Today’s Gospel reading prompts me to reflect on something I once witnessed that I can’t explain, something that amazed me. I’ll call it a healing. It happened in the South Pacific, in the small village of Tawatana on the island of Makira in the nation-state of Solomon Islands.
What was I doing there, you might ask. That’s a good question. I’ll tell you.
My husband, Michael, is a social anthropologist, and since 1992 when he began field research for his PhD, Tawatana has been his primary host village among the Solomon Islanders known as the Arosi. In February of 2006 Michael began an eight-month period of new field research based at Tawatana, and I went with him for the first six weeks.
For Michael, this stay with the Arosi was a kind of homecoming, a return to old friends who had already taught him their language and way of life. For me, it was, I have to admit, something of an ordeal. Tawatana in 2006 had no electricity. People relied on the local stream for all their fresh water needs, and men and women used separate stretches along the beach as their respective ‘his’ and ‘hers’ toilet areas. Most dwellings were leaf huts used mainly for sleeping, and life was conducted primarily outdoors in the sticky tropical heat. I developed a prickly rash from overexposure to the sun, despite assiduous efforts to stay covered up, and a cut under my right ankle bone grew into a hellishly itchy, weeping sore. Only once did I make it up to the area above the village where people plant their sweet potato gardens. The pathway up was nearly vertical at intervals and slick with wet vegetation. It was too arduous a climb for me, although somehow Arosi of all ages did it every day – often multiple times a day – barefoot.
Not only was I physically uncomfortable most of the time, I was in the midst of people who practiced a strange ancestral religion. Arosi are, and have been since the mid nineteenth century, high church, surplice-wearing, thurible-swinging, Anglo-Catholic Anglicans. Arosi were my first Anglicans, in fact, the people whose example first attracted me to the Anglican tradition when I thought I had turned my back against Christianity.
Of course, Michael had already told me a great deal about the Arosi before I ever met them. He told me, for example, the story of how a man named Suri from the village of ‘Ubuna, just down the coast from Tawatana, had started an Anglican lay healing ministry back in the 1970s. During Michael’s first period of field research in the 1990s, Suri had given him detailed oral accounts of four dreams he had had over the course of four years. Through these dreams, Suri told Michael, Jesus had called him and shown him how to perform healings using holy water and prayers. Then, when Suri tried out, in waking life, the techniques he had seen in his dreams, he was hailed as successful and attracted followers. With the support of local Anglican priests, he and his followers formed a recognized lay healing ministry. They even adopted a distinctive uniform: a bright red, full-length tunic with a white sash, based on a design shown to Suri in another dream.
As a student of the history of religions, I had found all this fascinating and enjoyed discerning in Suri’s dreams his brilliant Arosi interpretations and extensions of biblical narratives. Intellectually, I could appreciate Suri’s theological creativity and even find it beautiful. But the very idea of a healing ministry still seemed to me to be just one more impossible thing Christianity asks you to believe in.
Then one afternoon, during my stay at Tawatana, Michael and I paid a call at the home of Ben and Elena Aharo, a married couple about our own age. While we were enjoying their hospitality, we heard a sudden commotion. A pick-up truck came rattling along the dirt road that passed near Ben and Elena’s house and stopped, full of what sounded like a bunch of rowdy young men. But it soon became clear that one of them was violently ill, and his companions were struggling to help him. He flailed about and groaned as if in agony. They brought him inside Ben and Elena’s house, and Michael, who understands and speaks the Arosi language, hurriedly explained to me that the sick man had been drinking kwaso, an illegal and dangerous home brew that is 100% alcohol.
All this unfolded very quickly, and before I could even take it in, Ben’s father, Martin Toku, who was a member of Suri’s healing ministry, suddenly appeared with two companions. The three of them had all brought what looked to me like bundled up parcels of cloth, but in a literal flash they unwrapped them, donned their bright red robes, and pulled out their prayer books. They went instantly to the side of the sick man, who was now writhing and moaning on a bed, and began to pray and lay their hands on him. Other villagers had arrived and were gathered around the bed too, creating a circle of intense concentration on the man and the work of the healers. I looked on in shock and fear, never having been exposed to audible, visceral suffering in my sheltered life, and thinking, ‘This is serious; this man is seriously ill and there is no real medical help anywhere near here.’
And then I was put to shame. My inability to imagine that three men in red robes with prayer books could do the sick man any good was put to shame. I don’t know how long it took. I only know that, as I looked on, and as I heard familiar-sounding prayers and psalms intoned in an unfamiliar tongue, and as I saw hands touching the man’s swollen stomach and pressing his arms and chest, he grew calmer and calmer and calmer, until a gentle peace came over him, and I couldn’t believe the transformation.
No, it wasn’t a miraculous restoration of sight to the blind, or a reversal of paralysis, or the spontaneous remission of a terminal cancer. But it was real. Something happened there. Some power arose and circulated there, a power that humbled me and made me acknowledge what we call the Holy Spirit. Something messianic happened, a moment of messianic salvation, healing. Not a miracle, yet wonderful. People conspiring, mingling their breath in prayers together, generating currents of comfort through touch, weaving someone who had strayed into anti-social behaviour back into the fabric of community support.
Today’s Gospel reading is all about what it means to be messianic. John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’, which is to say, are you the Messiah, the anointed one promised from of old by the prophets? In reply Jesus simply points to his ministry of healing with the implication that this alone should enable them and John to draw their own conclusions. But, of course, by this time Jesus has already sent his own disciples out to do the very same messianic things he himself is said to have been doing. Matthew is clearly keen to establish unequivocally that Jesus – and not John – is the one, the Messiah. But Jesus himself doesn’t seem so insistent on being the one and only one, the only messianic one. Arguably, all of us who are baptized into Christ are anointed to be messianic, to bring moments of salvific healing to each other.
Regarding John the Baptist, Jesus goes on to ask the crowd, ‘What did you go out to the wilderness to see?’ Whenever I read or recall that question, I find that I want to turn it around and address it to myself, but with regard to Jesus, rather than John. What do I keep going out to see and find in Jesus? What am I looking for in him? A Messiah? Yes, inevitably; but what do I want from a Messiah? There was a time, I think, when I thought I wanted Absolute Truth, complete revelation of the divine nature, the mind of God. But I’m more demanding than that now. Now when I go out to see Jesus – when I look for him here – I am hoping to find, not miracles, or omniscience, or immortality, but a few messianic moments of healing, like the one I saw in Solomon Islands. And thanks to all of you, the messiahs of St Barnabas, I am finding them.