We continue to pray with Chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel…
We left last week’s lectio divina with a plethora of questions to ask ourselves and upon which to reflect – they may still be resonating with us, and so we should continue to allow them to resonate, as we look now at the woman who is very much at the centre of this passage.
Recapping, we remind ourselves that Mark has woven the story of Jairus’s daughter around this other episode. There is an unmistakable backdrop of “compare and contrast” offered to us here, but we must also treat each figure and event as a single and complete event in itself.
Can we imagine this woman’s pain? Not unless we ourselves have suffered something similar. There are a number of different levels to consider here and apply to ourselves or others whom we know. The first is the measure of physical pain which this woman has had to endure for twelve years. Not simply from the haemorrhage itself, but also, as Mark tells us, from the painful treatment which she had to elicit from doctors. So, she has sought, again and again, a cure for her condition, and, again and again, been unsuccessful and, in fact, seen and felt her condition worsen. One can imagine that failure after failure would have condemned the strongest of us to hopelessness. Where would she turn next? All avenues, at this stage, must have seemed closed.
We consider for a moment the pain of having to submit to others in a bid to be cured. These doctors of whom the gospel speaks will, of course, have been men, and with regard to medical expertise and treatment it will have been basic, if not backward, and probably, if anything were attempted, botched. So, on top of the pain of her physical suffering, this woman has had to undergo the undoubted pain of physical examination by men, with all the humiliation that that will have brought. She has been twice degraded – by her illness and by its treatment.
Her destitution isn’t merely physical and emotional and psychological, it’s also, in practical terms, financial and material – she has spent all she had seeking a cure – no health service or medical insurance here. And probably in her desperation she will have paid whatever was asked of her in a bid to lessen her suffering even to a little extent, or because she had received a recommendation about some quack, or simply that all her pain had become too much and this last doctor was a last resort. So, this woman has had everything taken away from her by this all-consuming illness, which has become her life.
This woman has almost become her illness – there is little else left of her except the bleeding and it is becoming worse. It is the most prevalent part of her life. We might say that, quite literally, her life blood is running away.
But she hasn’t quite lost everything. The extraordinary statement that she makes to herself, and its full meaning, revealed by Christ after the healing has taken place, should humble us. She clings to one hope, made flesh in this Jesus about whom she has heard. And nothing else, in fact! She has only heard about him:
“How then are they to call on him if they have not come to believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard of him? And how will they hear of him unless there is a preacher for them? And how will there be preachers if they are not sent?… But it is in this way faith comes, from hearing, and that means hearing the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14-17)
St Paul’s bold statement to the Romans holds good in this case and for us: faith comes from what is heard! This woman had heard about Jesus – we can only guess, on the evidence of all that we have encountered so far in Mark’s Gospel, what she had heard and the impact which it had made upon her. People have been astonished, amazed, perplexed, delighted, fascinated, by all that Jesus, so far, has done and said. When people spoke about Jesus it must have made a deep, lasting, transformative impression upon her. What she has heard has convinced her to do something which she might never have imagined was possible, in order to obtain something which was beyond her wildest dreams – a cure? This is what has drawn her to seek him out.
Really, this merits a long reflection by itself. Faith comes from what is heard. Essentially, this is what this entire passage, the whole Gospel, the vast Christian experience is about – faith comes from what is heard. The Youcat (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church) has this to say about faith:
Faith is knowledge and trust. It has seven characteristics:
- Faith is a sheer gift of God, which we receive when we fervently ask for it.
- Faith is the supernatural power that is absolutely necessary if we are to attain salvation
- Faith requires the free will and clear understanding of a person when he accepts the divine invitation
- Faith is absolutely certain, because Jesus guarantees it
- Faith is incomplete unless it leads to active love
- Faith grows when we listen more and more carefully to God’s Word and enter a lively exchange with him in prayer
- Faith gives us even now a foretaste of the joy of heaven (YouCat 21)
Complementing this, Saint John Henry Newman could say:
“Faith by its very nature is the acceptance of a truth that our reason cannot attain; simply and unconditionally on the basis of testimony”.St John Henry Newman
To say that the application of the seven characteristics cited above to our own experience of faith in our lives could serve as our lectio meditation and basis for prayer for the week ahead would be an understatement – this is a life-reflection, not the work of a week! However, it may be fair to say that we have rarely, if ever, put our faith – not its contents, not the teachings, not the propositions and articles of the Creed – but simply our act of believing, knowing and trusting – under the stoplight. So, to do this – not as a proof of the existence of our faith but simply as affirmation, and thanksgiving – is a profound and challenging personal work. And it always begins at the beginning – where did my faith come from; when was the spark lit; how did it begin to acquire maturity, so that it became mine and not simply what someone else had passed to me?
And this brings us into the wonderful confrontation with Newman’s thought: faith goes beyond what reason cannot explain, and finds its basis, its justification, in testimony. What another believes and holds true has an undeniable impact on us when we are searching ourselves – hence immediately the affirmation of that first characteristic – when we fervently ask for it the grace is given us. We can be convinced by the purity and transparency of the belief which is witnessed in another’s life. But in this we exercise the greatest care – the witness of faith in another one’s life should lead to Christ, not to the person who is witness: there are no gurus in Christianity, only Christ the one teacher!
So, reflecting on this moment, it’s fair to say that this woman has a faith already formed and vibrant as the context in which Jesus will bring his kingdom-work – since that is what a miracle is, an act which reveals the fullness of the kingdom in all its transcendent and yet immanent reality, as God intervenes definitively in our history, both shared and personal – to completion in her and for her. Recall also, for a moment, Jesus’ disappointment when he could work few miracles because of a lack of faith (Matthew 13:58, and for us here, almost immediately, Mark 6:5-6 ) – there is simply no context in which the works will be received and recognised.
The instantaneous nature of the healing, and Jesus’ immediate reaction, is important – there is no delay for the one who believes, and neither does God delay. We might recall that the Fathers remind us that it was through faith that Mary conceived what was in her, in other words, the Word in her womb. This powerful realisation – that all is possible to those who believe – should not at all surprise us. The central tenet in John’s Gospel is precisely the belief of those who truly enter into discipleship – it is the road to eternal life, indeed, it is already a participation in the life of the Father and the Son and the Spirit (John 1:12; 3:36; 6:40; 12:44; and the extraordinary statement of Christ at 14:12; 20:30-31).
To touch Jesus and be touched by him: there is an intimacy here which is hard for us to grasp – God allows himself to become so much a part of our lived reality that he is actually with us and apparent to our senses. He allows himself to be the object of our perception. At least, for those who were with him then – now, our perception, which is graced, a matter supremely of faith, is always at the level of our faith sense, our deep spiritual sense. And even then it is mediated in some way. Unmediated experience of God is the heart of an infused contemplation and this always remains God’s gift, as Merton lets us know:
“Mystical contemplation is an intuition of God born of pure love. It is a gift of God that absolutely transcends all the natural capacities of the soul and which no one can acquire by any effort of his own. But God gives it to the soul in proportion as it is cleaned and emptied of all affections for things outside of Himself. In other words, it is God manifesting Himself, according to the promise of Christ, to those who love Him. Yet the love with which they love Him is also His gift; we only love Him because He has first loved us. We seek Him because He has already found us.
“Contemplation is the light of God playing directly upon the soul. But every soul is weakened and blinded by the attachment to created things which it tends to love inordinately by reason of original sin. Consequently, the light of God affects the soul the way the light of the sun affects a diseased eye. It causes pain. God’s love is too pure”Thomas Merton OSCO
This woman, however, has lived with a pain which has almost consumed her – but it is God’s healing love and power which eventually consumes her, because there is now nothing else that she wants, nothing else that she sees, nothing else that holds any value for her whatsoever.
The restoration that Jesus gives is complete. It doesn’t matter that it happens almost hidden – it is not in God’s nature to withhold that which makes whole – when the circumstances have been perfected then God is utterly himself in that moment – he cannot, in any case, be other than he is. But we are often other than we should be – so Merton’s image of the diseased eye which is not yet ready to receive light and become the illumination of the soul.
Now Mark allows himself to begin to tie up a few threads for us – in effect, they can only be seen when we have read the whole story as presented to us and then reflect on the interplay of the various parts. Christ affectionately refers to the woman as “daughter” – he is not patronising her at all, but rather welcoming her as a “daughter of Israel”, one who has her place in the midst of the Chosen People. This is a necessary affirmation of her being set back in the place where she belongs – Jesus heals and gives back identity. This woman no longer must hide herself, keep herself apart, seek hoped-for purification but be always denied the chance to confirm it – all that is over for her. But also, another daughter is waiting to be cured – Jairus’ daughter. Spiritual and physical are contrasted. How deep has been this woman’s desire to belong again!
And she has been suffering from this complaint for twelve years. The age of Jairus’ daughter – twelve years old (verse 42)! In a sense, life stopped for this woman twelve years before when the haemorrhaging began to be her daily experience, crippling her physically, socially, psychologically. And now, twelve years after it began, Jesus restores her to life – and it’s not an exaggeration to say this – life had been taken away from her by her complaint and the humiliation it had brought upon her. So with Jairus’ daughter – at twelve she is leaving behind childhood, even physically, and now Jesus, by restoring her physically to life, sends her into life, changed.
But these reflections are really for next week when we end the passage. For the moment we can leave the woman, healed and restored, her belief and faith contrasting sharply with the refusal to believe (and that’s what it is – “how can you ask – Who touched me?”) of the crowd and his disciples. What will be this woman’s overriding emotion? Joy, surely. Praise, for what God has done in her. A sense of re-birth (she has been born again, really, justified by faith we might say, to use Paul’s language in his Letter to the Romans). And what will she do? “Faith comes from what is heard”. Undoubtedly, she will go away and report all the things that God has done for her – why wouldn’t she?
So, the end of our lectio this week is to ask precisely those questions – where does my faith come from, and to whom have I passed it? Do I see in my life the things that God has done for me, and continues to do for me – how do I respond to those and share them with others? Or are there things now which have been crippling me for years, perhaps, which I need God’s grace to address – my very life might be slipping away and this is the moment to claim it back?
How have I shared faith? Have others come to faith by hearing me?
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-