Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill, RSM, Ph.D.
Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24; II Cor 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5:21-43
In the wake of the massacre at the Amish school house in 2006, Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote an important column in which he made the following observation. If someone had gone into a school house and isolated all the black children, there would have been an outcry. If only Jewish children had been chosen, it would have been a cause célèbre as well. In this instance, it was girls who were singled out for attack, and the nation took no notice. Herbert himself speculated that the lack of response was because violence against women has become so commonplace around the world and even in the United States.
One of the remarkable things about today's gospel reading is that, in a time and place where women and children literally do not count — that is, are not included in tabulation — Jesus extends himself for a little girl and for an older woman, neither of whom is known to him personally. He does this after crisscrossing the Sea of Galilee, perhaps in search of some peace and rest.
The first appeal for help comes from a father, Jairus, whose 12-year-old daughter lies near death. We are told that the father is a leader of the synagogue, which should tip us off to his desperation. In the world of Jesus, prominent men do not beg an itinerate preacher for help. This man is clearly a father first, however; he does not hesitate to seek help where he thinks he can find it. Without in any way making Jairus feel beholden to him, Jesus sets out to see the young girl. A crowd follows, pressing on him from every side.
The mission to visit the young girl is interrupted by the daring act of another person desperate for help: a woman plagued with bleeding for twelve years. Mark tells us that she has been to doctor after doctor and is out of money. Her only resource now is faith. She believes that if she can just touch a tassel worn by Jesus, she will be cured. And so it is. Simultaneously, the woman's body is healed and Jesus senses that power has gone out from him.
If things had been left like that, no one need have known that the suffering woman had taken the initiative, boldly reaching out to this man in quest of help. Jesus' demand to know who touched him challenges her to claim her deed and take responsibility for her healing. Not knowing how the healer will react, she comes forward, falls down before him and tells him the whole truth. There is no hint of chastisement in the response of Jesus. He calls her "daughter," thus welcoming her back into the community from which she has been long excluded by her illness. He commends her faith and bids her go in peace while assuring her that her healing is real.
As Mark takes up the story of the daughter of Jairus, we learn that her condition has worsened and those around her believe the young girl to be dead. Undeterred, Jesus presses on, encouraging the father to have faith. Finding the house filled with mourners, Jesus assures them that the girl is asleep, not dead. This earns him the mockery of those in attendance. Banishing them to the outside, Jesus takes the parents and the three men he had brought with him in to see the young girl. When Jesus takes her hand and calls to her, telling her to get up, the twelve year old arises and walks around — to the amazement of all. Then, as will be true in the stories of his own resurrection, he requests that she be given something to eat.
There are marvelous interconnections in these two stories. A prominent father and a woman marginalized by illness find commonality in their desperation and in their willingness to believe that the situation can change. The life span of the young girl matches the number of years the older woman has suffered her strange malady: 12 years (a number that possibly symbolizes the restoration of Israel). As the suffering woman cares not what people think as she struggles to connect with healing power, Jesus disregards the scorn of the crowd in order to bring a cherished daughter back to life. Both females are now "daughters." Each is once more included in the circle of the living and able to enter into the activities of their respective communities. The healings have physical, social and spiritual ramifications.
This gospel is indeed good news for health care providers. In general, the text is a reminder to those who care for the sick that healing is a dimension of that salvation brought by the Christ and continued in his Church. Coupled with the reading from Wisdom, and its assurance that God did not make death and takes no pleasure in the destruction of the living, these two miracle stories can increase in the Christian community a determination to fight sickness and death in all its forms. They might, in addition, increase our prayers for those whose research and practice are transforming diseases once considered lethal into chronic conditions that can be managed as one continues to live a productive life.
There are a few specific lessons to be gleaned as well. In the first instance, the despair of families or of patients, which often makes them seem demanding and unreasonable, can be recognized as an important resource, when seen through the lens of these stories. Beneath extreme worry there often lies a well of faith that something can indeed be accomplished. If the care giver can tap into that faith, it is sometimes possible for families, patients and providers to draw on each other's strengths, with amazing results.
A second insight follows. It is particularly important, when ministering to a woman who has suffered from an undiagnosed illness, that one not add to the suffering by blaming the patient. Too often the frustration of providers leads them to label suffering women as "hysterics," or "hypochondriacs." In this form of violence, familiar to all too many women, a soul wound is added to the physical suffering and the patient's sense of self is diminished. Note how Jesus interacts with the woman whom no one had been able to help for 12 years. He calls on her to claim her part in the healing, acknowledges the power of her faith, and restores her to community by naming her "daughter." If she had been put down before, there is none of that here. Jesus' way of communicating is deeply respectful of her person.
What was true for the young girl and for the woman with the hemorrhage is equally true of the sick and suffering today: illness and healing have physical, social and spiritual dimensions. Catholic health care at its best recognizes and responds to all of those dimensions, calling upon the power of the Spirit of Christ, the dedication of those who serve and the faith of those who come seeking help. When the mission is carried out in this way, all can join with the psalmist saying, "With my whole being I sing endless praise to you. O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks."
Bob Herbert, "Why Aren't We Shocked?" New York Times (October 16, 2006).