The first Aramaic saying in Mark is Jesus’ words to Jairus’ daughter, “Talitha cum / Get up.” These are really the first words to anyone who begins the life of faith. They are the Aramaic counterpart to God’s words spoken to Abram in Genesis: “Lech lecha” – “Get up and go.” God called Abram to get up and then to go to the land God would show him. Likewise when we are called to follow God, we have to get up, get on our feet (literally and figuratively) and be ready to go where God leads us.
The second phrase is from today’s reading: “Ephphtha / Be opened.” As Jesus opened the ears and loosened the tongue of the deaf mute man, this word is also one of invitation to us as we follow Christ: Be opened! The Christian life is one where we begin the journey to discover who we really are in God. This is different from who we think we are – that’s largely a construct of our ego, for good or for ill. The journey of our faith is to peel back the layers of our life experiences and beliefs in order to discover who we really are from God’s perspective. We cannot do any of this work unless and until we allow ourselves to be opened.
There are Christians who have no trouble getting up and beginning the journey but being opened is hard. To be opened means to risk. And what we risk is being open to transformation: we call it conversion in the Church. Some folks have said the scariest word for Episcopalians is “evangelism” but I disagree. The scariest word is “conversion” because conversion means the death of one way of being so another way can be born. It is the cycle of death and resurrection. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls you, he bids you come and die. That is conversion. Dying to our own selfish needs: our need to be right, our need to protect our prideful egos, our many and varied addictions (and we all have them … some are just more socially acceptable than others) – dying to all of this is what conversion means. But we cannot be converted until we are opened. We must be opened to the possibility of a greater life in the risen Christ than what we know today. If we refuse this call to be opened, especially to the change conversion brings, then all we will do with our faith is hide behind our religion and mistake religiosity for falling into the hands of the living God. Religion is only a means to move towards God – we dare not use it as a cheap substitute for God.
Once we take seriously the call to “get up” and “be opened” we move into conversion. There are two places I find where we tend to resist being open. The first is right after the call to get up. We feel called by God, but we really don’t want to let God do the leading. We’d rather remain in charge of our lives and let our egos rule the day. The other time is right after conversion where we may be tempted to thing we’ve somehow “arrived” at our final destination. Conversion is a lifelong process of being made anew – over and over and over. When we experience a conversion and we find ourselves changed, we can be tempted to close down and defend our new position lest we be called to yet another conversion. Ephphtha! Be opened! It is a constant reminder of the importance of openness to God’s Spirit at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances.
As we engage in this process of conversion, we can often encounter the third of Jesus’ Aramaic sayings: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? / My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We find this in conversion because to change always means something about us must die. And death brings out Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christian mystics call this point the dark night of the soul. It is that place where the death brought about by conversion is very real, the grief is real, and we may not be able to discern the presence of God, and a way forward isn’t always clear. True conversion of the spirit will always take us there at some point and even life itself will take us there whether we want it to or not.
There is a story told of a professor at Virginia Seminary who, upon the death of his wife, became extremely depressed. This professor and priest would come to the Eucharist at the seminary chapel and when it was time to stand and recite the Nicene Creed … he sat silently. For months on end he sat and could not bring himself to profess his belief in God. Finally, after many months, he began to emerge from his grieving process. One day, he spoke at chapel and explained that while he was in the despair of his grief, he found he could not stand and recite the Nicene Creed because he wasn’t sure if he really did believe in God. However, he found himself carried by the seminary community at that point. “You said the creed for me when I could not say it for myself,” he told them. In that space where he felt so abandoned by God and so alone, it was the Church through the seminary community, who carried him until he could stand on his own again.
None of us can do this journey of faith in a vacuum. We are not independent, discreet entities of existence. We are a community where our actions impact the real lives of others. It’s been said there are no “Lone Ranger” Christians and I think this is very true. Our faith journey inevitably moves us from getting up to being opened to being converted – to dying and rising over and over and over in the course of our lives.
Talitha cum, Ephphtha, Eli, Eli lama sabachthani? Get up; be opened; my God, my God why have you forsaken me? – all of us can connect with one of these Aramaic phrases right now. Wherever you are on your journey and whichever phrase speaks to you, know this: you do not journey in this life alone. You travel in the company of the saints here on earth, with this community here at Grace Church, and with those who have gone before who continue to intercede for you, in the company of angels, and always in the presence of the Living God.