“The summer that I was ten – can it be there was only one summer that I was ten? It must have been a long one, then.” Thus begins one of my favorite poems, discovered at age 14 in my ninth grade literature book: The Centaur by May Swenson. It is about a little girl who takes her brother’s knife to cut down a branch and make a stick pony, becomes one with him as they gallop out in the fields, only to come home and be chided by her mother for her wrinkled dress, messy hair and grass-stained lips.
At age 14, ten seemed like a lifetime away, and at the same time, it felt like just yesterday that I’d been one not with a stick pony, but with the flying unicorn that was my bicycle. I, too, used to gallop around on the elementary school playground, snorting and neighing. And when I wasn’t galloping, I was daydreaming about it. This did me no favors in school grades-wise or socially. But at that magical transitional age of ten, it didn’t matter.
Middle school changed everything. You’ve been there, too. You know what happens. Something inside you dies as you succumb to that disease they call puberty.
The gospel reading from this past weekend tells a multi-leveled story of healing. You can Google Mark 5:21-43 and read some wonderful commentaries about the humility of the synagogue official, the despair and courage of the woman with the hemorrhage, the power of faith, and Mark’s use of literary devices in his storytelling. I could easily write and entire book about the many meanings of this one New Testament episode. I can identify with each of the character in the narrative, but I gravitate toward the little girl who was raised from the dead.
She was twelve. It was a tricky age in ancient Hebrew times. Remember, that was the age Jesus was when He got left behind in the temple. The men assumed He was, like the other little boys, with His mother. The women assumed that, at the age of 12 and following such a momentous occasion as a trip to Jerusalem, He’d reached the age where it was appropriate to be in the company of the men. Jesus, far wiser than most pre-teens, knew that the only way to navigate the trickiness of adolescence was to develop a relationship with His real Father, the heavenly one.
It was just as tricky for the girls. I can only imagine a young Hebrew girl’s anxiety as she awaited her menstruation. Once she started having a monthly period, she would no longer be a little girl, overnight. She would likely be married to a man twice her age within a year or two, leaving her childhood and family behind. I’m sure there were a few precocious preteens who eagerly anticipated womanhood, but I’m willing to bet many more anticipated the loss of their mothers, aunties and sisters with dread. Even in modern days, growing up is a kind of death. We lose the part of ourselves that gallops on stick ponies and whinnies loudly without shame. To be twelve, then and now, is to be “at the point of death,” figuratively speaking.
This weekend’s passage from the Old Testament book of Wisdom (not found in the Protestant Bible, and written about 50 years before the birth of Christ) states clearly, “God did not make death.” It also says that those who belong to the company of the devil experience death, an assertion that makes my stomach turn and my hackles go up. Everyone dies, both good and bad people. Every Old Testament hero except for Enoch and Elijah also died. You mean to tell me they were in the company of the devil? If Wisdom is talking about the literal physical death, this is a hard pill to swallow. One has only to look at the wonder of nature created by God to see how physical death is an important stage in the circle of life for every other non-human part of creation. In numerous ways death is actually necessary for new life – a theme to be found not only in science but in religions and philosophies and mythology throughout history and across diverse cultures, even the Christian faith.
What is death then? Just a physical state, or something more?
By all accounts, the little girl that Jesus raised was physically dead. But at twelve years old, she was at the point of death in a metaphorical way too. Jesus told the weeping wailers in the home that she was just asleep, perhaps to prevent them from creating chaos by spreading the story of what He was about to do. But perhaps He was telling us all something about the nature of physical death – that it is not the reality of God but an experience for which we were never intended. Perhaps those who are in the devil’s company are not there by choice, but abducted and assimilated into a life of loss and grief. Perhaps we are all just preteens who lost the will to live fully and unabashedly like the children we were, and simply “fell asleep” in lives of quiet desperation.
The most telling line of the story is when Jesus “wakes” the little girl. Mark reports, “He took the child by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum,’ which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” He called her a little girl. There’s no way of knowing if the girl had begun menstruating or not, but Jesus affirms her nature as a child, and in so doing affirms the child in all of us. Surely she went on to mature into a woman, but a woman who knew she was a child of God first.
We’ve all heard that psychological term “inner child.” It’s always made me roll my eyes a bit. I’ve been attracted to so many people whose inner child was both dead beyond my ability to resuscitate or acting out of control and sideways. What I only recently realized is that I was only attracted to what was in me – my own inner preteen who is dead or acting out. She needs the healing touch of Christ to wake her. She needs Him to name me as “little girl.” She needs me to nurture her and feed her and claim her and integrate her into my life as an adult, instead of dismissing or burying her. Of all the messages I could get from this Gospel, that is the one message that reaches me in this season of my life.
When I was looking up that old favorite poem of mine, I came across a hilarious but personally healing video. It’s a fancy adult dressage rider, mounted upon a stick pony for an entire dressage routine.
It is utterly absurd and childish and beautiful. It is what I’m called to do in my own way. After writing the bulk of this reflection, I got on my two-wheeled mount and we flew out of the neighborhood to pick blackberries in the hot sun. I honor the little girl I am, every day. She is a precious buck-toothed, nose-picking beauty, and the sooner I love her like Christ does, the sooner she’ll lead me back to life.