In February 2019, my wife and I had the great blessing of joining an eight-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We visited many sites of the Gospel stories that shape our faith. To experience that deeply took some focus and imagination through bus rides, crowds, distractions, and other adaptations, but there were moments that really left a mark and have been touchstones in my faith life.
One of those moments came when we traveled to Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s an active archeological site that’s uncovering places of Jesus’ time, and there’s a very striking new church that houses six chapels. Our group’s Mass was assigned to the downstairs chapel. When we entered, the above photo is what we saw.
It took a few seconds to recognize the scene: when the woman who had been hemorrhaging for years reaches out from the crowd and touches the cloak of Jesus. We’re down on the rough stone pavement, and we see no faces, only scarred, sandaled feet crowded together. That glow in the middle of the painting is the supernatural moment of a true encounter with Christ. This is literally down and dirty faith in action: what we can find if we know Jesus us present and reach out, even reach down. It’s maybe not a great piece of art, but for many of us it is unforgettable!
As the Lector workbook notes, this is a Gospel where the story of this woman cured of hemorrhaging is “sandwiched” within the “resurrection” of the daughter of Jairus. There are two miracles here, with lots going on; similarities and contrasts that help us understand Jesus and our relationship with him.
These two people who reach out to Jesus for healing are very different: Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, in Jewish culture a righteous man who would never think of begging. Yet the tragedy of his beloved daughter’s immanent death brings him to his knees, desperate, before Jesus. The people with Jairus press around him impatiently. Jesus says, “Why this commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep.” How does his entourage respond? “And they ridiculed him.” At that point, who could blame Jesus if he just turned around and walked out? But his heart is not hardened; he calmly puts the crowd out, enters the room, takes the child’s hand, and utters that Aramaic phrases that stands out so much: “Talitha koum.” And the dead child awakes and starts walking. Jesus ends the miraculous healing saying simply “don’t tell anyone – but be sure to give her something to eat.” And with that, he and his disciples are on their way.
On the other hand, the woman with hemorrhages is the definition of “unclean” in Jewish culture. It sounds like she had been exploited by the doctors, and had nowhere to turn. But she saw in Jesus a new beginning, and worked her way through the crowd towards him with faith and humility. She touches the hem of his cloak, and immediately she is cured. When Jesus then turns and says “Who has touched my clothes?”, that’s a daunting moment for her. But this woman overcomes her fear, steps forward, and “tells him the whole truth.” With that, Jesus gives her the beautiful benediction, “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”
There are so many issues that this Gospel brings up. I want to touch on a couple of questions in my mind, that the other readings address:
Equality: Jesus performs miracles on two people here in a matter of minutes. The woman and Jairus would likely never encounter each other. One is at the top of society, one is at the bottom. Jesus answers the plea of the poor woman, as we’d expect, but also of the rich man whose entourage, at least, does not treat Jesus well. As I ponder this equality, the second reading, which may seem kind of out of place, provides some context. St. Paul talks about Jesus’ gracious act, so that by his poverty you might become rich. All are provided for in the kingdom of God.
Death: The life of Jairus’ daughter is saved, and the woman’s life is transformed. We don’t know what happened to them afterwards – but we can safely presume that neither of them are still walking this earth. Physical death remains one reality of life, even as we ponder and celebrate these miracles. The first reading from the Book of Wisdom confronts life and death: it ends in a dark statement on the nature of death: those who belong to devil experience it. But at the same time, the writer takes a very positive view of God’s creation. Of course this writer did not receive the Good News that God sent his son to proclaim! I think that the point here is that our God is the God of life. God gives us life, and wants us to live and remain alive in his love.
In our own lives, our prayers that people we know and love may live, sometimes are answered directly and perhaps miraculously – But death eventually comes for all of us. In my family, we encountered this reality in a sudden and shocking way when daughter-in-law Sara died. Our fervent prayers could not bring her back physically, but I believe that our prayers are helping her soul, and helping our son Mark, her parents Mike and Berta, and those close to her, live in a way that keeps her with us, honors her memory, makes us live our lives a little better, and brings us all closer to God.
Pope Francis, in a homily on these readings, points to themes of faith and new life that sums up what I’m trying to say much better than I certainly could. He says the “death to fear is that of the heart hardened by evil. Yes, we should be afraid of that one!… But sin, the mummified heart, is never the last word with Jesus, because he has brought us the infinite mercy of the Father.”
-Where in your life has a great need led to a deep encounter with Jesus?
-How do we reconcile miracles with realities like death?
P.S: Here is a song I found on an anthology of Specialty Records, the legendary rhythm-and-blues label of the Fifties. Along with the first recordings of Little Richard and many others, Specialty released some remarkable gospel music. This is from the Soul Stirrers, led by no less than a young Sam Cooke: see here.