Taking her by the hand, Jesus said to her: “Little lamb, arise.”  June 29, 2024

Entering the neonatal intensive care unit at 4:40am, I donned a surgical gown over my priestly attire, slipped on protective surgical gloves and a protective mask. Accompanying the parents of the newborn baby girl into the “womb-like” protective environment, I took the tiny seashell provided by one of the nurses and filled it with sterilized water. After blessing the water, I then baptized Mary Kathleen “In the name of the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit.”

As I withdrew my hand, Mary Kathleen, now awakened by the water being poured over her head, reached up and gripped my small finger with her miniscule right hand. I held her hand for well over a minute and, looking into her sparkling blue eyes, I felt overcome with joy and sadness as tears filled my eyes. Mary Kathleen would linger in life for three more days before dying, dashing the hopes and dreams of her parents, and casting a pall over the unit.

The parents invited me to preside over Mary Kathleen’s funeral. Surrounded by parents, grandparents, relatives, especially her little cousins and family friends, we reluctantly acknowledged her death and found solace only in a faith punctuated by glimmers of hope and surrounded by love. The little white casket covered in pink roses seemed so serene in a funeral service accompanied by the sobs of adults and children. Nestled in the pink roses was a small, life-like, cuddly toy white lamb, which people stroked on the way to receive Holy Communion. Often during the liturgy, I wanted to say to Mary Kathleen, “Little lamb, arise.”

In the gospel reading for the Thirteen Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark (5:42-43), Jesus uses this phrase, “Little lamb, arise!” Jesus was speaking to Jairus, the father of the girl who had died. “Immediately the little girl, age twelve, got up and began to walk about. At that, they were utterly astounded. Jesus gave strict orders that no one should know this and said that she should be given something to eat.” Unfortunately, my thoughts of Mary Kathleen rising were not to be.

This child’s funeral and subsequent funerals of children and adults confront me with the limitations of life. Over the last few weeks, I have officiated at funerals and interacted with grieving spouses, children, and family friends. Each funeral is unique and represents a reckoning with our theological understanding of death. Whether we characterize death as a normal evil or view it as God’s Will, the  dynamics of grief draw us into the normal, but bewildering panorama of human emotions. The recognition of a profound change that occurs in death was nicely encapsulated by one widow who simply said, “This changes everything.”

Those dealing with the death of a loved one often struggle with denial, confusion, anger, uncertainty, abandonment, loneliness, exhaustion, trust, and despair. Death pushes an awkward acceptance of continuing to live our lives without the presence of a loved one  Death sets us in search of magical metaphors to help us resume some semblance of normality. Sometimes the magic works, sometimes not.

Each person’s recovery journey from loss is uniquely theirs. Those who have salvaged their theology and belief in God seem to fare better. No guarantees, but faith begets hope, and contentment with life returns normality when death is simply accepted as a part of it. Whether the “blue bird of happiness” lands on your shoulder or not, I often console myself in reciting Emily Dickinson’s little poem:

“Hope is the thing with feathers

that perches in the soul, it sings the tune

without words and never stops at all.”

Liturgically speaking, we are in Ordinary Time, a term designating the period between Epiphany and Lent and the period between Pentecost and Advent. This “ordinary time cycle” was made official after the Second Vatican Council and is viewed as an extraordinary opportunity to view Christ amidst our daily lives. However, the death of a child or a painful malady does not take heed to what season we are in liturgically. Our gospel reading for today, Mark 5:21-43, calls us to witness some remarkable healings of Jesus.

 Jesus met Jairus, an official from the local synagogue, who pleaded with Jesus saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” On the way to the official’s home, a woman with a long-standing physical problem had heard the rumors of Jesus’ healing powers and concluded, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” These two “extraordinary healings” took place in the “ordinary ministry” of Jesus.

Downplaying his own healing powers, Jesus concludes that it was the faith of the sick woman and the official that “Has made them well.” Both the gospels of Matthew (9:18-26) and Luke (8:40-56) have parallel accounts of these two healings, but it is only in the gospel of Mark that we are told that after healing Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter, Jesus said, “Give her something to eat.” Indeed, Jesus was a practical healer!

The miracles of Jesus found in the gospel punctuate our faith with the hope of healing, both for ourselves and for our loved ones. Whether it is the healing of the ailing woman or the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, Jesus offered healing – but not freedom – from physical death. Each of these people would inevitably die, but their deaths cannot be attributed to a personal failure of Jesus’ power to offer life.

The ultimate plan of Jesus was to invite people into the Kingdom of God. The entrance into the Kingdom would be through physical death. The inevitability of death is what marks our human condition, but it is the promise of Jesus that pushes us beyond mortality into a belief that we too will hear the voice of God saying, “Little lamb, arise.”

Unlike the comedian Woody Allen, who claimed “He had nothing against death personally, but he just didn’t want to be there when it happened,” I embrace the belief that the wisdom of God lies both in the death of Mary Kathleen at four days old as well as in the death of a one hundred and four old woman named Meta Faith. Death is unpredictable and disconcerting, but always inevitable.

Indeed, death’s timing is terribly unpredictable. Most of us can rely on a team of family and friends to come to the rescue  and keep us afloat in our sea of grief. Death sparks our primordial urge to pour out affection and kindness. Often, long-held grudges melt away and enemies once again become friends in their mutual search for joy and comfort amidst grief and suffering.

Only in the gospel of Mark does Jesus speak the colloquial Aramaic words, “Talitha koum.”  “Talitha is a term of endearment. It is etymologically related to a phrase meaning “little girl.”  However, it can also be translated as, “little lamb.”  Jesus use of this affectionate term of endearment seemed to embody his compassionate and gentle healing touch. These intimate words should nestle into our psyches, much like the toy lamb in Mary Kathleen’s flowers and and give way to dreams of resurrection.

If we listen attentively with the ears tuned to faith and hope, we too will hear – even in death – the whispered words of life, “Little lamb, arise.”

Peace, Fr. Joe Gillespie, O.P.