The Hem of His Garment
In the Byzantine Rite (sometimes simply referred to as the Eastern Liturgy) there is a particularly beautiful moment of reenactment, which moved me the very first time I saw it (and many times since). When the priest processes with the gifts before the liturgy of the Eucharist, the parishioners reach out to touch the edge of his cloak. This action is a liturgical re-presentation of the gospel healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (cf. Matthew 9:20–22, Mark 5:25–34, Luke 8:43–48). This woman pushes through a crowd to get close to Jesus, assuring herself that if she can only touch the hem of his garment, she will be healed (cf. Luke 8:44). Jesus commends the woman for her great faith. Since the priest is acting in persona Christi, the parishioners are repeating this act of faith when they touch the hem of the priest’s cloak. By touching the cloak, they express their belief that God works through the material world, that he works through the sacraments and that he works through the smallest of things.
What gave me cause for further reflection on this liturgical action was my own recent experience in learning to sew. My three-year-old son likes to play priest, and, in particular, he likes to demand that the rest of the family touch the hem of his blanket-cloak as he walks by. I decided, having recently acquired a sewing machine, that my first project would be to sew him a cloak from brocade. Perhaps not a great project idea for a novice seamstress! Brocade material, as I soon discovered, frays easily. It also does not iron well, so I had to put pins end-to-end around the entire edge of the cloak to create the hem (and then again for a rolled hem), not to mention the fact that I hemmed the curved bottom rather unevenly. The work was slow and tedious.
While finishing this project I thought many times about the woman reaching out for the hem of Jesus’ cloak, and the liturgical recreation of this moment. It occurred to me that touching the hem of the priest’s cloak can serve as a kind of veneration of the mystery of the incarnation in its entirety. The incarnation – that God became man – sometimes loses its shock value for us Christians. The cross too can come to seem commonplace, and the scandal of the God who bleeds for us can fail to impact us as it should. But thinking of the cloak can perhaps help to reawaken us to the shocking nature of the fact that the God who is all powerful, eternal, omnipotent, and incorporeal took on a finite, weak body and came among us. He entered into everyday human life, including being subject to human art and human need. Christ needed clothes and he needed a human being to sew them for him. He wore fabric that could fray and that needed to be properly hemmed. Who hemmed his garments? Where did he buy them? What became of them when they cast lots for his clothing?
To ask and contemplate such questions is to realize that Jesus’ life is no mere fairytale and that the gospel is not just a collection of nice stories about a great teacher. That we can think of the hem of his garment means we can think about a real human being who walked among us and endured all that we endure. Sometimes I am tempted to think that suffering martyrdom or some kind of impressive trial would be easier, or at least more worth talking about, than enduring the tedium of everyday chores – taxes, bills, meal planning and the like. But the fact is that Jesus, although he did live an extraordinary life, also lived an ordinary life which included the same kinds of details that my own life does. When we touch the hem of his garment, therefore, we honor his human life with all of its many sacrifices, and we honor that he lived his life completely configured to his complete sacrifice on the cross. By acknowledging that even the very edge of his garment can heal us, we perhaps can begin to see what the sacrifice of his whole life can do.