Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Homily Series for the Year of Faith
September 17, 2013
When we began this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict wanted us to ponder the fact that the life of faith is a pilgrimage, a journey, an exodus of a lifetime.
One of the greatest discoveries on that pilgrimage is that there is another pilgrimage going on. As we are journeying toward the Lord, we discover that he is coming to meet us.
There’s perhaps no greater illustration of this spiritual reality than today’s Gospel from Nain.
Two processions met. The first procession was a large funeral cortege involving a large crowd of the 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?
In this case, however, the darkness was even worse. She 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 beggar of her fellow residents, a beggar among her family of origin, destitute and abandoned.
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. There are two other times in the Gospels when Jesus raised someone from the dead, when he raised his friend Lazarus after he had been in the tomb for four days and when he raised the daughter of Jairus the synagogue official. In both circumstances, prior to their deaths, 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 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 if she had faith or not. Her son was dead on a bier and most of her had died with him. But Jesus was moved with compassion and made the first move, in order to bring her and the residents of Nain to faith.
Jesus always makes the first move. Pope Francis, the sixtieth anniversary of whose vocational call in a Buenos Aires confessional will take place this Saturday, never ceases to describe how God makes the first move, that when we journey, we discover that God was waiting for us. As he said to a vast crowd assembled in St. Peter’s Square on the Vigil of Pentecost this year, “In Spanish we have a word that explains this well: primerear — the Lord always gets there before us, he gets there first, he is waiting for us! To find someone waiting for you is truly a great grace.”
In Nain, Jesus who had gotten their first and was waiting with compassion, began by doing a couple of things that were totally unconventional and, on the surface of it, terribly cruel.
He first told the grieving mother, “Do not weep.” I wouldn’t suggest anyone try saying that at a wake to mourning family members. It’s comparable to what Jesus said to those outside of Jairus’ house who were lamenting the death of the synagogue official’s young daughter, “She’s not dead, but sleeping,” words that got them to ridicule him for his insensitivity and even idiocy.
But it got worse. Jesus stepped forward, touched the bier and got all the pall-bearers to stop. It would be like someone’s walking out into the center of the road and stopping a hearse on the way to the cemetery. Out of respect for the dead, no one ever dares interrupt a funeral procession. But that’s exactly what Jesus did.
And then, after those startling words and shocking action, he said and did something that no one had requested, that no one had dreamed possible. He said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” The 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, as they were mourning with a mother in misery. But the death march had collided with Jesus’ liturgical procession of life — and life triumphed over death.
The people of Nain responded by “glorifying God” and saying that “God has visited his people!” Little did they know that they were literally true.
What do we learn from this dramatic scene for our own growth in faith in this Year of Faith and beyond it in the lifelong pilgrimage of faith? I think several things.
First, we learn of 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 who have 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, he never intended death. Death is a consequence of sin. But Jesus didn’t leave it there. He entered into our world, took on our human nature, even took on human death, in order to redeem it all and make eternal life possible.
Just as the multiplications of the loaves and fish were foreshadowings of 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. Jesus’ compassion gives us hope for the salvation of those we loved. It also helps to alleviate some of our fears toward our own death. In death, Jesus wants to touch us and say, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
Knowing this, we come to the second big lesson of today’s Gospel. The same two processions we witness in the Gospel continue down to the present day. One procession is a death march, a funeral cortege, a journey toward death. The second is a procession of 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, we have 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 times people are dead men walking, ambulatory spiritual cadavers. Some are totally empty on the inside. Others are decomposing, full of hatred, envy, lust, anger against others and often against God. They often don’t recognize it because 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 cases on this cortege of corpses are those who mistakenly think they’re alive because they have some intellectual knowledge of Christ and his teachings, they may know some Biblical verses, have crucifixes, 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 mortal sin. They’re going through the motions of faith 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.
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus spoke to the Church in Sardis, saying, “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
There are many who have the reputation for being alive, for following Jesus, for walking with him on the procession of life, but instead, like the Christians of Sardis, they’re dead.
Jesus describes, however, the path to life. It involves waking up, remembering what he has taught us, repenting, and keeping his word. Jesus wants to touch us all and bring us fully alive. The way he does this most poignantly is through the Sacrament of Confession, something that is essential for us in the journey of faith.
The patron saint of priests, St. John Vianney, used to say that what Jesus does in the Sacrament of Penance is greater than one what did for the Lazarus’, Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son. Raising a soul from death, he stressed, is an even greater miracle than resuscitating a body. And that’s what happens in the Sacrament of Penance, when as Jesus taught in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, God the Father says, “My son was dead and has been brought back to life again.” Every reconciliation is meant to be a resurrection, which is why Jesus fittingly founded this Sacrament on Easter Sunday evening. The life-long pilgrimage of faith, the path in which we follow Jesus, the way on which he touches us with compassion and raises us up, passes through the confessional.
The third and final lesson we can glimpse today from this episode is that Jesus’ procession of life is also a procession of death, but a different type of death.
We know that Jesus was journeying to Jerusalem where another mother would watch her son die and carry him to be buried outside the city walls. But it was through his loving death that he made resurrection possible for all of us, teaching us the principle that in order to save our life we must lose it and that unless we fall to the ground and die like the grain of wheat we will bear no fruit.
The path of life, the journey of true faith, is a path in which we lose our lives for God and others, in which we love others as Jesus has loved us first, in which we sacrifice our own needs and desires so that others may live. The path with Jesus, the relationship with Jesus, always involves this type of self-emptying love.
Pondering the Gospel today, we can think about one application, our sharing in Jesus’ care and compassion for those who have lost dear loved ones, by trying to bring Christ to them in their time of grief.
That’s important for us to do we people we know experience a death in the or when someone we know dies and we go to console the members of their family.
But it’s important for us to recall that, according to his humanity, as far as we are aware, Jesus didn’t know this widow in the Gospel. His compassion, however, led him to crash the funeral anyway. I think that that’s an important lesson for those who seek to follow Jesus.
I’m very impressed that there are some people here in Fall River who are always seen at funerals. They attend wakes and funerals Masses all over the city. In many cases, they don’t know the deceased or the deceased’s family personally, but they’re there anyway, expressing their condolences, praying at the funeral Masses. Nobody but the priests really notice them at the big funerals, but at the small funerals, their presence is very conspicuous and very consoling.
It’s a testimony of compassion that they recognize that whenever any of us dies, a spiritual brother or a sister dies, and they sacrifice their time in order to come to bring a little bit of Jesus’ love to a family grieving. This is a witness that their loved one didn’t live in vain or die in vain, but lived and died as a member of a loving community.
All of us can learn from this example. If we recognize that there’s a funeral in our parish of someone we didn’t know or barely knew, we should try to go to the wake or the funeral anyone, so that Jesus vicariously through us can continue to touch others through your presence. If we can’t attend personally, we send a card or say the Catholic prayers for the repose of the person’s soul and the consolation of the family. We can participate in a bereavement ministry or, if one doesn’t yet exist at a parish, work with the pastor to begin one.
So many people have returned to God and the practice of the faith precisely because of the way the Church — which is far more than the priest — responded to them with compassion when one of their loved ones died. Life erupts in that experience of death and people remember how much they need God in their life and need others.
Today, on altars all across the world, Jesus wants to touch us all. Today 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.
The altar is the place from which Jesus wants all of us, whether we headed to Church on a procession of life or one of death, to leave following him on a procession of life all the way to the heavenly Jerusalem.
God still visits his people. May we, like those in ancient Nain, return from this pilgrimage glorifying God and spreading news of him through all the surrounding regions.