Touching God

This week’s blog explores briefly the theme of touch, which is one of the key elements which links together the two sections of the lectionary Gospel reading, Mark 5.21-43

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Painting by Elena Cherkasova

I think that the picture by the Russian artist Elena Cherkasova which I have used at the head of this week’s lectionary blog is fascinating and moving. (You can see more examples of her work  at Helena Cherkasova – Godot (godotartgallery.com) I am particularly struck by the way her picture rightly links together the two stories that together make up the lectionary Gospel – the account of Jesus’ healing of a woman with a vaginal haemorrhage, and the restoration to life of Jairus’ daughter. Mark clearly intends us to interpret both episodes together. He has hinted at this by his use of the technique that appears at several ley moments in his story – when one episode appears enfolded within another.  In this case the healing of the woman is enfolded within an account which relates to Jairus and his daughter.

As soon as Jesus has returned in a boat to Galilee from the other (Gentile) side of the lake he is accosted by a crowd which includes Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, who fervently beseeches him to come and heal his daughter who is very ill. It is then when he is on the way to Jesus’ house that the woman with the haemorrhage dares to approach him, and touch his cloak which results in her healing. It is hinted – but not explicitly spelled out – that this in turn delays Jesus, so that by the time he reaches Jairus’ house his daughter has apparently already died. Nonetheless Jesus enters the house, and raises Jairus’ daughter, with the words he uses one of the very few instances that Aramaic (‘Talitha cum’) appears in the actual biblical text.

As we read the two parts of the story together we are clearly intended to see both similarities and contrasts. Both of the sufferers are female; the number twelve is significant in both accounts; a gesture of touch is the means of healing; there is in each case an explicit link made between the healing and faith; the word ‘daughter’ appears in relation to each within the story. Conversely one of the sufferers seems to be old and the other is young; the woman is outside in the crowd, the girl secluded in her home; one is poor, the other privileged; one is assertive, the other passive; the one touches Jesus, the other is touched by him.

I find the thread of ‘touch’ which appears central to both parts of the story very powerful. Indeed it is clear that ‘touch’ was an important aspect of the ministry of Jesus. ‘Touch’ was particularly significant in that context, as it crossed the boundaries that the honour/shame; holy/unclean; culture imposed upon people and which Jesus’ ministry seems to have challenged. One of the things that can make me get very irritated – both as a student of the Bible and as a woman – is the ‘misinterpretation’ of the text of John 20.17. Jesus’ words here clearly mean, ‘Do not hold on to me’ – implying that Mary had indeed already touched him. Often in Christian history and art they have been wrongly translated as ‘Don’t touch me!’. I particularly dislike the representation by Alexander Ivanov (reproduced below) – which somehow shouts at me a vision of Jesus saying, ‘Keep this woman away from me!’.

‘Noli te tangere’, Alexander Ivanov

The deeply thoughtful leading hospital chaplain Norman Autton wrote, ‘God sent his Son that we may touch God and that God may touch us. In all the miracles of Christ we see the link between touch and the Word. He touches the eyes of the blind man, and he touches the leper, and says that they are clean. It is touch and the Word: the body and the Word – the realisation of a new form of touch. When we touch people, particularly those who are sick or handicapped, we want that touch to be a touch that is life-giving: a touch that gives security and peace. When we are consciously touching people or holding people in order to give them security, in order that they might discover that they are loved, that touch, as the Word, can become – and does become – an instrument of grace.’ (Norman Autton: ‘Touch: An Exploration’).

Autton goes on to explore the important role touch played in his own hospital ministry.

Do you know the Iona (Wild Goose) Song, ‘A Touching Place’? I find both its words and melody very beautiful? You can watch a sung recording at Joanne Hogg & David Fitzgerald: A Touching Place – BBC Songs Of Praise/Northumberland – YouTube

The first verse goes:

Christ’s is the world in which we move;
Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;
Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,
and Christ is the one who meets us here.

And the repeated chorus is:

To the lost Christ shows his face,
to the unloved he gives his embrace,
to those who cry in pain or disgrace
Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.

I think I first listened to it in 1991 via a tape as I was in hospital for several weeks before my son was born. I listened to it many times and I think it helped to keep me (more or less) sane during those difficult days. We sang it at my son’s baptism a few months later.

However it was only a few years later in the mid-1990s when I was working for the Methodist Church of Britain that the sensitivities and ambiguities of the line ‘Christ makes with his friends a touching place’ became increasingly apparent in the context of our deep commitment in the Methodist Church to safeguarding concerns*. These days I am very careful about places and occasions when I suggest the song is sung, though I still love listening to it. I have to admit that I personally do find it quite sad that our rightful commitment to safeguarding in the life of the Church means that so much now has inevitably to be viewed in a different and darker light. I also understand that those who have suffered in their lives from inappropriate touch must find this subject almost unbearably painful.

One of the realities of the last 15 months has been the lack of touch and physical contact due to necessary social distancing. When the post-COVID era finally arrives we are going to need to reflect once again on what it may mean to touch and be touched by God in one another.

*****

* It feels appropriate here to mention with affection and respect the colleagues I worked most closely with in the Methodist Church, David Gamble and Judy Jarvis, who were influential in encouraging other British churches – as well as Methodism – to take ‘safeguarding’ concerns far more seriously than had previously been done. I believe that it was Judy who first suggested the use of the term ‘safeguarding’.

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