Of all the mosaics in St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, this is the one that got to me the most.
It shows a woman fully covered at the foot of a man. Apart from the man in blue, none of the other figures are paying her any attention. Indeed one seems to be saying, with the gesture of his hand, ‘walk on by’. The man in blue (no prizes for realising it is Jesus – the halo is a bit of a give-away) is, however, bending toward her and appears to be reaching out his hand to her.
It is an image which today is quite shocking. That is because we have learnt to see individuals not as individuals but as representatives of groups, especially groups that can make some claim to be victims. So this woman could be seen as a representative of oppressed and crushed women everywhere. It reminds us of women compelled to wear hijabs, and of the utter disregard for human rights that are shown women in some countries. But lest we think that is all ‘their’ problem, the reality is that even in our own society women over the age of 21 only received the vote in 1928. And those of you who are Archers fans only need to think of Rob and Helen, and the control that he is exercising over her.
I guess on this reading, then Jesus is the one who is not ignoring the woman. He is blessing her (in the shape of his hands) and he is reaching out to her to lift her up.
But this mosaic is based on a particular incident in the gospel and, as such, this woman is not a representative of oppressed women as a whole, but is an individual with her own story to tell.
We read it in Luke 8. She is crushed. She has suffered from haemorrhaging for 12 years. And because of that she is an outcast, considered unclean, cut off from God. That is why she comes to touch Jesus secretly from the back. An unclean woman should not have come anywhere close to a rabbi. She was also poor. She had spent all her money on doctors, who had taken her money but had not healed her. Interestingly, Luke, who wrote this gospel, was a doctor and he doesn’t tell us that. We learn it from Matthew and Mark!
Our passage actually speaks of two miracles that Jesus performs. They are connected by time. It was while Jesus was on his way to Jairus’ house that the woman touches him. The woman has suffered bleeding for 12 years and Jairus’ daughter is 12 years old. Jairus appeals to Jesus for his sick daughter. Jesus calls this woman ‘daughter’. And both of them exercise faith.
But I want to concentrate on this woman. She touches Jesus, and her faith is confirmed. She is immediately healed. The bleeding stops. But Jesus knows that power has gone out from him, and he asks ‘Who touched me?’ The woman, who realises that nothing is hidden from Jesus steps forward and falls at his feet. She confesses, in front of all, that she has been healed.
I want to suggest that far from being a shocking place for her to be – on the ground in front of Jesus – it is in fact the place that she has freely chosen to be, and it is the right place for her to be and for each one of us to be.
1. She has a right fear of God
She recognises Jesus’ authority and power. That is why she touched him in the first place. She may not have expressed it in these terms at that time, but she was coming to realise that he is the eternal Son of God.
And she realises now that nothing can be hidden from him. Many people were crowding in on Jesus. What difference was her touch going to make? But he knew.
And while there is a place for speaking with Jesus as a friend (after all Jesus does say in John, ‘I no longer call you servants but friends’ [John 15.15]), and there is a place for speaking with him as if he is sitting in the chair opposite us, we must not forget with whom we speak. We need to recognise the difference that there is between him and myself.
We need to recognise that he does know what is going on deep down in our heart.
That is why, in a service like this, and it might seem odd, we stand when we say the doxology: ‘Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit’. There is someone who is here who is bigger than us, and he does not exist to make our lives more comfortable; he does not exist to serve us. We are first here to serve and honour him.
In the Orthodox tradition, when a man or woman chooses to become a monastic profession, they are brought into the church and they prostrate themselves with arms spread apart in the shape of a cross. Some of their hair is cut off, and they are given a new monastic name. Whatever we make of monasticism, there is no questioning the commitment of these men and women: they are – like this woman here – giving their all to him and throwing themselves on his mercy.
At the funeral of Greg Webb we were told that before he died he had a vision. He found himself being led up the aisle of a church (it was probably, he said, St Gregory’s in Sudbury) and he found himself prostrate in front of the altar (and although that is not a word I would usually use for the Lord’s table, I’m using it deliberately). He said afterwards, ‘It felt right and it felt good’.
2. This woman, as she is here, confesses to undeserved mercy.
She tells of what she has done and how she has been healed.
I like that. She is there not in order to beg Jesus for a great work of mercy. She is there because of a great work of mercy. She is already healed. Now she tells everyone how she has been healed.
It is a very alternative way of giving our testimony. Not standing in front of people, but lying prostrate before God. Not as an act of fear before one who is immeasurably bigger than us, but as an act of worship before one who has done so much for us. When we truly worship God, we declare his glory.
And even if we have not experienced such a remarkable act of healing, we have still received so much from him. Everything we have, including life, is a gift. And more than that, even though we have walked away from God, have rebelled against him, have messed up other people in incalculable ways, and have screwed up ourselves, he still pours out his mercy and healing on us. We are forgiven, allowed to come into the presence of God; we now have a purpose, a way to live, a power for living and an eternal hope. We look at the cross and we see such staggering love. The Lord Jesus was prepared to take onto himself all our rebellion against God, all our hatred and self-centredness and pride and unforgiveness and fear and laziness. He took onto himself, before his Father, the many times that we have used our position or strength or verbal ability or wealth to crush others. We thought we were crushing them, but in fact we were crushing him. And in his love, he took it. He has been there – prostrate – and allowed us to not just ignore him, to walk on by, but to walk over him, to trample him into the ground.
And because he has done that, we are forgiven, and we are given the chance to live new lives. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (Isaiah 53.5)
It is the realisation of what Jesus has done for us, of the undeserved mercy that we have been shown, that should make us, like this woman, fall at his feet. Not just in recognition of who he is, but in adoration and worship.
FW Faber gets this when he says in his hymn, ‘My God how wonderful thou art’.
‘Father of Jesus, love’s reward,
what rapture will it be,
prostrate before thy throne to lie
and gaze and gaze on thee!’
3. This woman lies here open to receive what Jesus would give her.
Her hands hold the garment open as if she were ready to receive.
Jesus has healed her. But he has so much more for her. ‘Daughter’, he says (and it is the only time in the gospels that he uses the word to address an individual), ‘your faith in me has (literally) saved you. Go in peace’.
The healing was significant and important.
But what is far more important is that this woman knows, after 12 years of having been told that she is unclean, that she is accepted by God as a child of God, and that she can go in peace. Jesus is the one who has come to bring ‘Glory to God and peace on earth’.
When I go on retreat, I go to an Orthodox monastery where they pray the Jesus prayer in the morning and evening. The prayer goes as follows: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. There are moments when both men and women choose, while they are praying that prayer, to prostrate themselves like this woman. I suspect the artist had probably seen that in the monasteries of his time. The church is in almost total darkness, so it is quite dangerous if you want to move around, especially as they wear black! While I can’t really see it working in our services, it does seem to me that they have got something very precious.
Lying prostrate before Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the best place to be, if it is done in the spirit of this woman: stripped of our pride and our pretences, recognising the reality of the one from whom nothing can be hidden, in gratitude for undeserved mercy, for all that he has given, and ready to receive all that he will give.
And he will see us, and he will bend towards us, and he will bless us and lift us up.