Homily on Mark 5: 21-43
The headline boomed in bold all-caps—Archibishop Discusses Hell! Well, I couldn’t resist. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to hear an Archbishop talk about the Lake of Fire and eternal damnation! Curiosity peaked, I rolled up my sleeves, and started reading.
My concept of hell, I suppose, is being stuck with myself forever and with no way out. Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell.
For Williams (and I think he is spot on here) hell is the loss of relation. We are created to be persons in relation, not just individuals, and there is a very real sense in which to cease to be in relation is to cease to be at all. Indeed, the Greek for person is prosopon—literally “toward-the-face.” True personhood consists of facing the other, of being face-to-face. So Sartre was wrong; hell isn’t other people, it’s being faceless, being stuck with myself without the possibility of relating to others.
This is exactly the situation of the hemorrhaging woman we encounter today in Mark’s gospel. Already marginalized as a woman in a patriarchal culture, she is doubly marginalized on account of her ritual impurity in the eyes of Jewish law. Her doctors have only made her worse, and what is more, they have left her penniless. Reduced to nothing, faceless, she is no longer a person. She has been banished, excised, cut off from participation in community life. She is in hell.
But then, something amazing happens. Jesus happens. Touch, connection, and relationship happen. Suddenly, the anonymous woman who approached Jesus only from behind and whose identity resided solely with her illness becomes a fully-fledged “daughter ” of God. She is restored to health, and made a part of the community. Encountering Jesus heals her of isolation, estrangement, and the dehumanizing stigmas of her culture. Fastening herself to Jesus, new life is kindled in her. She is saved and made whole, she becomes a person—a prosopon—someone with a face.
For last few weeks, I’ve found myself haunted by a collect. It’s the collect from Proper 18 the first part of which, you remember, runs like this—
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy…
And I wonder if that’s what the hemorrhaging woman might have to teach us today. Like Jairus, she has humbly shrugged off the illusion of self-sufficiency. She doesn’t confide in her own strength. Instead, she empties herself, pours herself out in love at the foot of the Lord. And it is exactly at this moment of complete emptying, that Jesus shows up for her. Only when she has exhausted all her various means of trying to solve the problem “her way” does she come face-to-face with new life.
There is, perhaps, no greater taboo in our culture than neediness. Whether we call it ‘rugged individualism,’ or ‘Emersonian self-reliance’ or ‘consumer choice’ doesn’t matter. What does matter, though, is that it is only in the recognition of our deepest need, our need for communion with God, that we can find peace and share that peace with all whom we encounter. We are homo adorans, beings made to worship God, and to rely on ourselves rubs against the very grain of reality. As worshipping creatures oriented towards to the other, twisting this impulse back on itself is a recipe for sickness, estrangement, desperation, and loneliness.
Paradoxically, it is in relying on ourselves that we find ourselves least ourselves. New life comes in turning to the other—God as revealed in the person of Christ. We meet Him in word, in sacrament, but also in the strange face of the other as we journey out of ourselves in love. Our practice is to consent to this pilgrimage towards His face moment after ordinary moment—to the cashier’s tired face in the checkout line, to the wizened face of the homeless person on the street corner, to the face of a neighbor at the peace, to the sleepy bedtime face of a child reading her ‘last’ story. It is by the grace of this turning and journeying forth—this sacramental face-to-facing—that the Christ in others saves us from ourselves, and the Christ in us saves others from the hell of facelessness. Amen.