04 February 2014

'Give her something to eat'. Jesus, the Church, serving the sick

Friedrich Overbeck, 1825 [Web Gallery of Art]

Today's gospel, Mark 5:21-43, weaves two different healing stories into one, that of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and that of the daughter of Jairus, aged twelve, who had just died.

In the scene below, taken from Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, the director focuses only on the story of the little girl. I don't know if the servant of Jairus, whom the latter addresses as 'Thomas' is meant in Zeffirelli's mind to be the future Apostle already showing the honest directness of the saint often referred to as 'Doubting Thomas', the saint who was to make the most explicit act of faith in the whole Bible, My Lord and my God.

In this scene Jesus immediately leaves what he was doing in order to respond to an emergency. Much of our life is like that.

Zeffirelli retains words of Jesus that we find in the version of St Mark of this incident and in that of St Luke (8:40-46) but not in that of St Matthew (9:18-26): Give her something to eat. There is something wonderfully human about these words. Zeffirelli has Jesus carry the little girl out to her parents and relatives. She would have been very weak after the illness that had led to her death. In my own imagination I can see Jesus standing back and smiling, gently reminding Jairus and his wife in their grateful joy that their daughter was hungry.

Healing the sick was central to the way Jesus proclaimed the Gospel, 'The Good News'. It has always been central to the way the Church proclaims that same Gospel. Many of us are familiar with the name 'Gemelli Policlinico' in Rome. This teaching hospital of 1,850 beds, attached to the medical school of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, is named after the founder of the University, Fr Agostino Gemelli OFM, priest, friar, physician, psychologist. Study, science and teaching are also at the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel by the Church.

On the Solemnity of the Epiphany last year Pope Benedict visited the children in the paediatric section of the Gemelli Clinic. The children and staff there, especially the little girl to whom he gave a teddy bear, don't seem to have noticed that he was 'dour', as I saw him described the other day, or that he was really a 'Rottweiler', as he has often been called.

Mark 5:21-43 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’  So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?”’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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