“Talitha kumi”: sermon on the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

“Behold, a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years came behind and touched the fringe of his garment”

The miracle by which our Lord cures the woman who has suffered for twelve years from a flow of blood is mentioned in each of the first three gospels. The Church, on this Sunday, gives us St Matthew’s account of the event, but we can supplement it from St Mark and St Luke, both of whom tell the story in a slightly fuller way. From St Mark we learn that this woman had spent all that she possessed on doctors, who had been unable to cure her, since in fact she grew ever worse. St Luke was himself a physician, and perhaps out of a certain loyalty to his own profession, he does not mention this detail! However, like St Mark, he does mention a fact which seems at first sight quite strange; namely that after the miracle had already happened, our Lord asked who had touched Him, and looked about to find who it was whom He had healed.

What can we say of this woman? She appears to have been of a timid disposition. She does not dare to try to meet Jesus, but only to touch His cloak. Her timidity is also suggested by her attitude once the miracle has occurred. St Mark tells us, and it was doubtless an eye-witness account which he had received from St Peter, that when Christ asked, “Who touched me?”, the woman came forward “fearful and trembling”, and threw herself at His feet.

Yet though she may be timid, she also has faith, a simple and practical faith. She knew that it would be enough to touch His cloak. This woman, then, surely believes, at least implicitly, in Christ’s divinity. And her faith is rewarded with a miracle which manifests our Lord’s divinity in a strange and wonderful way. He cures her, as far as we can judge from the gospel, in a unique manner: without the intervention of His own human will. Christ’s divine will acts to cure her, that will which He has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit, but His human will does not appear to choose this miracle. Nor, of course, does His human will refuse the miracle. Our Lord, as far as we can judge from the gospel, appears to consent to the miracle by His human will after it has taken place. This miracle therefore manifests His divinity; and it is, incidentally, also a clear proof of a doctrine which it cost the Church much trouble to vindicate against powerful heretics in the seventh century, namely, the doctrine of the two wills of Jesus Christ.

The woman who was cured of her haemorrhage, who had been afraid to go to meet Christ in person, or to speak with Him face-to-face, was not afraid to display her gratitude for what He did for her. According to a very early tradition, this woman lived in the town of Caesarea Philippi, and she had a statue made in that town to represent her meeting with our Lord: the statue displayed her kneeling at His feet, and Jesus stretching His hand over her in blessing. The historian Eusebius, who was born around the year 270 and who was a bishop in Palestine, tells us in his book, Ecclesiastical history (book 7, chapter 18) that he himself saw the statue, and that the tradition of the townsfolk was that it was indeed this woman who had had it made. It was probably the earliest statue of Jesus Christ.

What, then, of the allegorical meaning of this miracle? It comes in the middle of another one, the raising of Jairus’s daughter. The ruler of the synagogue had besought Jesus to raise his daughter to life, but while Christ was still on the way, the woman with the haemorrhage interrupted His journey, so to speak, and got herself cured first while the girl who belonged to the synagogue still lay dead or sleeping some way off. Only then does Jesus resume His journey and raise up the girl, to her father’s great joy.

The Fathers of the Church see a mystery in all this. Christ, as St Paul says to the Romans, came into the world to be “the servant of the circumcision” (Rom 15:8); that is, of the Jews. He even told the disciples, before His passion, “Go not in the way of the pagans, nor to any city of the Samaritans.” He came to raise up the daughter of Israel, those who belonged to the synagogue, especially those among them who had given up their own law and were living in a state of mortal sin — dead as regards the life of the soul. Yet Christ’s work of healing the Jews was, humanly speaking, interrupted: the chief priests blocked it, crying out, “We have no king but Caesar”; and after the Resurrection, the high priest sent out official documents to the Jews outside Palestine, warning them to have nothing to do with the preaching of the gospel” (Acts 9:2). So, while the Jews as a whole remained unconverted, it was the Gentiles who met our Lord and were healed. They did not see His Face, since He had already ascended into heaven, just as the woman with the haemorrhage did not see His Face when she was healed. It was enough for them to touch the fringes of His cloak, that is, to encounter the preaching and sacraments of His Church. “You were washed,” St Paul tells the Corinthians, “you were sanctified, you were justified.”

Even the years match: the woman had been suffering from her infirmity, says St Matthew, for twelve years; St Mark tells us that the daughter of Jairus was also twelve years old. She had been born, therefore, at the very time when the woman started to lose her strength. And this corresponds to the mystery of the Jews and the Gentiles: St Augustine teaches that the vocation of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, came at the very time when the Gentiles began to turn to idols, through the worship of which the Gentiles became, over the centuries, continuously weaker and weaker in regard to good works, despite all the efforts of their learned men — their “doctors” — to put them right. 

But once the woman has been healed, our Saviour resumes His journey. He arrives at last at the synagogue, and though they laugh Him to scorn for saying that the dead one is only sleeping, He puts them outside, and speaks to the girl in her native language: Talitha kumi, “My child, I tell thee to arise.” And so it will be, the Church believes and hopes, toward the end of the world: the Jewish people will remain no longer asleep, lost in their own dreams as sleeping people are. The Lord will speak to them, and they will hear and awake, and begin to walk, and enter His Church; and thus, as St Paul says, “All Israel will be saved.”

Where are we now, in this journey of Christ? The gospel has been preached to all nations: at least, I do not think that there are any sovereign states in the world where it has not been heard. And there are many signs that the Jews are beginning to waken, even if only imperfectly. Many of them are recognising our Lord at least as the Messiah, even if they do not yet recognise Him as the Son of God. Every town in Israel today has its meeting-place for such “Messianic Jews”. And I think it is especially fitting to pray that this process may be hastened; that the Jewish people may come to believe, and the daughter of the synagogue become the spouse of Christ.