One day, while Jesus was speaking on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, a desperate man approached him through the crowd. Jairus was a lay leader of the synagogue, probably in Capernaum. His only daughter, just 12 years old, was at the point of death. But, he implored, falling down at the Savior's feet, if Jesus would only come and lay his hand upon her, he knew that she would live. So Jesus, who (as Jewish custom prescribed) had been sitting while teaching, stood up and, with his disciples, followed the worried father.
But so did the crowd. And they, too, were needy. It was a slow procession, and before they had gone very far, others from Jairus' house met them. His daughter, they told him, was dead. There was no point in troubling "the Master" any further.
"Be not afraid," Jesus responded, in his first recorded words to Jairus, "only believe." "She shall be made whole."
So, taking only Peter, James and John with him, he continued to walk toward the house where the girl lay. When he arrived, however, he found mourners weeping and wailing in ancient Middle Eastern fashion, and heard the sorrowful music of flutes. Why, he asked them, were they making so much noise? The young girl wasn't dead. She was merely asleep.
At this, though, all three synoptic gospels — the story is told in Matthew 9, Mark 5 and Luke 8 — record that "they laughed him to scorn." They knew the difference between sleep and death.
But he sent them all out, and taking no one but his three disciples and the girl's parents into the house, he entered the room where she lay dead. Taking her by the hand and speaking in the familiar Aramaic language, he said to her "Talitha koum!" ("Little girl, get up!"). "And her spirit came again," records the physician Luke. She immediately stood up and walked, and Jesus told them to give her something to eat. He also told them to tell nobody what had happened. But the secret was impossible to keep, and Matthew says that the entire region soon knew what had been done.
Carl Bloch's 1863 oil painting "The Daughter of Jairus," which has been on display at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art (after May 7, it will return to the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen), memorably captures an important moment in the story.
Rather than depicting the joy of the young girl's healing, Bloch shows the time of perhaps deepest despair.
The girl's body lies upon a bed in a well-appointed room befitting a prosperous family. A lamp, set behind a curtain to the viewer's left, offers no comfort, but serves only to emphasize the bloodless pallor of her face, arm and hand. This deathly white contrasts starkly with the warm, living flesh of her grieving mother, who sits on the bed by the girl's leg, a tear running down her face. She leans forward, gazing intensely, yearningly, at her daughter, virtually willing her to live again.
But mere human willing can accomplish nothing against death.
However, in the background, in the dark upper right of the painting, Jesus, with two of his disciples, is just entering into the room. A man, probably Jairus, kneels to kiss his hand. The mother, intent upon her dead daughter, is unaware of the visitors. For her, as too often for us, "The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not."
On this occasion, though, it could be said of Capernaum as it has been said of Bethlehem, that "in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."
For, behind Jesus, the first light of dawn has begun to appear. The morning star shines above the dark figures of the Savior and his apostles in the still-night sky.
The prosperity of Jairus, this ruler of the local synagogue, was unable to save his daughter. The fine furnishings in the room could not save her. The humanly created light of the lamp only emphasized the awful fact that she was dead. The divine light, entering upon them, would introduce the awe-inspiring fact of renewed life, and of a family made whole again after seemingly irreparable loss.