'Talitha kum', 'little girl, arise'. It is one of the places in the New Testament where we find Aramaic words. There are a number of these places, especially in the gospels, and particularly in Mark's gospel. It is believed that Aramaic was the mother tongue of Jesus. It is a language still used today, for example by the Christian communities struggling for survival in Iraq.
We can speculate about why these words and phrases survive in the New Testament. There seems to be no scholarly consensus about why they are there, and why they appear at precisely the places where we find them. The following seem like the three most importance occurrences of Aramaic words in Mark's gospel: the passage we read today in which Jesus says 'talitha kum' to the little girl, the passage from Mark 14 which tells of Jesus' agony in the garden and where he prays to his Father as 'Abba', and the words spoken by Jesus from the cross as recorded by Mark, 'Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani'.
What is common to all three is death. In all three moments Jesus is confronted with death. They are all times when faith or trust in God is put to its most extreme test, when Jesus engages with death, the final and ultimate enemy, the last weapon in the arsenal of the kingdom of Satan. And death seems like the victory of that kingdom. Having shown that he has power over illness and demons, over sin and the forces of nature, what about death? What can the Messiah do in the face of death? He proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand, a kingdom that is about life, the fulness of life, eternal life. How does he fare in the battle with death? Will his kingdom be able for that?
We can imagine that the Aramaic words survive because these encounters with death are the most intense, emotionally, of Jesus' ministry. We know from his reaction to the death of Lazarus how profoundly moved he was at the power of death. It is easy to see that Gethsemane and Golgotha are the most emotional moments for him personally, the times of deepest struggle: will he remain faithful even in this deepening darkness?
Here is a common factor, then, in what seem like the most significant uses of Aramaic words in Mark's gospel: they are recorded where Christ clashed with death. They are used in times of high emotion in the face of death. As if for the witnesses who record these encounters the experience was also deeply emotional, so that actual words and phrases, in the Lord's mother tongue, were seared into their hearts, minds and memories. Today's first reading reminds us that these encounters with death bring the Lord of Life face to face with the poison that was introduced into creation through the Devil's envy: 'God made the human being imperishable, in the image of God's own nature, and it was the devil's envy that brought death into the world'.
It is a speculation, a meditation, but it is at least interesting. And perhaps a lot more than interesting, because it raises the key question: how does faith fare in the face of death? My faith? Your faith? The faithfulness of Jesus? Our trust in him? Can we keep our balance in the face of death? Do we continue then to believe, and to hope, that with God all things are possible?