usually tell us. So he is a Jew who cannot listen to the Scriptures. And a man who could not hear surely could not have learned to read, so he is a Jew who could not know the Torah. He is cut off from the synagogue, for the sung and spoken word was at the heart of the worship there.
He is, in short, cut off from the very heart of his religion.
Today, thank God, we have various technologies and highly advanced teaching techniques to help those with impaired hearing to learn and communicate. Physical handicaps are no obstacle to the life of faith or to the reception of the sacraments.
And yet, don’t we still struggle with a certain kind of deafness and the inability to communicate?
Why else does the priest touch the child’s mouth and ears at baptism? The Scripture scholar Cardinal Vanhoye says it’s to show that the sacrament heals the spiritual deafness that keeps us from hearing and understanding the word of God. [See Le Letture Bibliche delle Domeniche, Anno B, 256-257]
At the same time, baptism heals the communication block that stops us from speaking about God and with God. It opens our mouth to pray and to praise God.
And thus, the Cardinal says, baptism inserts us fully into Christian society—into the Church—and into communion with one another and with God.
We’re no longer closed into our own world, as the deaf and mute man was. Our Christian life is a life full of communication, because communion is all about communication. We’re part of something much bigger than ourselves.
Which takes us back where we began—to the fireplace.
I don’t preach fiery homilies about missing Mass—mainly because the folks who need to hear it aren’t in church to hear! But let’s remind ourselves how blessed we are to be part of a community where we can hear God’s Word proclaimed each Sunday. Let’s not take for granted the divine gift of being able to open our mouths and join our brothers and sisters each week in singing God’s praise.
Jesus drew a man from isolation into community. By our baptism, he’s done the same for us.