Christ and Social Isolation
“If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.”
The woman bled for twelve years. A lot of people live in chronic pain, but this was different. She was unclean. She was an untouchable. Her condition, by Jewish hygienic standards, cut her off from normal human society. She was quarantined to social isolation. She is the mascot for us in 2020.
American novelist, Wendell Berry, tells a story about the end of the front-porch culture. He tells it through the eyes of a fictional barber in rural Kentucky. A barber in a small town knows things. He listens and watches. America changed a lot from 1920 to the late 80’s, but perhaps its most distinguishable change was the dissolution of the front-porch culture.
Summer evenings were the highlight of the day. The whole town sat outside on their porches, facing towards each other in one communal gesture. As the hours passed, they greeted one another, traded local news, or borrowed a tool or grocery. The book jumps ahead. The aged barber finds himself surprised one evening when he strolls down the road. The porches are empty. All one sees is a flickering blue light behind shut windows.
“If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.”
The need for touch is central to being human. Psalm 133 begins: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard.” In an overwhelming majority of Jesus’ healings, the miracle began with physical touch. Researchers studied the affect of touch therapy on preterm newborns. Premature infants who receive merely 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gain 47 percent more weight than premies without touch. This need for touch is baseline for all human flourishing at every stage of life. Clearly, Michelangelo was right when he said, “To touch can be to give life.”
The hemorrhaging woman was desperate for human touch. She was drowning in her isolation. Moreover, she knew in her heart, that no mere human touch would suffice. She needed a touch charged with the divine. She reached out and she was healed.
“Someone touched me,” Christ said. “Power has gone out from me” (Lk. 8:6).
The greatest heresies of the early Church dealt with the incarnation. What does it mean that God became flesh? Some sects denied it altogether. They taught that Jesus was a spiritual entity who only assumed the appearance of a human. He was a phantom, a ghost, wearing a body the way we wear clothes. The Church rejected this with horror. Christianity clung to the gospel that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man: thoroughly spiritual and thoroughly physical. To touch Jesus’ body is to touch God. “Someone touched me,” he says, and power went forth from that touch. Mere physical contact with Jesus Christ made her whole, as it does for us today.
We are no different than this hemorrhaging woman. The barber in rural Kentucky mourned the loss of human touch in the 1980’s. We have come a long way since then. The dinning table was once the altar of the home. I-phones are the new altars. Face-to-face conversation has been replaced by virtual chat rooms and social media sites. We do not know how to be community any more, which is why so many churches struggle. We have forgotten the primal law, that there can be no human flourishing without genuine community, without the touch of God in His Body.
In 2020, Covid-19 swept across the world and plunged us further in social isolation. Everyone has a different opinion on how we should ward off the virus. However effective face-masks and social-distancing have been, they have come with a cost. The rates of suicide, agoraphobia, and domestic violence have flared up this year beyond anything we have ever seen.
There is talk that church gatherings are foremost in the spread of Covid-19. Suppose that to be true. Does it change our need to gather for church? What is most important?
“Do not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hb. 10:25). The Greek word here, ‘meeting together,’ is ἐπισυναγωγὴν — it literally means, “Synagoging together.” For us Christians, this means coming together for Mass: to break bread and to exchange the “holy kiss” (1 Cor. 13:12). Sunday is a day of obligation, not out of a sense of religious legalism. It is an obligation because without it, we quite literally perish. I wonder, do we fear sickness and death more than we fear losing our souls?
Radical individualism has been the greatest heresy of our times. The belief in the “home church” or the “me and Jesus” attitude has ravaged modern Christianity as violently as any heresy in the past. American Christians have swallowed the lie that I can have a relationship with God without a relationship with the Body of Christ. We are bleeding as the woman with a hemorrhage bleed.
How do we encounter Christ today? Our need to touch Jesus is no less real than it was 2,000 years ago. Our need for his physical body is no less urgent, and no less possible. We encounter God in His Holy Church.
Why do we need to go to confession? Advent arrives at this time of year to remind us to re-examine our =lives. Confession is paramount in Advent. The bishops, saints, and Church universal require all Christians to go to confession during Advent, during Lent, and at the holy seasons of the year. It is not an option. Why is this? Why can I not simply sit down by myself and whisper my confessions to Jesus? Quite simply, God is in the sacraments. Jesus is not a spiritual entity. He is no ghost and our relationship with him is not merely spiritual. It is body. Forgiveness and healing are as physical, as affectionate, as palpable as the hemorrhaging woman’s encounter. We need to touch Jesus, and we touch Him in the sacraments.
Why do we need the Holy Eucharist? St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). When we drink this wine and eat this bread, we commune, become one with, touch the very body and blood of Christ. The bleeding woman was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus Christ’s garment. How much more are we healed when God’s body fills our body — when a drop of heaven lands on our tongue? We are bleeding and we need the touch of God.
Moreover, we need Christian community. The Scriptures define Christian life as the gathering of the people together for worship, teaching, and fellowship (Acts 2:42-47).
“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hb. 10:24). “Bear one another’s burdens (Gal.6:2)…If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor. 12:27).” “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:2-6).
We thought we could coast as Christians. We watched society fall away from Christ over the last several decades. Indeed, somewhere in our hearts, we have enjoyed the way the world is going, we have flirted with it, and walked hand-in-hand with one foot in the Church and one foot in secularism. Now it has begun to unravel. We are bleeding like the woman bleeding with a hemorrhage. We must make up our minds. How will we live? Christ offers Himself to us, with a healing touch, in his holy, sacramental Church. Will we reach out and touch him?