Question: "I have heard conflicting interpretations about the woman with an issue of blood. On the one hand, I have heard it said that by touching the hem of Christ's garment, she was showing her obedience to the traditions regarding her ritual uncleanness. On the other hand, I have heard it said that she was boldly stepping beyond those same traditions. Which interpretation is correct?"
Most of the Church Fathers whose commentaries I have do not focus on this question, but focus on other elements of the story, but there are two Fathers who cite the example of this woman in ways that would seem to give support to both of the options presented in this question. Both of them were commenting on issues related to menstruating women -- and rather than repeat what I have said previously about what is at issue in their comments, see "A Response to "Holy Communion and Menstruation,"" as well as the references mentioned at the end of that article, for more detail.
St. Gregory the Great, in a letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury, says:
"Yet still a woman, while suffering from her accustomed sickness, ought not to be prohibited from entering the church, since the superfluity of nature cannot be imputed to her for guilt, and it is not just that she should be deprived of entrance into the church on account of what she suffers unwillingly. For we know that the woman who suffered from an issue of blood, coming humbly behind the Lord, touched the hem of his garment, and immediately her infirmity departed from her. If then one who had an issue of blood could laudably touch the Lord's garment, why should it be unlawful for one who suffers from a menstruum of blood to enter in the Lord's Church?
...Further, she ought not to be prohibited during these same days from receiving the mystery of holy communion. If, however, out of great reverence, she does not presume to receive, she is to be commended; but, if she should receive, she is not to be judged. For it is the part of good dispositions in some way to acknowledge their sins, even where there is no sin, since often without sin a thing is done which comes of sin."
On the other hand St. Dionysius of Alexandria, in his Second Canon, which was affirmed by the Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Councils, says:
"Concerning menstruous women, whether they ought to enter the temple of God while in such a state, I think it superfluous even to put the question. For, I opine, not even they themselves, being faithful and pious, would dare when in this state either to approach the Holy Table or to touch the body and blood of Christ. For not even the woman with a twelve years’ issue would come into actual contact with Him, but only with the edge of His garment, to be cured."
St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain commenting on this canon, says:
"For they can recall that woman who had an issue of blood and who on account of the flux of her blood did not dare, because of her great reverence, to touch the body of Christ, but only the hem of His garment. None of them is forbidden to pray, whatever be her predicament (whether she be at home or in the narthex of the church), by imploring God and asking Him for help and salvation. One is forbidden, however, to go near the Holies of Holies, which is the same as saying to partake of the sanctified portions (i.e., the Eucharistic species) when he is not clean in soul and body, like women who are taken with their menses."
In the ancient discipline of the Church, those who were to commune stood in the nave, whereas those who were not to commune stood in the narthex. Without getting into all the details, suffice it to say that as circumstances changed, the discipline of who could stand in the nave and who was confined to the narthex (or to the outside of the Church) has changed, and so the line beyond which such people could pass has moved to the iconostasis from the doors of the nave, or the narthex.
So while these two fathers do not directly contradict each other on the interpretation of the healing of the woman with an issue of blood, they certainly do not come to all of the same conclusions. Of these two, St. Dionysius's interpretation would have to be considered the more authoritative, since it has the endorsement of the Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Councils.
But looking at the accounts in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; and Luke 8:43-48); and also looking at the Old Testament law, and Jewish customs, there is some basis for saying she boldly went beyond the letter of the ceremonial law of Moses, and some basis for saying she only went so far out of reverence for the law. According to the letter of the law, she should not have been out of her home while in this state, and so on that point she stepped beyond the law, but several fathers point out that she dared only "touch the hem of His garment" and wished to remain hidden because she felt constrained not to go any further than that. She also did not merely have the hope that she might be healed, and thus be made clean, but was absolutely convinced of it, so she was not lightly stepping beyond the law, but because she saw taking this action as the only way she could finally be healed, and after twelve years in this state, begin to live a normal life again.
So I think the point to take away here is that we cannot always strictly adhere to the letter of the law, but we also should not step beyond it lightly. And of course for us, it is not the ceremonial law of the Old Testament that should concern us, but the pious Traditions of the Church. However, when it comes to the moral law of God, we never have license to violate it.
Three points of interest here:
1. The "hem" of Christ's garment would likely have been one of the four tassels (Hebrew: tsitsit) which the law of Moses required Israelites to wear (Deuteronomy 22:12). You can read what Alfred Edersheim has to say about in his classic "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah" by clicking here).
2. Eusebius (who reposed about 340 a.d.) records in his Ecclesiastical History (7:18:1-4) that there was a bronze statue of Christ healing the woman with an issue of blood that was erected on the spot that the miracle occurred, which he himself had seen when he was there, and that the tradition was that this woman had commissioned this herself. This statue remained until it was removed during the time of Julian the Apostate.
3. According to Tradition, the woman with an issue of blood was St. Veronica, who also was the one who wiped the blood from Christ's face as he carried his Cross, and that the miraculous icon "Not-made-by-hands" appeared on the cloth.