Miracles are undoubtedly no more than written words to express the inexpressible, images to express what is beyond sight. But perhaps the authentic miracle is the first movement of a breath, of a new air that makes the soul breathe.
(Mark 7, 31-37)
This is the story of a coming and going, like a breath, like the surf of the sea. It’s the story of a breath that needs space to circulate. It’s the story of a sigh. A sigh of weariness, relief, abandonment, confidence? In this account of the healing of a deaf man who has difficulty speaking, Jesus sighs, and this is the only occurrence of this verb in the Gospels. Adam needed God’s breath to fill his lungs and bring him to life. Jesus, in his full humanity, experienced the pain of every infant when the air filled his lungs, fresh from his mother’s womb. This is a story in which breathing heals.
The whole text is cradled by the same movement, like the air that moves in and out of the lungs. Jesus leaves one territory to return to another; the first movement of breathing. In a pause, like a breath held back, a man is brought to him; he is deaf and has difficulty speaking. His ears are blocked and won’t let the breath in; his tongue is numb and won’t let the breath out. He is blocked, overfilled. His body, his being, are hermetically sealed. It is often said that there must be a void, a gap, to welcome the breath, the Spirit. In this man’s case, there is a need to regulate the excess pressure that is hindering his ability to hear and speak. Jesus is not going to remove the clutter, the obstruction; he is going to use his breath to increase the pressure even further until the membrane that was blocking the man’s ears and mouth is broken. In this way, he would free the breath that had been held back for so long.
The story is disconcerting, to say the least, if you take the time to reflect on the words and do not jump too quickly to the happy, liberating ending. Faced with the man he has led aside, Jesus « raises his eyes to heaven and sighs ». The expression « lifting up his eyes to heaven », although not often used, is found in other accounts, notably the multiplication of the loaves (Mark 6:41 and Matthew 14:19) and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:41). We might wonder why Jesus turns to the Father specifically for these miracles. It’s as if, at that precise moment, he needed to be comforted and supported in his action. We can well imagine this movement, his head tilted back slightly, his eyes closing slightly, his lungs filling with air in a deep inhalation. This gaze towards the Father is the breath with which Jesus fills his lungs before he can sigh. The translations agree: the text does not say that Jesus « breathes » but that he « sighs », in that movement of breathing deeply that causes the lungs to empty. The breath that Jesus uses to free the deaf man’s ears and tongue is not a superficial breath, but comes from Jesus’ lungs, from the air that has allowed him to live for a few seconds. The rest of Jesus’ action, the mud, the saliva, could be the conjurer’s artifice. He is giving any witnesses the impression that he is proceeding as a healer of the time would have done. But all the action happened beforehand: in Jesus’ sigh, in the complicity with the heaven towards which his gaze is turned.
The sigh could have been taken as a sign of annoyance. But rather, the presence of this word, like a small stone on which we stumble, reminds us that nothing is reported about Jesus’ moods and character. We know he was angry with the merchants in the temple, but we don’t know if he laughed or smiled. We don’t know how his muscles responded to the call of his body as he walked for days on end, surrounded by his disciples and followed by the crowd. Giorgio Agamben goes so far as to say that Pilate is the only character in the Gospels whose feelings we know. For Jesus, incarnation does not involve what he shows through his feelings and emotions. It is through his body that he already makes the link between the Father and all people, through the air which he breathes and the breath which he gives them.
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