Menstruation, miscarriage, and the multitude robed in white

Bleeding bodies and suffering selves are all gathered up in Christ. (Listen.)

Like me, my mother was an ordained Baptist minister; but unlike me, she had endometriosis. Among other things, this meant that her menstrual periods were excruciatingly painful, and came upon her without warning, in great floods. And so my childhood is studded with high stress memories of her period suddenly starting while we were out. There’d be an intake of breath, then a quick hissed exchange between my parents, then a frantic search for a public toilet before disaster struck.

One evening, mum came home from a deacon’s meeting in tears; she went straight to the bathroom. When she came out, she explained. She had been chairing the meeting when she had unexpectedly haemorrhaged. It went through her clothes in an instant; but she couldn’t bear to tell everyone. So she spread out her files and continued on as if nothing had happened. When the meeting finished — “and I thought they’d never stop chatting!” she said – she stayed sitting until the last deacon had left. Then she told the hosts what had happened. They commiserated; they fetched towels; and she stood to survey the wreckage. “I nearly died,” she told us: “it was a white linen couch!”

I once told this story to a group of ministers, and a woman said, “Oh, that’s like my miscarriage.” It was a Sunday morning, and she was at church, robed in white, doing final preparations for the service. Just before it started, she nipped into the bathroom and found her pants full of blood. The bells were ringing: What could she do? She quickly bundled up some toilet paper, tucked it in her pants, then marched out and led the service. “But I was very careful to face the front,” she said. Afterwards, while the congregation was milling around and chatting, she backed quietly into vestry and took off her robe. “It took weeks to wash out the blood,” she told us, “I had to scrub it over and over again. But it took years to grieve. It was so surreal, and so awful, I couldn’t even admit what had happened for a very long time.”

These stories remind me of an image in Revelation. A great multitude robed in white is singing praises to God. An elder asks rhetorically, “Who are these people?”, then explains that these are the ones who have suffered, and who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb and made them white.

But I think of my mother and the white couch, and the priest who miscarried and her white robe, and my own intermittently bleeding body and how rarely I risk wearing white. I think of how many twelve-year-old girls in Australia go on the pill to ensure they are never inconvenienced by menstruation. I think of women with fistulas who are kicked out of their villages, and girls who experience FGM with rusty razorblades, and people of all genders who are sexually assaulted and who, no how matter how long and hot their showers, struggle to feel truly clean again.

And I think of the woman who bled for twelve years and of Jairus’s daughter who, at the age of twelve, is at the onset of menses, and I think, “No, this liturgical image really doesn’t work for me. I know how shameful it feels to bleed; I know hard it is to scrub out blood. What sort of crazy person washes white robes in blood?” It doesn’t feel like an image for ordinary people living in ordinary leaky bodies.

And bodies are everywhere in today’s reading from the gospel.

At the heart of the story, we have the body of the haemorrhaging woman, who for twelve years has been bleeding. She’s literally untouchable: she receives no hugs, no handshakes, no gentle caresses. So lonely, it’s a living death. And she’s spent everything she has: first on doctors, then naturopaths, herbalists, homeopaths, Chinese medical specialists, spiritual healers and every sort of quack. But still she bleeds; still she must avoid touching everyone she meets. She’s been kicked out of home, can’t show her face in church. Bankrupt, homeless, and maybe kind of crazy; and she’s got almost nowhere to wash. Bloody hell, you might be thinking, and you’d be right: her life is a bloody hell.

Then there’s the body of Jairus’s twelve-year-old, on the brink of menstruation and at the point of death. There are also the bodies of Jesus and Jairus; and surrounding them are the bodies of the crowd, so many they are pressing in.

It’s into this thick mess of bodies that the haemorrhaging woman pushes hers. She isn’t supposed to be there. In that time and place, anyone who had a seeping body, anyone bleeding or with a leaky prostate or weeping sores or any form of uncontrollable bodily emission, was believed to be unclean and contagious. Those who touched such a person would also become unclean and contagious, and have to go into quarantine for a week. The same rules applied to anyone who touched even an object touched by the unclean person; and also to touching a corpse.

These rules were part of the system of purity laws, a system which clearly sorted people into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, ‘righteous’ and ‘unrighteous.’ Everybody knew exactly where they stood; and impure unclean untouchable people knew they were strictly forbidden from mixing with the crowd, or from participating in any communal event.

So by pushing through the crowd, the woman was breaking purity laws and contaminating everyone; had she been recognized, she might have been stoned to death. But she has no life to speak of, no one to live for, nothing to lose: so she dares. She dares to be there, dares to hope, that in this man Jesus  she will find healing. She reaches out to touch, just to touch his clothes … and in doing so, the law says she makes him unclean as well. Yet as her fingers brush the cloth, the opposite happens. Jesus does not become unclean. Instead, straightaway she feels it: Healing is hers. It surges through her body. She is now clean, and all is made well.

But Jesus feels the healing power leaving his body, and he speaks.

He could have just left things there: a healed woman, free to scuttle away. But he doesn’t. Instead, he tries to work out who touched him. Shaking, she comes forward; and, as the gospel writer tells us, “she told him the whole truth.”

I wonder what she told him? I wonder what the “whole truth” entailed? Did she name her loneliness and anguish, her isolation and sense of shame? Did she list the doctors and their exorbitant fees? Did she tell him how difficult it is to wash blood out of white linen, and how quickly it begins to smell in a hot climate? Did she explain the ordinary daily pressures on women in ministry, or in the workforce, or at a high school with a light summer uniform, let alone when bodies do what bodies so often do? Did she weep?

We will never know. But we do know what Jesus said: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” By calling her forward, and by saying these words, Jesus does something extraordinary: He announces to the crowd that he has not been made unclean by the woman’s touch. Rather, his love, his healing and his compassion are shown to be more powerful than the things people believe are contagious; the purity laws are declared to be null and void. And just in case anyone misses this, he then goes to another beloved daughter, now dead. He touches her supposedly untouchable corpse, and raises her to life.

Now, you might think this all has very little relevance to us. We don’t have purity codes set down in law; we don’t formally quarantine menstruating women or people with open sores. But I invite you to consider: How comfortable have you been with my discussion of menstruation and women’s bodies? How easily would you turn to your neighbour and mention your leaky prostate, a massive haemorrhoid, a pelvic floor destroyed by a difficult childbirth? How many people know you are HIV-positive? Who is aware that you regularly attend a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a support group, a 12-step program? Do people know about your childhood abuse or trauma or troubled family history? How easily do you sit with deep grief, your own or another person’s? How readily would you admit that you can’t afford to keep up with the Joneses? If you haemorrhaged at a deacon’s meeting, would you want everyone to know?

In fact, there are many areas of life which we instinctively know can make us untouchable; they are often shrouded in secrecy or shame. They may not be formally codified, but at a gut level most of us understand that to mention them is to risk rejection; and to hear about them is to face the choice of whether to engage or back away.

In dominant Western culture, we usually skirt around:

  • Ordinary bodies, in particular those with menstrual, menopausal or prostate issues, or with certain types of cancer or chronic illness.
  • Mental illness, particularly if it generates disturbing behaviours.
  • Childhood abuse or family violence.
  • Addiction, especially to porn.
  • Grief, both acute and for losses deemed ‘ambiguous’ such as miscarriage or unwanted childlessness or singleness.
  • Poverty, especially in relation to our peers.
  • Loneliness.

And I’m sure you can think of other areas.

The thing is, not one of these things is too much for Jesus; not one of these things repels him. No stigma, no taboo is more powerful than his love, his compassion, and his healing.

For not only did he touch and heal a dead girl and a haemorrhaging woman; but he himself chose to endure the most shameful death, crucifixion, with all its terror and God-forsakenness and screaming pain and tears and blood and faeces running down. And it is precisely through his death and resurrection that Christ brought about fullness of life and reconciliation and wholeness for all people.

And wholeness is what it’s all about. For Jesus invites the haemorrhaging woman to step out of the crowd and tell her story. Her physical condition is already cured; the gospel writer tells us this. But Jesus wants more for her. Twelve years of living in the shadows, shunned and silenced, has profoundly shaped her; he wants the wounds of suffering, shunning and shame to be healed, too.

So he invites her to step up: and the woman is faced with a choice. To slip away quietly cured, or to risk something more. She takes the risk of more: she comes forward trembling and shaking with fear: and to her surprise she receives not a shaming, not a rebuke, but a blessing. A blessing of wholeness, and of integration into God’s own family: for Jesus calls her daughter, and commends her faith, and grants her peace.

And I wonder: Do we have her courage? Are we willing to come before God and tell the whole story: not just the nice bits, but the hard, the painful and the shameful parts of our lives? And are we a people which allows and honours those parts, those stories, in other people?

For it is only when we bring our whole selves that Christ can take the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the light and the dark, and integrate us into a messy beautiful whole. So let us bring our leaking weeping bodies and our shadows and our shame, and offer them all to Jesus.

And as we do, perhaps we can even let strange liturgical metaphors wash over us. Perhaps, as our suffering selves, our liturgical robes, our white linen couches and our dark and difficult hearts are washed clean through the blood of the lamb, the one whom death could not overcome: perhaps then we can raise our voices with the great choir of Revelation. For as the elder continues,

“For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night in the temple:
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not scorch them, nor any scorching heat;
for the lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
and will guide them to the springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:15-17)

Do you hear those promises? To be fed, watered, sheltered, guided, and comforted: these are God’s promises to our bleeding bodies and suffering selves, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Let us pray:

Tender God,
we bring you our whole selves:
not just our Sunday best,
but our awkward leaky lumpy bodies,
our hidden sorrows, our suffering, our shame.
Help us name our whole truth to you,
and help us honour the whole truth in other people,
that you might heal us, bless us, and call us your children,
and grant us your wholeness and peace.
For through your precious lamb you reconcile all things:
even us, even our shadows. Amen. Ω

Reflect: What is your whole truth? What do you find difficult to name to God? Tell God about it now, then sit in silence and see what emerges.

A reflection on Mark 5:21-43 and Revelation 7:9-17 by Alison Sampson given to Canberra Baptist 27 June 2021 (Proper 8 Year B) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash.

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