The Touch

“Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son from Nain,” from the Codex Aureus of Echternach

I’ve become kind of hung up on the 11th-century Codex Aureus (Golden Book) of Echternach. It’s a book that contains the text of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, handwritten in a beautiful Latin script –– all in real gold ink on large vellum pages, each almost 11 x 17 inches. 

That gold ink gives this manuscript and others like it the name “Golden Book” –– not to be confused with the “Golden Books” of our childhoods. (I Am a Bunny by Richard Scarry was a favorite of mine.) The lavishness of the production is enough to get our attention and make us start wondering about the role that luxury Bibles like this might have played in the royal courts of the day. But that’s not what has captured my attention.

It’s the pages of illustrations that come after each of the gospels that have captured my imagination. In style, they are like a lot of medieval book illustrations, or illuminations, the kind that was so well parodied by the animations of Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. In function, they are more like comic books or what scholars of the genre call “sequential art.” The image above is a great example.

This rectangular image is telling the story of the time Jesus raised the only son of a widow from death. While the image is presented as a single scene, a closer look shows it to be at least two, if not more, moments. There are two Jesuses! He’s the one in the light blue (probably intended to be read as white) robe with the dark green shawl. We can tell that it’s Jesus because his head is framed by a golden halo. On the left side of the frame, a crowd follows Jesus who seems to have been stopped in mid-stride by a woman who has bent down and is reaching out with her hand in Jesus’ direction. Jesus turns around. His face seems to be directed down to her but his eyes are on the crowd while he gestures off to the right as though he is pointing to his future self. The gesture of the hand indicates that Jesus is speaking. That’s one of the rules of medieval Christian art. Everyone talks with their hands, even God. 

As we look closer, we notice that this woman’s dress is a darker red than that of the woman whose hands are raised in the right-hand image. These aren’t two images of the same story. They are two different stories! The title above strengthens this conclusion. It includes the Latin word SANGUINUS, which means “blood.” This is the woman with the incurable hemorrhage from two chapters later in Luke. Her action seems to be interrupting Jesus. Indeed, Luke tells us that Jesus stopped when he felt her touch and looked around the crowd asking “Who touched me?” As we’ve already noted, Jesus’ face is toward the woman, but his eyes are on the crowd behind him. In Luke’s account, this encounter does interrupt Jesus, but in the text, Jesus is on his way to bring a little girl back from death, not the widow’s son in Nain. 

Is the artist confusing their Bible stories or have they deftly given us three stories with two images?

The next story happens on the right side of the frame. Whereas the left side froze a single moment in time, here at least five things are happening. We know from the way Luke tells the story that these things happen rapidly, but in an order, one after the other. There’s a causal relationship between the events. Luke tells us that after comforting the woman, Jesus touches the bier that bears the body of her dead son. His touch stops those who are carrying it in their tracks. Then Jesus says “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  Then the son sits up on the bier and begins speaking.  Seeing this, the crowd is gripped by a curious mix of abject fear and unrestrained praise. The gesture of the mother, hands in the air, suggests these emotions of surprise, fear and joy. 

Our artist, however, presents all of these discrete moments as though they happen all at once, in a single frame. The touch of Jesus stops death and brings life. Just like that, as it did for the woman in the image on the left.

In the arc of Luke’s account, this raising of a dead man (and the little girl) anticipates the resurrection of Jesus himself. They are prequels to Easter. Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, features two more resurrections2, like ripples in a pond that head out in every direction.

We know that Jesus’ act of touching the bier was a radical departure from the tradition. While some people needed to carry the bier, most people would be careful to avoid contact in order to keep themselves ritually pure, as though the death somehow transferred to the living in the contact. Nobody wants that kind of trouble if they can help it.

The research done by Inspiring Comfort indicates that while most of us are capable of recognizing when someone else is in distress, an equal number of us feel unqualified to make contact with them in their trouble. Like the people around that dead man’s bier, we keep our distance. Yet, we who live on this side of the resurrection, who know that in Jesus’ death and all that threatens death does not have absolute power, have the opportunity to learn how to make contact with those who are hurting around us. We can risk making contact, risk listening without judgment or solutions, risk expressing genuine comfort and support.

As with Jesus in the Golden Book, it’s the moment of contact that makes the difference.

Pr. Jim

Sept. 28, 2022

Pastor Jim and Pastor Kate take turns writing weekly devotions for the Chapel of the Resurrection.

1Artwork: “Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son from Nain,” from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, an 11th-century illuminated Gospel Book, created in the approximate period 1030-1050, with a re-used front cover from around the 980s. It is now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany.

2Acts 9:40, Acts 20:9-10