Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Unclean

 

There’s a story in the Gospels of a woman whose severe gynaecological bleeding (or possibly haemophilia) has kept her isolated from community for twelve years. She is ritually unclean, which is to say, removed from society, with anyone who touches her also having to remove themselves from society for a short while.

This ritual removal was part of the regular rhythm and flow of her culture. Women would remove themselves in the monthly cycle of their period. Ritual uncleanliness is not sinfulness, or moral failure, and ritual cleansing is not sin management or the management of the Other; but, rather, to participate in ritual uncleanliness and ritual cleansing is to enter into the pattern of death and new life, to be an actor in deep mystery. Every one of us, regardless of sex, age, or culture, regardless even of introvert or extravert preference, needs regular times of withdrawal from and restoration within society. But for this woman in this story, the withdrawal had been extended out indefinitely.

We know that she has spent all of her resources on physicians who were unable to cure her. We know, therefore, that she has felt human touch, and under the most vulnerable of conditions. But it is quite possible that she had gone for months at a time between experiencing human touch, for years. We do not know, but it is possible that she had family members who, in order to provide such touch, essentially self-isolated in order to shield her; even so, she is removed from her neighbours. Given that we know she had spent all her resources on the hope of a cure, and that she was still alive, we may imagine that one or more of those neighbours left food on her doorstep, in a spatially distanced compromise they had to make work.

All of this seems meaningful, in 2020.

This woman hears that Jesus has arrived in town, and resolves that if she can push through the crowd, unnoticed, and only touch the hem of his garment, she might hope to experience the healing she needs, the kind of healing she has heard that others have received from him. And so, she takes the risk. She, surely, makes others ritually unclean by her contact. She reaches out for Jesus. And straight away, he is aware that power has left him. And straight away, she is aware that she is healed. And Jesus responds in such a way that everyone, who have just been made ritually unclean, is ritually cleansed. The whole community goes through death and new life (which is really interesting, because Jesus is in fact, at this very moment, on his way to raise the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue from death).

How do we go about our lives under the tension of needing to interact with people who are mutually exposing one another—and by extension others who have not chosen so to meet—to risk?

How do we live with the very real emotional and psychological impact of the extended loss of human touch—and the added impact on those who are removed from the possibility of touch, but nonetheless must look on as others break the rules?

How do we nurture empathy and compassion for those most affected by isolation, over extended time that erodes our empathy and compassion?

Where might Jesus, and the community gathered around him, feature in our thinking?

How might the story of this woman help us?

 

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