This morning I saw a news piece from npr.org that the California Milk Board has scrapped a recent marketing pitch that focused on drinking milk and PMS. Yes, that PMS. Apparently, the science is sound, but (and I don’t know who in the marketing department totally failed on this one) an ad campaign that focuses on getting unhappy husbands to encourage their PMS-battling wives to consume more milk in an effort to alleviate unpleasant symptoms didn’t go over so well. Really? Duh.
Even before I saw that, I was already thinking about our culture’s (particularly male culture) discomfort with menstruation. Why? Well, today’s gospel lesson (Mark 5:21-43) is a direct challenge to that cultural baggage. I wasn’t going to comment on in here, but, given the NPR story, it seemed appropriate.
Jesus is walking through a crowd on his way to heal the daughter of an important official. As he pushes through the people, he stops. “Which one of these people touched me,” he asks his disciples. “Master,” they replied, “that’s ridiculous. The crowd is all around us. How could we know which one touched you?” But Jesus is insistent. He demands that the anonymous be brought to light.
This woman, defined by her unstoppable menstrual flow, was otherwise unknown to society. She lived apart. She wasn’t invited to social gatherings. Whoever she was—whoever she had been before her illness—was lost. Her identity was sacrificed to her unspeakable disease. But she had faith, and so she touched Jesus. The physical healing was automatic. It required no response from Jesus. But Jesus was interested in more than just a physical healing. Jesus wanted to give this woman back her identity as one of God’s beloved children, so he called her out, refusing to press on to his urgent destination until she had been singled out.
There’s an old episode of King of the Hill, in which Hank, who is watching his neighbor’s daughter, is forced to go down the “feminine hygiene” aisle in the Mega Lo Mart to look for some maxi pads when Connie gets her first period. The whole episode is summed up in Hank’s aversion to “Aisle 8A,” which is cleverly the title of the episode. Seeking to console himself about this misadventure, he mumbles in discomfort, “Aisle 8A…we sure are a long way from automotive.” Later, when he explains to Peggy, his wife, that he had “to learn about megalabsorbancy,” she replies, “You went down Aisle 8A? We’ve been married for twenty years, and I can’t get you past Aisle 5.” If you haven’t seen it, it really is worth a watch.
Stop for a moment and consider this: if we live in a culture in which men are uncomfortable with menstruation, what was it like in Jesus’ day—in a time in which women on their periods were forced to live apart from the rest of society to avoid accidental physical contact with others? Men were so afraid of women’s periods that they labeled them (the women) “unclean.” Imagine, then, what it was like to be the woman in the gospel lesson—who had been bleeding for twelve years. Who would even listen to her? Did anyone even remember that she had a name?
We have inherited a pretty silly cultural discomfort for the biological cycles of women. And we have inherited a lot of other ridiculous cultural aversions that we struggle with. Issues of gender, issues of race. Mental retardation. Physical disability. Poverty. Grief. Sexuality. There are lots of things we are uncomfortable with. I don’t think Jesus is telling us that our discomfort is wrong. But I do think he’s reminding us that just because we don’t understand something or don’t find it very pleasant doesn’t mean that it’s not completely “of God.” Without even realizing it, we marginalize those who make us squirm a little bit. And when we segregate them from the rest of society, we are saying to them, “You are defined by your difference.” And Jesus is calling them out into the middle of the crowd and saying to them, “You are defined by your identity as a beloved child of God.” Why can’t I be more like that?