The Power and Vulnerability of Touch: A Lenten Meditation

Mark’s gospel is disturbingly direct, its narrative frenzied and physical. In one of my favorite passages (Mk 5:21-43), the evangelist weaves together encounters of Jesus with two women. One has been afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years; the other is a dying girl, the daughter of Jairus. The story is rife with the mystery (and pain) of sexuality, and the power of touch. What sort of power does Jesus mediate when he touches these vulnerable women?

First, the words of Jairus echo through two thousand years in what might be a spiritual mantra, or admonition, for all men: “Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.” Jairus, with the love of a desperate father, expresses nothing here if not absolute trust in Jesus — the utter expectation (i.e. faith) that the touch of this man, a stranger, is a loving one, desiring only on his daughter’s well-being.

Of the hemorrhaging woman who stops Jesus on his journey, Mark says: “She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse.” The woman thinks to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” Again here is an utter faith–quite remarkable in light of her history–that physical contact with Jesus (again, a stranger) will be life-giving.

When the bleeding woman finally touched Jesus, he was “aware at once that power had gone out from him.” That is a line worth pondering.

There are countless moments with my children when I’m suddenly aware that a power is coming out of me, too. To be sure, it’s not always the kind of power I want to direct at them. What kind of presence – what kind of physical and emotive power – am I communicating to my kids this moment? The answer is easily found in their eyes, if I’m wakeful enough to pay attention.

If by our physicality we, like Jesus, communicate something powerful to strangers, how much more with the people we love. In potentially every encounter we give life, love, security, or we grasp it for ourselves.

The power of welcoming presence must have been overwhelming in the company of Jesus Christ. The most marginalized persons longed to be near him, to touch and be touched by him. They pressed upon him, they threatened to crush him. Put simply, these people had utter faith in Jesus. “Do not be afraid; just have faith.”

Faith, by Mark’s account, is the utter expectation of a loving response. Will my little boy always have faith in me, even with occasional irruptions of my father’s temper? My wife? My students?

In a rapaciously  “pornified” world, where bodies are objectified, where trust is so often egregiously violated, how many women are able to have faith – the utter expectation of a loving response – in the company of men, whether strangers or new acquaintances, husbands or boyfriends, teachers or priests, in their daily lives?

How, finally, to cultivate faith in ourselves–to be comfortable enough “in my own skin” to risk honesty, authenticity, vulnerability, and to vigorously resist their opposites – dishonesty, manipulation, the wearing of masks?

The season of Lent begins Ash Wednesday with a powerful gesture of presence and touch, and a reminder that we are held accountable to God and to one another, in the mystery of our mutual vulnerability and inevitable bodily death. “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The time of our freedom for choosing love,  for repairing a broken world, is not forever.

Let us pray during this Lenten season for the grace to earn, in all our encounters, the faith of our fellow human beings, women both strong and vulnerable, and men of tender vulnerability like Jairus: “Come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.”

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