by Pastor Jean-Daniel O'Donncada
In Montréal Museum of Fine Arts is a large 19th-century painting by the Austrian artist Gabriel Max, The Raising of Jairus' Daughter. As one who has both worked as a youth pastor and in an art museum, my youth pastor side wins out over my art critic side, and this painting is by far my favourite piece in the whole museum. On its frame is engraved—arguably mispelled—in Hebrew script, Talitha cumi, the Aramaic phrase that the King James Bible tells us means, ‘’Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.’’ Little girl, get up.
As a dad, it’s a phrase I know well, but as a quotidien annoyance not a desperate plea. Jairus’ daughter is not asleep, but dead. Except to Jesus. Who says she is not dead, but asleep. And wakes her up. And promptly orders those around her to calm down and get her something to eat.
Tell the adults to calm down, and just give the teenager something to eat. Jesus, the perfect youth pastor.
During all my years of church youth pastoring, that was my primary humorous take on the story. It made me smile. It made me laugh. It reminded me to feed the youth, literally, before any attempts to feed them spiritually.
Then during the COVID pandemic, I had a pivot in my career. I began working as a hospital chaplain. I was Zoom fatigued and long-distance pastoral care burned out. My sense of call to ministry was never about managing Zoom rooms. I wanted to comfort those who mourned. I wanted to be with those who needed God’s presence. And I needed to be in their presence.
Counterintutitively, in the midst of lockdowns and mask mandates, the hospital was the most normal place in the world. Yes, the pandemic was raging, and we felt in the hospital. But wearing masks and PPE generally existed pre-Covid, not as universally, but familiarly, in hospital life. In the hospital I was able to be beside people again. To listen. To pray. And to occasionally, too occassionally, uplift.
Given my background in children's and youth ministry, I began to respond the crises of the children’s hospital.
I have held in my arms babies who know longer breathe, I have held in my arms grieving parents who gasp with grief and cannot breath, I have held in my prayers parents and grandparents who have to make unimaginable decisions about what may work. Who have to confront the very question of what does it even mean to be alive, what is saving a life. I have watched kids go from healthy to dead in moments, and from ‘’surely’’ dying to home safe in weeks. I have sat discussions with teams of specialists who simultaneously know infinitely more than I do about what is most likely to happen and do not know anything more than I do about what is definitely going to happen. Tragedies and miracles beyond my control simply happened around me, and my job was never to solve, only love.
I have a name tag that says ‘’Rev.’’ and I regularly dare to stand at altars and speak the words of Jesus, I dare to proclaim forgivenness and resurrection. But if I kneel in a hospital room, if I ever hold a little girl’s hand and whisper, Talitha cumi, it … well... it has never ‘’worked.’’ I follow Jesus. At my best I even reflect him. But I never am him.
Casual Christian theology too often forgets that human Jesus was fully human, that he learned things bit by bit like all humans. Wise beyond me, sure, but not, in his incarnate form, necessarily omniscient. In Gabriel Max’s painting he is turned a bit away from us. I wonder, when he prayed, or commanded, or hoped, Talitha cumi, did he expect her to open her eyes? Did any part of him wonder?
To some that is a blaphemous question. All things are possible with God! But I am not asking if he doubted God could. I wonder if he doubted that God would. My own prayers are a mix of answered and unanswered. Most of my prayers seem, most of the time, to be like my bureaucratic phone calls. I am having a panic attack and I am on an indefinite hold.
The text of Mark 5 does not tell me what Jesus thought. Neither Mark nor Gabriel Max show me his facial expression. I just know what he said and what happened.
Jesus, if he were a hospital chaplain or a youth pastor, and in this story, I think he is in fact both, walks into a room, takes care of the young person, holds out hope for God to do what only God can, and is going to talk to the family, be with the family, support the family, no matter what God does or does not do. It is an odd thing to do for work, to walk into a room, to see a crisis, to have years of graduate school and internships and training, but to know I know nothing, except how to hold hands. I will hold a hand and annoint with oil and say, get up. I will hold a hand and annoint with oil and say, go to God. I will hold a hand and say let go, aware of the paradox, and not letting go.
Every day that we get up is a blessing. Until one day, we each won’t. But for now, we do. Each morning, until the one morning God doesn’t, God whispers to us each, get up. And as long as God is waking me up, I want to hold my little girls’ hands, and feed youth groups, whether or not I ever know if any of my plans are going to ‘’work.’’