Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Extraordinary Form
August 28, 2016
Gal 5:25-26.6:1-10; Lk 7:11-16
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in today’s homily:
A place few visit
Four years ago, when I was a pastor in Massachusetts, I had the privilege to lead 52 parishioners on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and we made a special trip to the place where today’s Gospel scene took place. The Palestinian bus driver and guide who were accompanying us asked me repeatedly, almost annoyingly, why we were going to go to Nain, telling me that no American groups ever go there and that neither of them, who had worked for years with pilgrims, had ever even been there. They added that the Church remembering the miracle had been closed for years and so there would be nothing to see. I politely but firmly said that we were going anyway. So after we had visited Mount Tabor where we pondered Jesus’ transfiguration, we went off the typical grid on a half-hour trip to Nain. As the bus drove through the small town, many of the kids looked up at the monster vehicle transporting all of us, something that they obviously weren’t accustomed to seeing. Our bus driver needed to ask directions a couple of times, and when he pulled up next to the closed Church, those living around it all peered at us as if we were lost. But we went to the front door of the Church and I had everyone assemble in the area before the door, in a dirt courtyard that hadn’t been cleaned of litter in some time. And there we read the Gospel scene we’ve just heard and considered what it meant.
At the end of the pilgrimage, when we had a chance to talk about our most moving experiences, some talked about doing the Stations of the Cross at 3 am along the Via Dolorosa, married couples talked about renewing their marriage vows in Cana, some young people talked about praying on the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, having Mass on Calvary or placing Jesus’ risen Body in the Eucharist back inside the empty tomb. But I’ll never forget what several from among the 52 commented, that the experience they’ll most remember was praying outside the Church in Nain. A few pilgrims, who had recently experienced the death of immediate family members, said that our prayer outside the Church in Nain was one of the most moving and healing moments not only of the pilgrimage but of their life and that they would never be able to forget what Jesus had done there, for them, for the widow in the Gospel, and for all of us.
The collision of life and death
What happened in Nain? Two processions met. The first was a funeral cortege involving a large crowd of residents of the city, transporting to the cemetery the body of a young man whose life was cut down in the springtime of life. The mourning was intense, as it always is whenever someone with so much life ahead of him suddenly dies. And what could be more poignant than a mother’s weeping over the death of her only child? But in this case the darkness was even worse. The woman was a widow. In Jewish culture and throughout the Middle East, it was a man’s duty to provide for a woman. When a husband died, it was the duty of the eldest son to care for a mother. Without a man to provide for her, and no social welfare state, she was now going to be reduced to being a beggar, a scrounger before her fellow residents, a mendicant among her family of origin, someone destitute, abandoned and helpless.
But as this death march was heading out through the gates of the city to the burial ground that was also located outside of the city walls for reasons of space as well as public health, they met a very different procession. Jesus of Nazareth was heading in, surrounded by his disciples and a large crowd of followers. When Jesus saw the woman, his heart was moved with pity, a life-changing compassion that we need to stop to consider more deeply during this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. There are two other times in the Gospels when Jesus raised people from the dead, when he resuscitated his friend Lazarus after he had been in the tomb for four days and when he told the deceased daughter of Jairus the synagogue official, “Talitha kum,” “Little girl, rise up!” In both circumstances, prior to their deaths, there had been a request for Jesus’ assistance: Martha and Mary had written Jesus that Lazarus was dying and asked for him to come and Jairus had come up to Jesus to ask him to come urgently and heal his daughter lest she die. Jesus worked both of those miracles in response to faith. In this case, however, the woman didn’t do anything. We don’t know whether she had faith or not. Her son was dead on a bier and most of her had died with him. But Jesus, moved with compassion, made the first move, and in the process brought faith to her to all those in Nain.
Jesus began by doing a couple of things that were totally unconventional and, on the surface of it, terribly cruel. He told the grieving mother, “Do not weep.” I wouldn’t suggest anyone try to say that at a wake to mourning family members! But it got worse. Jesus then stepped forward, touched the bier and got all the pall-bearers to stop. This gesture would be like someone’s walking out into the center of the road and stopping a hearse on the way to the cemetery. And after those startling words and shocking action, Jesus said and did something that no one had requested, that no one had dreamed possible. “Young man,” he confidently commanded, “I tell you, arise!” They boy sat up, began to speak and was restored to his mother. None of the mourners could fathom it. It was the last thing that anyone thought would occur as they were accompanying a corpse to a cemetery. But the death march had collided with Jesus’ liturgical procession of life, and life triumphed over death. The mourners accompanying a mother in misery met the Messiah full of mercy. The people of Nain responded, St. Luke tells us, by “glorifying God” and saying that “God has visited his people!” Little did they know how literally true there words were!
Receiving and Continuing Jesus’ corporal and spiritual work of mercy
What do we learn from this dramatic scene? I think two big things.
First, we learn of Jesus’, God’s, incredible compassion for those mourning the loss of loved ones. Jesus himself wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. Likewise, for any of us here who has buried a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a son or a daughter, a brother or sister or good friend, Jesus has compassion on us. We need to remember that God never intended death. Death is a consequence of sin. But the Lord of life didn’t leave the situation as it was. He entered into our world, took on our human nature, even took on human death, in order to redeem it completely and make eternal life possible. Just as the multiplications of the loaves and fish foreshadowed the far greater miracle of the Eucharist, so these physical resuscitations of Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus and the young man of Nain foretell the far greater miracle that Jesus wants to give our loved ones and us, the miracle of resurrection from the dead. Resuscitations are temporary. Resurrection is forever. Jesus, who is rich in mercy and compassion, particularly wants to share his compassionate touch with us around the time of our death and the death of our loved ones. He wants to say to each of us, not temporarily but eternally, “Young one, I tell you, arise!” And so we need to entrust ourselves and our loved ones to that mercy and we need to bring our faith, hope and love to help those who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. In this Jubilee of Mercy, it is good for all of us to focus more concertedly on the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead with reverence and prayer and on the spiritual works of mercy of consoling the sorrowful and praying for the salvation of the living and the dead.
Today’s Moral and Spiritual Collision
Secondly, we have to grasp that the same two processions we see in the Gospel continue on a moral and spiritual plane. One procession is a death march, a funeral cortege, a journey on the “broad road that leads to perdition” (Mt 7:13), toward definitive self-alienation from God. The second is a procession of on the narrow road that leads to life that involves walking together with Jesus. Which procession are we on? The procession of life is a procession in which Jesus seeks to bring us fully alive. The life, the triumph over death he wants to give us, is not so much an event as a relationship. Jesus says “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” and for us to experience his risen life, both now and in the future, means to enter into that deep relationship with Jesus. It means not just to hear him, but to follow him, step by step, teaching by teaching, prayer by prayer, beatitude by beatitude, commandment by commandment. The path of death is to structure our life apart from Jesus Christ. Many people are walking spiritual cadavers. Some are totally empty on the inside. Others are decomposing, full of hatred, envy, lust, and anger against others and often against God. And they surround themselves with a big crowd of people heading with them to the necropolis, not knowing that already they’re in the city of the dead. Some of the most tragic casualties on this cortege of corpses are those who mistakenly think they’re alive because they have some intellectual knowledge of Christ and his teachings, or may know some Biblical verses, or even occasionally pray or regularly come to Church, but Christ really isn’t alive in them because they’ve fatally wounded their relationship with Christ through living in a way mortally and morally incompatible with his life. They may be going through the motions but at the level of their soul, at the deepest levels of their being, they’re not in relationship with Jesus, they’re not walking with him.
St. Paul talks about this in today’s epistle, when he says, “If we are living in the Spirit,” the Spirit that he says elsewhere raises us from the dead to share Jesus’ risen life,” then “let us also follow the Spirit.” And that is a consequential choice that leads us, he says, not to be conceited, to provoke each other, to be envious, to be caught in transgressions, to delude ourselves, ultimately to mock God; rather it’s to examine our works, to bear others’ burdens, to never grow tired of doing good and to do good toward all. Ultimately he says we reap what we sow, we end up in the direction we are actually walking in life, if we wish to reap eternal life, we need to sow life according to the Spirit.
Today, August 28, is the feast of St. Augustine, one of the greatest of all the doctors of the Church. We know that until he was 32, he sowed according to the flesh, shacking up with a concubine, having a child out of wedlock, mocking the faith of his mother Monica and trying to disabuse Christians of their faith. But through the many prayers of his Mother and all the saints, the eloquence of St. Ambrose, the agony of his slavery to lust and vanity, the example of so many simple people who were seizing heaven while he who was so learned remained outside, he responded to the grace of conversion. And he saw himself, and so many others, in the figure of the young man on the bier in Nain and saw in the jubilant widow the joy of the Father of the Prodigal Son and the rejoicing of Mother Church whenever a child is morally resuscitated through responding to the grace of conversion and receiving God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance. This mother’s joy on being given back her son, St. Augustine wrote, reminds us of the joy of our Mother the Church when her sinful children return to the life of grace. “The widowed mother rejoiced at the raising of that young man. Our Mother the Church rejoices every day when people are raised again in spirit. The young man had been dead physically; the latter, dead spiritually. The young man’s death was mourned visibly; the death of the latter was invisible and unmourned. [Jesus] seeks them out [because he knows] them to be dead; only He can bring them back to life” (Sermon 98:2). Jesus comes to meet all those who are heading toward death; he touches us; he bids us arise; and he calls us to follow him not toward the everlasting necropolis but toward the eternal Jerusalem. And he wants us to live by the Spirit in such a way that we can become truly his Mystical Body, going out in communion with him to touch others on the road to death and mercifully lead them to him who is the Resurrection and Life so that they might journey with us to where God is forever glorified and doesn’t just visit his people but dwells with them in eternal life.
Greater Miracle than Nain
Today at this Mass, Jesus wants to touch us all. He is about to work a far greater miracle than raising a young man from the dead. He is about to change simple bread and wine into his body and blood so that we might, in receiving his risen body, have life through him. This is the place in which Jesus wants all of us, whether we’ve arrived at Church on a procession of life or one of death, to leave following him on a procession of life all the way to the Father’s eternal embrace. We thank him for this gift. God still visits his people. May we here in New York, like those in ancient Nain, return from this encounter glorifying God and spreading news of him through all the surrounding regions, so that others may join Christ and his Church on pilgrimage to the eternal life of the Father’s house!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
From the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians (Gal 5:25-26; 6:1-10)
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. Let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one another. Brothers and sisters, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he is deluding himself. Each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason to boast with regard to himself alone, and not with regard to someone else; for each will bear his own load. One who is being instructed in the word should share all good things with his instructor. Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up. So then, while we have the opportunity, let us do good to all, but especially to those who belong to the family of the faith.
The Continuation of the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke (Lk 7:11-16)
Soon afterward Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him. As he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst,” and “God has visited his people.”