13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 2 Sam.1:1,17-27; 2 Cor.8:7-15; Mark 5: 21-43;
On Saturday morning I spent over half an hour following President Obama’s eulogy to the Rev Clementa Pinckney and the 8 parishioners killed with him in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston South Carolina. Running through the eulogy was a constant reference to the grace of God, ‘Amazing Grace’, that grace is the gift that prevails (love over hate, life over death) if we but have the eyes to recognise it.
Now, holding that thought in the back of our mind, look at the gospel we have just heard. There is a something rather strange about it. It has a big crowd scene, all these people milling about Jesus – a background Mark barely describes but we need to have a keen sense of – in the midst of which something extraordinary happens: Jairus, a leader of the synagogue falls prostrate before Jesus and begs him to come and heal his little girl who is dying. This twelve-year old life, this other self, this pathway into the future is being taken from him. This is a big and very public scene and very dramatic! As readers we are immediately engaged so when Jesus accepts the request and goes with Jairus on this mission of mercy we go as well. We want to know what will happen. Will he get there in time? Surely there is no time to waste. Imaginatively the speed and tension picks up. (If this were an episode in a TV programme it would now end and we’d have to wait a whole week for the next instalment.)
But why should we have to wait: after all this is not a story made for TV and yet nevertheless Mark has abruptly stopped this story in its tracks and started another one!
Suddenly everything has changed. It is as if we have been transposed to another time zone, and to another place. Suddenly we have been taken into the personal story of a woman whose medical condition has cut her off from her society and from the opportunity to conceive and bear children. You could say she has been cut off from life. The full attention of this gospel narrative is now upon her inner life and the commotion and pressure of the crowd slips from our attention as we enter her silent, lonely, desperate world at the very moment that she reaches out for life.
That moment seems so tenuous in its scope. Within her she carries this history of disappointment and medical failure; a history of seclusion and abandonment and now, being jostled about in this surging crowd there is only this inner forlorn hope that something may yet happen, just a touch of his clothes and she might “be made well and live.”
The extraordinary thing happens: amidst all the chaos and confusion of other lives and diverse needs swirling about in the press of the crowd like so many chaotic atoms in the universe, the two selves connect – this unknown woman who knows she is now healed; and Jesus who knows that his power has been drawn upon. In this moment of grace the story expands and personal and public worlds merge: the woman’s story is told in the midst of the crowd and she is restored as much to her society as she is in her body: where life was lost, life has been restored.
But in the moment that we celebrate this triumph of grace, disaster strikes as we are now abruptly returned to the story of Jairus’ daughter. We are told that she has died; that she is beyond any hope that she may be “made well and live”; - so “why trouble the teacher any further?”
This is what we never want to hear. The announcement of death ends our hopes, it prematurely terminates the story of what a young life might have been and leaves us to despair and weep. We can guess at Jairus’ feelings at this moment, we can imagine the black pit of grief and hopelessness that rushes up to swallow him.
A voice cuts across that moment, “Do not fear, only believe”: the same voice that we heard in the readings last week when the disciples were overwhelmed by that storm on the lake.
Under the circumstances that seems an impossible command but the story shows us parallel worlds: on the one hand, the world of the crowd, the commotion of the mourners outside Jairus’ house, the mockery of those who know death when they see it and who laugh when told the child is asleep; on the other hand, the inner world of Jairus, numb with shock and grief but stumbling in hope and love home to his dead child.
There is a world to contemplate in what happens next – but in that quiet room the dead’s child’s hand is taken and she is commanded to get up. A living child is returned to her parents: where life was lost, life has been restored. How this may be is not explained and silence is commanded.
Perhaps by this point we see that we have not really had two stories but one. The woman with the twelve year history of bleeding has been restored to her community and to the possibility of child bearing. The dead twelve year old child has been restored to life and to all that the future may hold for her. In each case, both the private world of the adult and the more public event of the child’s illness and death, we see the effect of the encounter with the one who is the Lord, the source of life.
This is ‘Amazing Grace’: in the gospel we catch a glimpse of the power at work among us; and that grace continues to reverberate, as in Charleston South Carolina yesterday.