“Don’t tell anyone!” said Jesus – but the secret is out. Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead!
Three times, the Gospels report that Christ raised a person from the dead – today’s account of the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain, and the Lord’s own friend, Lazarus. In the Old Testament, the prophets Elijah and Elisha each restored a dead son to his mother. In the Acts of the Apostles, St Peter restored to life a sick girl called Tabitha, while St Paul revived a young man called Eutychus who fell from a third-floor window during a long sermon, preached late into the night.
Of these seven remarkable stories, six concern children or young adults. We don’t know how old Lazarus was when Jesus raised him, but if he was of similar age to Jesus, then he may have been a man in his 30s. When the Bible offers us accounts of the raising of the dead, then, it consistently does so in the case of those who seem to have died before their time – which rings true with our deep-seated human instinct that “no parent should have to bury a child”. The first reading tells us that death was never part of God’s plan for the human race; and even if we are limited to “three-score-years and ten”, these miracle stories seem to tell us that the death of a child is still less part of God’s plan.
Yet in the real world in which we live, children die. Just in the last month we have heard the tragic story of the six Philpott children who died in a house fire in Derby, and a two-year-old toddler killed in the house explosion in Oldham. Our parish supports the International Refugee Trust, which works with conscripted and abandoned children in Uganda, and Let the Children Live, which supports children who might otherwise die on the streets of Colombia. Many of these examples involve human wrongdoing, whether by individuals or the cumulative effect of corrupt regimes; and in such cases we can readily agree with the author of Wisdom, that death comes through those who are, implicitly if not explicitly, in partnership with the Devil. But we also face the mystery of illness: local Catholics have been deeply involved in the founding and running of the Tŷ Hafan chldren’s hospice, a facility which is sadly needed because children can, and do, contract terminal diseases.
In the face of these stark realities, how can we make sense of the miracle stories in the Gospels?
Some Bible scholars would “solve the problem” by explaining away all claims of miracles. What if Jesus only used the same folk remedies as other traditional healers? What if the stories reported as miracles represented natural healings, or exaggerations of how bad the initial problem was? Our Church resists going down this road, because it is only a small step from here to denying that Jesus himself rose from the dead – and if that were not true, our Sunday celebration of the Day of Resurrection would be meaningless.
Another approach would say that God granted exceptional healings because of exceptional circumstances. Elijah and Elisha were the pre-eminent prophets of the Old Testament. St Peter and St Paul, whose feast day we kept on Friday, were princes among the apostles. Perhaps God would work exceptional miracles to draw attention to the messages carried by these men, which were never to be repeated in any other generation. But in fact, there have been reports throughout the history of the Catholic Church of remarkable saints whose prayers have raised the dead, most famously the fourteenth century Dominican, Vincent Ferrer, but also, in the twentieth century, Padre Pio.
The story of Jairus is one which testifies to humility and faith. Although he was a prominent Jewish leader, Jairus was humble enough to turn to the itinerant and controversial rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, in his hour of need. Not only did he come to Jesus, but he knelt at his feet and pleaded. Jairus had enough faith to believe that Jesus could cure his daughter while she was still alive. When word came that the daughter had died, Jesus encouraged him to hold on to that faith.
Part of our humility must be to recognise that each and every child is a gift from God, and sooner or later will return to God. A Christian parent’s attitude must be that their son or daughter is “on loan” from God and entrusted to the care of earthly parents for as long as God chooses. Cultivating such an attitude is an important protection from falling into the trap of blaming God if the worst should happen. God gives no guarantees about the life or health of any child – and indeed, we are blessed to live in an era where medical technology means that it is rare for a child to die in infancy: this was not the case for most of human history.
In my years as a priest, I have on many occasions been told about children who were sick and asked to say prayers for them, but I have never been asked to visit the home of a sick child to lay hands on them and pray for them. Yet the Gospel never shows Jesus working a healing by praying in private, when no-one is watching. Miracles happen – and give glory to God – when in the presence of witnesses, God is asked to restore health and life to one who is ill. Some humble act of faith is needed, some public gesture of placing one’s trust in the Father of Jesus Christ. The woman with the haemorrhage knew where she would find the power which could heal her, and she reached out through the crowd to obtain what she sought.
Without a public, humble, and vulnerable gesture of faith, God’s healing power cannot work to its fullest effect. To ask someone to say prayers in private is a gesture of hope in the face of hopelessness; but to come and pray in the name of Jesus at the bedside of a sick person requires real faith. Do we think of calling a priest to the bedside because we expect healing, or only because we see the last rites as necessary to dispatch a Christian soul to heaven?
The irony of our age is that many will try a bewildering array of alternative and complementary therapies to obtain healing, but few will ask a disciple of Jesus Christ to pray with them for healing. It need not be the priest who does this; in the case of a child, it could be the child’s own Christian parents, godparents, or family friends. If we do not do this in our community, is it because we have tried and failed, or because we have been too afraid? Part of the Good News of the Gospels is that Jesus has the power to heal; but that power is released only by a humble and public act of faith.
Pious faith places a name on the parish sick list, or calls the priest to anoint a dying person, because we know, in our religion, these are the right things to do. Expectant faith pleads with a priest or another trusted Christian to come and pray with a sick person, with the confidence that Jesus has the power to heal, and the humble hope that God might grant a healing in this case. Which kind of faith is your faith?