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The legend is told of a secret chamber located somewhere deep beneath Saint Mark’s: somewhere deeper than the tomb that holds the mortal remains of Fernanda Wanamaker, deeper than the tunnels the PATCO trains run through under Locust Street, deeper than the underground river that is said to flow beneath 16th street.  The entrance to the secret chamber is buried now, somewhere underneath the dirt floor of the eastern end of the Undercroft, directly beneath the choir stalls or the altar.  It is a chamber that has a sort of magical property: you could bring things there that were stuck or locked or jammed in such a way that they would no longer open, and you could say a simple, one-word prayer, and they’d be open-able.  A box that was locked and the key had been lost, a watch whose mechanism had gotten jammed, a jar that couldn’t be opened, a briefcase with a lock whose combination had been forgotten.  These are the sorts of things that were carried gently through the secret narrow passage, down the dark stairs, to the dimly lit chamber, that is said to be bare, with only a single candle to be lit inside it.  The Victorians had a lot more little locks on things than we do, they used little boxes to hold all kinds of things, and mechanical objects were more prone to failure and harder to replace than ours, so this was a useful secret chamber back in the day.  But even more remarkable things were said to happen in the chamber.

It is said that once a star choirboy, whose voice was damaged from an illness of some sort, so that he could barely speak, let alone sing, was escorted down past the columns of the Undercroft, led to the narrow entrance, given the single candle to light, told the prayer he had to recite, and sent down the long passage, deep below the church, and when he came back his voice was restored, and he was given a solo to sing the following Sunday.  It is also told that a priest of the parish, who was spurned by a woman he’d hoped to marry, went down to the secret passage to utter the prayer, but that strangely his broken heart was never mended.

Maybe it was with the construction of the Lady Chapel in 1900 that the entrance to the secret chamber was mistakenly covered over.  Maybe with the turn of the century, and with industrial advances, there were fewer things that needed to be unlocked, or the things that needed to be fixed were all too big to fit through the passageway and carried into the secret chamber.  Maybe the whole story was just made up, and there never was a secret chamber where you could bring the locked, the stuck, the broken, the failed, and have them unlocked, un-tuck, repaired or restored.  But even in our modern age, when watches don’t have any moving parts, when we tend not to lock things up in little boxes, etc, it’s nice to think that there could be a place where a child who has lost his voice could be sent, and he would return with a song on his lips.

I suppose that in this city of study and science, surrounded as we are by medical schools, it became a matter of ridiculous superstition to carry a broken music box (for instance) into a secret chamber and recite a special prayer by the light of a single candle, let alone to send a sick or injured child into such a place and hope for some mysterious healing, some other-worldly repair.  Better to send your sick children to Penn or to Jefferson, or eventually to CHOP.  So, if the entrance to the secret chamber was covered up, it seemed to be no great loss, I suppose, by the turn of the century.  The name of the broken-hearted priest had been forgotten already.  And the choirboy whose voice was restored had grown up and moved away, his identity lost in the shadows of memory.

It is said, however, that the chamber is still there, somewhere deep beneath us, and that a single candlestick stands inside it, waiting to hold its single candle, whose flame will flicker when the prayer – which has never been a secret – is uttered, should anyone ever find the lost entrance and venture down into the secret chamber.  The prayer, as I said, is simple, and never was a secret, which is counter-intuitive, because it’s the sort of incantation that you’d think would be the most tightly guarded secret of the chamber.  But it is taken from the lines of the portion of Saint Mark’s Gospel we heard this morning, and the church has known it, pronounced it openly all around the world for centuries.  It is the oddly lovely word that Jesus spoke after he put his fingers into a deaf man’s ears, and touched his tongue, since his speech was deeply imperfect. 

You remember that Saint Mark tells us first Jesus looked up to heaven and sighed.  These details are not incidental; they reveal the work of a triune God as the Son looks up to God the Father, and animates the Spirit with his breath.  And then he speaks the ancient Aramaic word: Ephphatha.

It’s not surprising, really, that as the world readied itself for a new century – that would turn out to be a bloody, warring century of enormous change and upheaval – that the thought of a secret chamber where little things could be fixed or unlocked or opened seemed foolishly fanciful.  But I wonder if something more was lost when the entrance to the secret chamber beneath Saint Mark’s was covered up and lost.  I wonder if, as the world entered the 20th century, it wasn’t just the secret chamber that was lost, but also the kind of faith that believed you could utter a simple prayer and it would be answered unambiguously. 

I suspect the priest with the broken heart was the first person to lose that faith – at least the first one whose story we can tell.  I suspect it seemed absurd to him as he carried his candle down the passageway and placed it in its candlestick, and he stood there in a small, damp chamber, and pronounced the funny word, “Ephphatha.”  I suspect he sighed, but that his sigh was different from the sigh that Jesus sighed when he first uttered that word.  I suspect the broken-hearted priest’s sigh was a sigh of resignation, hopelessness, and despair.  Jesus used his sigh as a pre-amble to the prayer.  But the sigh of the broken-hearted priest contained the answer to his own prayer – nothing.

By the time the entrance to the secret chamber was lost, many people throughout the whole church had learned to thus mis-translate the sigh, and had stopped uttering the prayer altogether.  And so the 20th century became a century during which the church so often sighed her own self-fulfilling sighs, and nothing happened.

Very, very seldom these days, I come across something small that I would like to have fixed or unlocked or opened, and that I suspect I could have carried through the entrance to the passageway to the secret chamber beneath Saint Mark’s.  And I sometimes sigh to think that the entrance to the passageway is lost forever, and maybe the story never was true anyway.

But much more often I stand at the altar, or I sit in my place during Morning or Evening Prayer and I think about all the big things that are broken or locked or stuck shut.  I think about a child’s illness, or a parishioner’s surgery, or the person who is almost surely going to lose his job and will have a hard time finding another.  I think about my friends who have gone to war, I think about the kids at Saint James School and the violence that is a part of their lives in a neighborhood with the highest murder rate in the city.  I think about the people we feed at the soup kitchen every Saturday, and about the people I walk by on the street every day who are in need, but have no wherewithal to find ways to have their needs met.  I think about the folks we worked with in Honduras, who live with so little, and about families of children being treated at CHOP who sometimes find their way here just to light a single candle as a prayer.  I think about the people I know who are getting older and whose lives are diminishing as their hearts and their minds deteriorate.  And I think about the funerals I have done for souls too young to be resting yet in peace, if you ask me.  I think about all these things in my prayers, and more, and it seems to me that there is so much in the world that is broken or locked or stuck shut.  There is so much that needs fixing, so much that has been silenced, so much that has been repressed, so many voices that need to be found again, and so many hearts that have been broken.

And I wonder why the secret chamber is necessary anymore.  I wonder if there ever really was a secret to that chamber, since the prayer itself never was a secret, and since almost nothing is easier than sighing, and if you mis-translate a sigh, you can always just try it again.  I wonder if it matters that the secret chamber is now lost to us, and if maybe, the reason its entrance was covered up was because the work of fixing, unlocking, opening, had outgrown the confines of its little passageway.

I wonder if it isn’t the case that the work God once supposedly did in the bowels of a dark and secret chamber is now meant to be practiced out in the open, right here, where anyone who cares to can come, where candles flicker in every corner, and all you need to do is learn to say the ancient prayer; “Ephphatha.”

I wonder if what was lost wasn’t so much the secret chamber, as the recognition of how stopped-up we have become: how hard it is for us to hear in this noisy world, and how difficult it is to say anything meaningful or intelligible, how closed-off we are from our neighbors, how unavailable to those who we should be loving, how tiny and self-centered our lives have become.

And I find no reason to regret the loss of the secret chamber, or to start digging to see if I can find again its entrance.  Instead, I find the prayer on my lips, and the desire and need to practice saying it, “Ephphatah.”  Be opened.

And I realize that it’s not the secret chamber that has gone missing, it’s the faith that Jesus can unlock the things that need to be unlocked, that Jesus can open that which has been stopped up, that Jesus can give voice to words that have been stuck in our throats, that Jesus can help us hear things we were never able to hear before, that Jesus can fix the things that are broken in our lives, that Jesus can bring healing to the thousand hurts of our lives.

I want to learn to sigh.  I want to learn to sigh the way Jesus did – not out of boredom or frustration, but with the knowledge and confidence that every breath we take carries the strength and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I want to look in a mirror and practice saying the word to the person I know who needs it most, “Ephphatha.”  Be opened.  I want to know how it feels, up here, out in the open – not in some dark, secret chamber – to say with confidence and faith, “Be opened!  Ephphatha!”

Because I want you to learn how to say it too.  I want you to sigh with me – to sigh with Jesus – and to feel the stirring of the Holy Spirit with his breath.  I want you to say the prayer for yourselves and for the world – for everything that is tightly shut, closed off, repressed, buried, and left for dead or ruined or broken: Ephphatha!  Be opened!  Because the power of Jesus to heal, the power of Jesus to unlock, the power of Jesus to open that which is now closed has not been lost, it is not buried in a lost chamber, or in the mists of ages past.

You only need to learn his prayer, and to believe, and to be patient, for he does not always work so fast as he did all those years ago when he could just stick his fingers in your ears, and touch your tongue.  Nowadays, for reasons unknown, he is so often slower to do the work that once he would do in an instant.  But he looks down from heaven when we look up.  And still he sighs, when you and I sigh.  And still he prays, when you and I pray, “Ephphatha.  Be opened!”  And still he opens all that was closed in us before, and promises that there is still more that will be opened to us, here in this world, and in the world to come.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

9 September 2012

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 9, 2012 .