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5th Sunday after Trinity

21 June 2024

30 June, Proper 8: Wisdom 1.13-15, 2.23-24 (or Lamentation 3.23-33); Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8.7-end; Mark 5.21-end

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THIS pair of Gospel healings is remarkable. Jesus confronts ritual pollution caused by menstruation and by proximity to a corpse. A woman has been menstruating for 12 years. A girl is 12 years of age. The one has been an outcast for the whole of the other’s existence. Mark injects the woman’s story into the centre of the girl’s.

The woman causes more discomfort, to Evangelist and reader alike, than does the dead girl. Being explicit about what is wrong with her is sensitive, given the taboo subject — though, on the scale of human suffering, menorrhagia is more trivial than mortality. Touching a corpse would defile Jesus, a rabbi, and that would have been a serious matter. But for the woman to touch him was also serious. A fourth-century-AD rabbinic text witnesses to the belief that contact with menstruation could rob a wonder-worker of their power (think of the character Solitaire in the film Live and Let Die).

This taboo is not unique to New Testament Judaism. According to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, contact with menstrual flow could sour new wine, make crops fail and fruits fall from trees, and dull glass, metal, and polished ivory. Oh, and it could also kill hives of bees, drive dogs mad, and make their bite incurably poisonous.

If that bit of ancient history sounds as irrelevant as it is ridiculous, we should not forget that even today, in many Christian churches, women are told not to attend and certainly not to receive holy communion at their “time of the month”. Menstrual taboos run deep. I have heard them referenced as a reason for not admitting women to the priesthood.

Understanding such undercurrents of fear and disgust helps us to evaluate the woman’s dilemma. She is terrified of being exposed, and perhaps even attacked by the crowd. She does not question her ritual impurity, but is so desperate to be freed from it, and readmitted into society, that she first risks going out amid a “large crowd” (v.24), then, quailing at the presumption involved in skin-to-skin touch (either because of the pollution that she would transmit, or for fear of being discovered, or both), she settles for what she hopes will be an undetectable second best. She touches his clothing.

At that moment, two things happen, one physical and one spiritual. She stops bleeding. And — in a phrase that touches my heart — “she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.” With joy, we follow her from despair, through hope, into this exquisite moment of healing.

Anyone who is interested in the veneration of relics of the saints will know that the body of a saint stands in a separate, higher, category (class one) from property that they have owned and clothing which they have worn (class two), and finally objects touched to class one or class two relics (class three). That system of gradations of holiness has affinities with this story, in which touching the clothing of Jesus appears to be a less heinous offence than touching his body.

Jesus knows exactly what has happened (“Who touched my clothes?”, v.30). His disciples, on the other hand, are not listening to him properly: “how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” (v.31). Because her actions are rooted in her recognition of his holiness, the woman’s hope is fulfilled. She sought him, and followed him, risking her safety to do so, because she had faith that he could, would, help her. And she was right.

What collapses the difference between class-one and class-two holiness is her faith. She was right to intuit that the power of Jesus was neither magical nor mechanical (perform sequence A, get effect X: results which can be replicated under laboratory conditions). Power went out of him, in other words, because she reached out to him in a way that showed her faith, not because her fingers touched the correct substance (cloth or flesh) that would make the miracle happen.

Jesus does not parade her to the crowd as a way to vaunt himself and his power. He addresses her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Perhaps one part of the reason that she received his healing is that, desperate though she was, she chose the least entitled and most self-effacing way that she could think of to get his help.

The commentary published in the print edition was from 25 June 2021. We apologise for the error.

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