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Promises, Promises

Around this time of year, our church calendar prescribes a Scripture reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 8, which concerns a tragedy in the household of a man named Jairus. It seems that Jairus and his wife had a daughter, and this girl—only 12 years old—had fallen sick and lay dying at the family home.

The response of parents to the prospect of a child’s death is the same now as it has always been: no sacrifice is too great, no probability of cure too remote to shake the parents’ hope that the child might be returned to health. In Jairus’s case, though he was an important man in his community (St. Luke calls him a “ruler of the synagogue”) he did not feel it beneath his dignity to go before a complete stranger who was rumored to have performed some miraculous cures.

That stranger was Jesus Christ. Moved by the desperate father’s plea, he accompanied Jairus home, to attend to the dying girl.

However, as they approached the house, there came news that Jairus’s daughter had succumbed, and that Christ need not trouble himself any longer. Jesus’s response to this grim news is strange, considering the circumstances. He made a promise to the heartbroken father. “Do not be afraid,” he said; “only believe, and she shall be well.”

We are not told Jairus’s reaction to these words; but in his heart of hearts, could he have felt anything other than doubt? “Do not fear,” this stranger says; but how could Jairus not be afraid—how could any of us not be afraid to hear news of our child’s death? As they approached the girl’s deathbed, Jesus made an even more puzzling remark: he insisted that, far from being dead, the girl was merely sleeping. At this, the Scriptures tell us, even his closest disciples—Peter, John and James—could not help but laugh, “for they knew the girl was dead.”

Reading this passage 2,000 years after the events it describes, it’s difficult to grasp the significance of the disciples’ laughter. We are so accustomed to hearing the stories of Christ’s miracles that they have become—paradoxically—mundane. We “know” that the story will end happily, and so the impact of the preceding episodes is reduced.

But if we can for a moment put ourselves in Jairus’s place, then Christ’s promise to a grieving father that he need not be afraid must seem like an insensitive joke: empty words and empty consolation.

To illustrate the point, consider something closer at hand. This week, across America, our country will observe Veterans Day. This day has come to represent a tribute to the courage and sacrifice of soldiers during times of war. We have witnessed such courage and sacrifice in recent years, and so perhaps this day should speak more powerfully to us today than it has before. But Veterans Day began as a commemoration of the end of the First World War. The leaders of that time consoled a war-weary population by assuring everyone that they had fought “the war to end all wars.” “Do not be afraid,” they promised; “all will be well.”

It was a promise they could not keep. War, it seems, is a perpetual symptom of the human condition. Even the most peace-loving people cannot hide from it, for violence will seek them out, and they will be compelled to take up arms in defense of their lives and liberty. Our generation, like every generation, has been reminded of this, all too well.

Even so, the powers of the world around us—political bodies, diplomats, scientists, educators, business leaders—all continue to offer us promises, in an attempt to dismiss our worst fears. To our fears of poverty they offer a new economics. To our fears of enslavement they offer a new politics. To our fears of mortality they offer a new medical technology. Each time the expectation is bigger; and of course, each time the promise remains unfulfilled.

People have grown cynical as a result of these broken promises. Who today believes anyone when they say: “Don’t be afraid”? Why should they?

With this in mind, return now to the Gospel story. When Jairus heard the awful news about his only child, perhaps he, too, was cynical. To his ears, the promise of Jesus must have seemed outlandish.

But Christ took that child’s hand in his own, and before Jairus’s amazed eyes—amid the laughter of the disciples themselves—he restored Jairus’ daughter to life.

Christ’s promises are not like the promises of the world. Where the world can offer only excuses, Christ delivers truth—and hope. Every day he says to us: “Do not be afraid; only believe.” This assurance comes not from an ivory-tower philosopher, who has no knowledge of the real world, but from one who experienced at first hand how truly frightening the world can be. From a man who lived his entire life in the shadow of humiliation, suffering, and death; who bore these things with unshakable faith in the truth of his heavenly Father.

Such faith requires great courage. But for Christians, that courage is not an idle, romantic longing. It is a promise offered by someone who always delivered on his promises—even to the point of returning from death.

This is not to say that we will all be miraculously delivered from our worst nightmares, as Jairus was. God will perform His miracles to suit His purposes, and sometimes His purposes require that we endure terrible sufferings. As Armenians, we can never forget that—even more than a century after the Genocide.

But as Christian Armenians, we must also believe that this life is not the ultimate reality, and death is not the ultimate end. That, too, is a lesson we should take from the past year.

Above all, we may believe this with confidence, for we have the promise of one who has never yet let us down.

Christ made many promises during his ministry. Before he ascended to his Father, he promised that he would one day come again. On that day, he will take the hands of each of his faithful children in his own—from the first martyr to the last baptized soul—and demonstrate once and for all that they were merely sleeping after all.

May all of us be worthy to feel our Lord’s tender touch on that day.

—Christopher H. Zakian

Above: “The Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter” (1871) by Vasiliy Polenov.

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