20th Sunday after Pentecost / Seventh Ecumenical Council; Apostle James, son of Alphaeus / Gal. 1.11-19; Luke 7.11-16
F/S/HS. Dear sisters and brothers, a harrowingly sad scene to begin this morning’s Gospel story. Ponder the scene. Use your prayerful and empathetic faculties and crawl into it, and indwell it; and you will see and feel that harrowing sadness.
Our Lord enters a city called Nain. His Disciples and a large crowd accompany Him. He sees a procession out in front of him, led by a coffin and a woman next to the coffin. It is a funeral procession. V. 12 names two facts about this woman, facts intentionally set forth by our Gospel writer the Evangelist Luke. The first fact is that this woman is a widow; her husband has died, though he is not the one inside the coffin. While the second fact is that it is not only her son who is inside that coffin, but her only son!
It is noteworthy that the text does not say her only child, but instead her only son; noteworthy for a cultural reason of Jesus’ time, namely that when a woman’s husband dies, she remains someone, she has an identity, she is afforded certain societal perks, only because she has a son who now becomes her overseer and caretaker. And now this son too, with her husband, is gone.
The text does not tell us if this woman has any daughters. Even if she did have daughters, absent a son she is something of a goner, meaning that her chances for an ongoing vital life in the society of Jesus’ time are greatly diminished if not altogether foiled.
Which is precisely why the early church so emphasized loving care for the widows. Which is why the myrrh-bearing women and other women disciples of our Lord became so well known for taking care of the widows: befriending them, housing them, feeding them.
And we know from our Gospel story one additional fact about this widow and son-less woman who is processing next to her son’s coffin. We know that when Jesus first encounters her, He sees that she is weeping. V. 13: When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’
I hope it goes without saying, though I will say it anyway, that Jesus in no way is opposed to our tears, to our weeping. Our Lord Himself wept when He learned of the death of his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11.35). He wept over God’s people, the Jews, when He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’ (Lk. 19.41-42).
No, our Lord and our Christian Scriptures, and our Christian tradition, never belittle our tears or our weeping. As my Cherokee native American friend Jean said to me near the end of her own life, when she saw me weeping: Daniel, I’ve never seen you cry before. Those who keep their tears inside are doomed to drown in them.
Jesus’ admonishment that day to the woman at Nain to not weep was not so much about her tears but rather the despondency and despair that accompanied her tears. Tears coming from a place of despondency and despair signal a human soul entirely bereft of all hope, unable or even unwilling to trust God’s mysterious providence, even during times of death.
Dear ones, as I was writing this homily I began to notice something visiting me, a visitation that seemed to get larger and louder by the minute. Eventually so large and so loud that I felt compelled to leave my key board and go a few feet away, to my altar, and lower my head in somber and pleading prayer.
Where is Nain geographically? It is in modern day Isreal, about two miles south of Mount Tabor, about 8 miles southeast of Nazareth, a largely Arab village in north Israel located just above the West Bank and not far below the Golan Heights.
What continued to visit and cry out in my soul while I stood before my altar in prayer was this! In both Greek and Hebrew the word Nain means beautiful. Yet what began to unfold 105 miles south of Nain in Israel fifteen days ago, along the Gaza Strip, when Hamas militants crashed Israel’s borders, killing over 1300 civilians and taking nearly 200 hostages, was anything but beautiful; followed by Israel beginning a multi-day bombing of Gaza, killing over 4000 persons to date; and this painful crisis escalating with each new day; and while it escalates, mothers walking alongside the coffins of their own dead sons, stricken with tears, weeping in grief, so similar to the mother who wept over her son that day long ago in a city—Nain—just over a hundred miles away.
And then my soul seemed to mystically transport 2000 miles north, to Ukraine and Russia, and to images of mothers walking alongside the coffins of their own dead sons, fallen during that regions ongoing grief-filled war.
Standing before my altar, I confess that I could very much relate to the woman of Nain; I was aware of a measure of my own despondency, born out of an incoherent and despairing cry: O Lord, why can’t you, why won’t you stop these wars; why won’t You approach these coffins and resurrect these sons, just as you raised the widow of Nain’s son, just as you raised Jairus’ daughter, just as you raised Lazarus? You are the Lord of the living and the dead. Come then and raise these dead sons and stop these blood-letting wars.
As understandable as was the cry of my own soul—or the cry of your soul about these tragic and life-stealing wars—my cry came from a place of bad theology. And whatever despondency and despair was upon me, was quite possibly of a sinful nature. So my soul lectured me!
And went on to lecture me: Get real Fr. Daniel, Jesus is not going to come and miraculously resurrect the multitudes of these dead sons, as He did the widow’s son, as he did Jairus’ daughter, as He did Lazarus.
Into this morass of bad theology and swirling thoughts and emotions then came a gift of mercy, a similar gift and mercy that came to the woman at Nain that day: the gift of Jesus’ suffering compassion, His suffering for all humanity. But a compassion different than Jesus displayed that day in Nain when He approached that coffin and said Young man, I say to you, arise.
Jesus resurrected the son of the woman of Nain—and Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus—as a demonstration to all during His earthly ministry that He was and would forever more become Lord over death; that death has no final or lasting sting. Yes, our Lord is most likely not going to appear in person in Israel or any of the Palestinian territories, or appear in Russia or Ukraine, or here for that matter, and resurrect persons as he resurrected the widow of Nain’s son that day.
What our Lord can do, and with all of His heart desires to do, is to fulfill His promise of sending His Holy Spirit to all grieving mothers, to all of us, following His own death and Resurrection; His indwelling Spirit that says to all of humanity Arise from your despair, I am with you as suffering compassion until one day your physical bodies will indeed arise from their coffins to reside in in the bosom of Abraham.
The more I listened to and rested into this voice, the more a gentle mercy filled me with a tangible measure of what lies at the root meaning of the word Nain—a measure of beauty. Soon I was able to leave my altar and return to my key board and continue writing.
And that beauty has remained with me over these past two or three days. That beauty has freed me to experience a more redeeming thought-life, and inspired me to strive for compassionate suffering, compassionate prayer on behalf of our sisters and brothers in Christ in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and in Russia and Ukraine.
O dear Lord, come and render unto all of us, and this hurting world of ours, Your compassionate suffering. Through the gift of your indwelling Holy Spirit, raise us up and help us to not succumb to despondency or despair. Draw nigh unto us as you did the widow at Nain. Raise up our worried and anxious spirits. And in the end, raise us up from our coffins and restore anew our physical bodies. And thank you along the way for the gift of tears. F/S/HS.