In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading we open upon a scene of stark and inconsolable sorrow. Our Lord and His disciples are walking toward the village Nain, which in Hebrew means “beautiful” or “pleasant.” Situated on one of several green, rolling hills, Nain is a small, out of the way place, and yet it is notable for its scenic beauty and pastoral charm. It is a quiet, calm locale where an artist might travel to be inspired or an old man might go just to rest his weary bones. Peace should prevail here, for there is little reason to struggle, even less reason to put on airs, in a place so far off the beaten track. And yet the scene here is anything but peaceful. A widow has lost her son, her surviving means of support, the one on whom she presumably placed all her remaining hopes. As much as her heart breaks for the loss of the boy she had nursed, fed, and clothed, no doubt she is also thinking about the bleak future in store for her. Unless someone provides her considerable charity, the widow likely will lose the roof over her head. She will be destitute, hungry, alone. She will not want to live anymore, for this world is hard enough when we lose the people we love. Imagine losing that and then virtually everything else. Imagine having nothing at all, but the God who feels distant and unconcerned. The widow is surrounded by her fellow villagers, as her son’s corpse is carried on a bier out to the cemetery. They all mourn for her in that loud and physically expressive manner which was then and remains so indicative of the culture of the Near East, and yet there is so little comfort in the wailing and the breast beating. Those tears cannot deliver the widow from her extreme sorrow. Those cries cannot restore for the widow the hope that seems to have been ripped out from her chest. If anything, the fact that the mourning has spread throughout the village simply compounds the widow’s darkness. It is said that misery loves company, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that misery expects company. For the heart of our own hopelessness is that the world at large is hopeless. The heart of our own despair is that the world at large is in the grip of despair. The villagers crying for the widow are as much crying for themselves and for a world that seems at every turn to be irredeemably dark. So in this peaceful venue we find a contrast in the funeral procession. Juxtaposed against the beautiful sun and the lush, rolling, green hills is the heavy blackness of death and despair. The contrast is the message: For the world without Christ Jesus is at best a clunky composite of good and bad, of grace and sin, of life and death. At worst, it is an outskirt of hell characterized by the long shadows of a setting sun.
Christ Jesus has compassion on the widow, and He says unto her, “Weep not.” He does not say that He feels her pain, or that He will shed a tear with her. Rather, He tells her not to cry, which on the face of it would seem to be more insensitive than empathetic. For does she not have the right to cry for her loss? Moreover, since a normal man cannot deliver her from her severe loss, or radically change the future that is in store for her, would it be moral for him at this time even to try to deny her the tears on her face? On the face of it, it would seem that the man who can give the widow nothing is attempting to take away from her the one thing she still has – namely her personal grief, her ritualized mourning, the broken heart that for a while at least will make the memories she carries of her son that much more vivid and real. What seems to be the case, though, is not what is, for Christ Jesus is not a normal man. Nor is He like all of those other men who can give the widow nothing. On the contrary, Christ Jesus is the One Man who can and will give the widow everything. When He tells her to “weep not” He is not at all being insensitive or lacking empathy, for in telling the widow not to cry He is setting the stage to give unto her and her son a far greater life than the life that has been lost. In telling the widow to set aside all her sorrow, He is asking her to have faith in Him. As if to demonstrate that He alone is the One Man in whom the widow may have faith, Christ Jesus touches the bier. Now, at this time, a bier was in essence an open coffin. The corpse would have been wrapped in bandages, but in being so exposed to the elements likely he already would be starting to decompose. The smell of death would highlight that the bier, and the corpse resting on the bier, are polluted items best left to the vultures as soon as possible. A Rabbi might accompany the procession, but he would never touch the bier. He might say the requisite burial prayers, but he would never get all that close to the dead body about to be discarded. Christ Jesus turns that all upside down. He touches the bier, and when He does so the procession momentarily stops. The people have noticed that this Rabbi is very different from the rest. For a moment, the sorrow has given way to awe and, one would suspect, more than a bit of trepidation. Who really is this Man who instructs the widow to weep not and who touches the bier? If the funeral procession is in contrast to the beautiful sun and the lush, rolling, green hills, then this Man is that much more in contrast to everything else. If the funeral procession is like an ugly graffiti scrawl on an otherwise beautiful canvas of art, this Man is like a sledgehammer bursting through the canvas so that an entirely new work of art may be painted and put up on the wall. The Gospel tells us that those who bare the dead body stood still when Christ Jesus touched the bier, and rightly they should. Intellectually, they may have had little inkling of what this Man was all about, but in their deeper hearts they knew that something sacred and holy was about to happen. This profane world which had seemed to them woefully irredeemable was about to be transformed. What can a man do at that moment but to stand still and to be silent? What can a man do before the face of God but to be in sheer reverence and awe? If only man would stand still, God would act. If only man would stay silent, God would speak. In many ways, faith is just getting out of the way, so that God may do for us so much more than we can imagine doing for ourselves.
Christ Jesus brings life back to the boy, but even more profoundly He delivers the boy back to his mother. Christ Jesus restores the family that had been lost. If we just get out of the way, and let God do unto us as He wills, He will restore unto us everything and everyone we have lost. As we say in the Prayer of Humble Access, God is “the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” He shows us mercy in making us whole again, even though because of our sins we are unworthy of any such gift. He shows us mercy in giving us the abundance of His eternal life and joy, even though in our transgressions we have continually embraced death and destruction. In the end, to be made whole, to be alive in His eternal life, means so much more than just raising us up from the dead. It means restoring to us our relationships, our loved ones, and redeeming those relationships so that they can go forward this time without the degradations of disloyalty, infidelity, envy, harsh words, lies, all those sins with which we have perverted our loves and our friendships over time. Christ Jesus literally turns around the funeral procession. The boy, once carried on a bier, is now carried in his mother’s arms. The sorrow, once inconsolable, has given way to celebration and abiding joy. This is what Christ Jesus has in store for each and every one of us. Stand still, be silent, have faith in Our Lord’s words and actions, and let Him restore you.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.