That’s what she had been told. For 12 years, that’s what they told her. Maybe not using those exact words. But her friends and family, her own people, made it abundantly clear: “You have been abandoned by God.”
She had committed no grave sin. She had done nothing to deserve this treatment. So why was she being penalized?
It was because she was bleeding. Menstrual blood, the blood of life and death. The blood often feared and greatly misunderstood by most men. The blood of “uncleanliness.” She bled without ceasing for more than a decade.
According to the law of her people, her bleeding made her “unclean.” In most religions dominated by men, this monthly bleeding symbolically renders a woman as “other” for a time. First-century Jewish law was no different. In her time and place, a woman with menstrual bleeding could not go to the Temple or be in the presence of a priest, scribe, or Pharisee. Her presence, and especially her touch, could contaminate them. Then the religious man with whom she had contact would have to quarantine and be purified.
This woman was different only in degree. Instead of being on a normal cycle, her blood flowed continually for more than a decade. No one had to tell her, because the entire society already had spoken: “You cannot enter God’s house.” “You cannot be in the presence of a holy man.” “God would heal you if you hadn’t sinned.” “God doesn’t listen to sinners.”
Such is the life of the “God-forsaken.” The phrase literally means that a person or community has been abandoned or cursed by God. Yet Jesus taught that God does not abandon God’s creatures. In our Catholic tradition, this is the foundation for a wide variety of spiritualities of presence and accompaniment, not to mention the Eucharist as “source and summit” of a life of discipleship.
Jesus himself embodies God’s presence as Emmanuel, “God with us” who chooses to “tabernacle” among us (John 1:14). In the gospels, Jesus constantly brings God’s presence to locations, individuals, and people who others have deemed “God-forsaken”: demoniacs, the mentally ill, lepers, adulterers, prostitutes, parents grieving lost children, the sick, outcasts, tax collectors, Gentiles, Roman centurions, and . . . a bleeding woman.
If God does not abandon God’s creatures for any reason—and especially not one as intrinsic to life as menstrual bleeding—then where does this idea come from? In short, it is because we humans often have a rather limited theological imagination.
God is not limited in God’s celebration and compassion, but we as finite creatures struggle with this truth. God’s love and generosity are limitless, which sometimes leads to human resentment and a rather convenient theological praxis: God abandons those whom we fear, don’t like, or don’t understand. Instead of honestly facing what psychologist Carl Jung and Franciscan Father Richard Rohr call our “shadow side,” we project our own fears, biases, and prejudices onto God. And then, as Father Ron Rolheiser points out, we create a religion and society that is as frightened, paranoid, and unforgiving as we are.
These are some of the meanings of “God-forsaken.” Not only do we convince ourselves of this but we convince those who supposedly are “forsaken” that God no longer loves them nor is with them. This is what sometimes is called the “narrative of the lie,” the ideological glue that holds together and justifies any system of dehumanization.
The phrase “God-forsaken” does not appear much in English translations of the gospels. However, the phrase encapsulates the context of many of the healing stories, such as this one in the Gospel of Mark. A man, woman, or group suffers from an affliction that is not of their own making. The situation includes not only bodily affliction but also social abandonment and religious isolation.
Mark’s gospel conveys that the bleeding woman has been placed in this category of “God-forsaken.” Although she has done nothing wrong, she is prohibited from entering the holiest space (Temple courts), visiting her local place of worship (synagogue), and interacting with any official spiritual leaders for guidance or sustenance (Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, priests, prophets, etc.), all of whom tend to be men.
While Jesus and his disciples make their way to the Pharisee Jairus’ house to attend to his dying daughter, this unnamed woman reaches anonymously through the crowds of people toward Jesus. She takes a risk. She touches his cloak. She transgresses a sacred boundary of her people. If discovered, she will be penalized.
Then, the impossible happens. She is healed of her affliction immediately.
Jesus feels the power leave his body and asks who touched him. Eventually she presents herself to him with fear and trembling. She will face the consequences, whatever they may be. But Jesus says: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34).
Like with the demoniac earlier in Mark 5, Jesus is a sacrament of God’s presence and a channel of God’s salvation for someone who has been deemed “God-forsaken.” Jesus disrupts the narrative of the lie created by a shared misogyny in religion and society.
For no one is ever truly “God-forsaken.” Even when we build a church, theology, or society based upon this idea. Even when we are convinced that God must act this way to explain away our own fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding. Even when we lose our way and treat others, and sometimes even ourselves, as if this were true. It remains a lie.
The truth is stronger. The truth is much simpler. The truth is that God offers divine accompaniment to everybody. God does not give up on us. God does not leave us. Even when we cannot sense God’s presence. Even when a deception distorts our reality and overpowers us. God makes a way out of no way. God’s name is Faithful. God will act for our salvation and empowerment.
That’s what she should have been told. That’s what her friends and family, her own people, should have been telling her all along. That’s what all of us need to proclaim, passionately, from wherever we are in life. That’s what those among us who believe the lie of being “God-forsaken” need to hear.
That is the Good News.
Image: Wikimedia Commons