When I read this Sunday’s gospel, I admittedly got excited. After all, one of the first Christian representations of Jesus ever that we still can view to this day was made about this very gospel!
The (long form) gospel for today looks like this:
Now, there are a lot of things going on in this scripture. Jesus is called to heal a sick girl, doesn’t get there in time, and ends up healing a dead girl. Which, honestly, is just jaw-dropping in itself. And then, He gives orders that this should all be kept hush-hush? How could Christ expect us to keep such a secret to ourselves!
In fact, that is the focus for the gospel, and some of you only heard about the girl at today’s mass, if the priest chose to read the short form!
But, in the long form, there is a curious story in between about a woman bleeding whom Jesus heals accidentally.
To our modern eyes, the story seems strange. After all, what does bleeding mean? We tend to get stuck trying to diagnose the illness. But back then, the illness didn’t matter so much as the effects of the illness: as a bleeding woman, she would be prohibited from entering into the Temple and participating in religious activities of the day, effectively meaning that she would be a social outcast.
And it is this story which was illustrated in the Catacombs of Rome.
Now, you have to realize that early representations of Jesus are hard to come by nowadays. Most of the earliest representations of Jesus that we have nowadays are symbols — of a lamb, of a fish, of an anchor, of letters to stand for Christ’s name — that we can find in the extensive catacombs where Christians buried their own.
That is not to say that there was not art about Christ! This painting was found in the catacombs. St. Luke the Evangelist is traditionally depicted painting an icon of the Virgin, as it is traditionally believed he made the first religious icon. When looking up the history of the story of the bleeding woman, I found an interesting tale where a historian under the Emperor Constantine I sees a religious statue of this incident near the house where the woman lived. However, if time didn’t destroy many of these images (and time has a nasty habit of destroying artworks), the iconoclasm in the 7th-8th centuries did.
In this particular painting, Jesus is painted looking very much like a Roman man. (After all, don’t we tend to make Jesus try to look like us?) He has a friendly smile on His face and an outstretched hand reaching out to the woman whom He accidentally healed. And she is looking a bit wary of being called out.
And it’s just an amazing moment. When I imagine this scene when Jesus calling out the bleeding woman, it reminds me of all the times that I did something very bad that totally crossed the line and my dad would call out, “Who did this?” And there’s that awful moment where you realize that you are in the wrong and there’s no denying it and your stomach is crawling with caterpillars and you step forward in a groveling and say in a weak voice, “It was me.”
And perhaps Jesus did say it in that voice! After all, the disciples try to reassure Jesus that it’s probably nothing and He shouldn’t worry because has He seen the crowd?
But, the bleeding woman steps forward and admits everything.
And what does He do?
He tells her to go in peace and be cured, for her faith has saved her.
And the artist tries to portray this kindness with that friendly smile and an outstretched hand.
And this is strangely comforting to me. Sometimes, God can seem pretty scary. After all, He’s our father. And fathers can be wonderful — at least, my dad is a wonderful father! And God is as well. But to be a father sometimes means to be an imposing and scary figure at the time of discipline. After all, to be a parent means you must discipline your children. And daddies are tall and have low, booming voices that can stop you in your tracks with fear.
Yet, if we go to God contritely and confess our sins, there is forgiveness and love.
And this is something to get excited about.