Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, Manhattan
Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
June 5, 2016
1 Kings 17:17-24, Ps 30, Gal 1:11-19, Lk 7:11-17
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
A Neglected Miracle and Place
Four years ago, when I was 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 said that the Church remembering the miracle had been closed for years. I politely but firmly said that we were going anyway. So after we had visited Mount Tabor where Jesus was transfigured, we took the bus 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 looked curiously 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 probably hadn’t been cleaned of litter in some time. And there we read the Gospel scene we’ve just heard and pondered 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 or having Mass on Calvary or placing Jesus’ risen Body in the Eucharist back inside the empty tomb from which he had risen from the dead. 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. Two people, a man and a woman, lifelong Catholics, said they could not believe they had never heard of the scene. There’s a reason for that, I might add, because it is scheduled for the Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time every third year (Year C), but in order for us to celebrate the Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Easter must be really early, otherwise the Tenth Sunday is trumped by the Solemnities of Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi. In fact, today is only the second time in my 17 years as a priest that I’ve had the chance to preach about it on Sunday. Beyond that, the only time Catholics who don’t prayerfully read the Bible on their own would hear it would be at daily Mass, on Tuesday of the Twenty-Fourth Week of Ordinary Time, which this year will take place on September 13. But this man and woman, who had never heard of the scene, said that after visiting Nain, they couldn’t forget about what Jesus had done there, for them, for the widow in the Gospel, and for all of us.
A Collision of Two Processions
What happened in 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? But in this case 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 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 resucitated 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, just like Elijah, with God’s power in today’s first reading, raised the young boy from the dead because of the faith of his widowed mother who had already seen Elijah miraculously multiply her flour and oil during a long famine. 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.
The Two Unconventional Things Jesus Did
He 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. 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 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. Out of respect for the dead, no one interrupts 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. “Young man,” he said, “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.
Jesus’ Compassion for Mourners
What do we learn from this dramatic scene? I think several 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. 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!”
Giving Ourselves and our Loved Ones to Jesus
Knowing this, we come to the second big lesson of today’s Gospel. We need to entrust our and our loved one’s death to Jesus with faith.
Pope Francis pondered this reality in his homily this morning in St. Peter’s Square. He began with today’s first reading, saying, “The widow of Zarephath – a woman who was not a Jew, yet had received the Prophet Elijah in her home – was upset with the prophet and with God, because when Elijah was a guest in her home her child had taken ill and had died in her arms. Elijah says to her: ‘Give me your son’ (1 Kings 17:19). What he says is significant. His words tell us something about God’s response to our own death, however it may come about. He does not say: ‘Hold on to it; sort it out yourself!’ Instead, he says: ‘Give it to me.’ And indeed the prophet takes the child and carries him to the upper room, and there, by himself, in prayer ‘fights with God,’ pointing out to him the absurdity of that death. The Lord heard the voice of Elijah, for it was in fact he, God, who spoke and acted in the person of the prophet. It was God who, speaking through Elijah, told the woman: ‘Give me your son.’ And now it was God who gave the child back alive to his mother.”
Pope Francis then applies that lesson to the Gospel. “Jesus draws close, touches the bier, stops the funeral procession, and must have caressed that poor mother’s face bathed in tears. ‘Do not weep,; he says to her (Lk 7:13), as to say: ‘Give me your son.’ Jesus asks to takes our death upon himself, to free us from it and to restore our life. The young man then awoke as if from a deep sleep and began to speak. Jesus ‘gave him to his mother’ (v. 15). Jesus … is God’s tenderness incarnate; the Father’s immense compassion is at work in Jesus.” But we, like them, must give ourselves and our loved ones to Jesus, the Lord of Life.
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, a path on which we feel we’re in charge. The second is a procession of life that involves walking together with Jesus in which we entrust ourselves to him. 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 times 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 have crucifixes, 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 according to the flesh. They’re 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.
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 today and bring us fully alive. The way he does this most poignantly is through the Sacrament of Confession. The patron saint of priests, St. John Vianney said 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 because raising a soul from death 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.” Please know that the path of life, the path in which we follow Jesus, the path in which he touches us with compassion and raises us up, passes through the confessional.
This is the path, Pope Francis tells us today, that St. Paul himself took when he collided with God’s mercy on the Road to Damascus. Pope Francis said, commenting on today’s second reading in the context of the first reading and Gospel: “The experience of the Apostle Paul was also a kind of resurrection. From a fierce enemy and persecutor of Christians, he became a witness and herald of the Gospel (cf. Gal 1:13-17). This radical change was not his own work, but a gift of God’s mercy. God ‘chose’ him and ‘called him by his grace.’ ‘In him,’ God desired to reveal his Son, so that Paul might proclaim Christ among the Gentiles (vv. 15-16). Paul says that God the Father was pleased to reveal his Son not only to him, but in him, impressing as it were in his own person, flesh and spirit, the death and resurrection of Christ. As a result, the Apostle was not only to be a messenger, but above all a witness,” a witness to Christ’s desire to raise us all.
Following Jesus on the Way of Death onto the Path of Life
And that leads us to he third and final lesson I’ll highlight from this episode: that Jesus’ procession of life is paradoxically 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 dying out of mercy 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 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. That is what would lead St. Paul to say elsewhere, “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain” (Phil 1:21) and “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:19-20). We entrust ourselves and our lives to God not just at the very end of our earthly existence, but right now, because that’s the way we begin to experience his risen life even in this world. It’s now Christ is saying to each of us, “Give me your life,” and when we die to ourselves and live for him, that’s when we experience the fullness of life he entered our world to bestow.
Jesus Meets Us at the Bier of the Altar
Today at this Mass, Jesus wants to touch us all. To use the words of today’s Psalm, he wants to “change [our] morning into dancing.” 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 heavenly Jerusalem. 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 pilgrimage 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:
Reading 1 1 KGS 17:17-24
The son of the mistress of the house fell sick,
and his sickness grew more severe until he stopped breathing.
So she said to Elijah,
“Why have you done this to me, O man of God?
Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt
and to kill my son?”
Elijah said to her, “Give me your son.”
Taking him from her lap, he carried the son to the upper room
where he was staying, and put him on his bed.
Elijah called out to the LORD:
“O LORD, my God,
will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying
by killing her son?”
Then he stretched himself out upon the child three times
and called out to the LORD:
“O LORD, my God,
let the life breath return to the body of this child.”
The LORD heard the prayer of Elijah;
the life breath returned to the child’s body and he revived.
Taking the child, Elijah brought him down into the house
from the upper room and gave him to his mother.
Elijah said to her, “See! Your son is alive.”
The woman replied to Elijah,
“Now indeed I know that you are a man of God.
The word of the LORD comes truly from your mouth.”
Responsorial Psalm PS 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13
I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
Sing praise to the LORD, you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger lasts but a moment;
a lifetime, his good will.
At nightfall, weeping enters in,
but with the dawn, rejoicing.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
Hear, O LORD, and have pity on me;
O LORD, be my helper.
You changed my mourning into dancing;
O LORD, my God, forever will I give you thanks.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
Reading 2 GAL 1:11-14A, 15AC, 16A, 17, 19
I want you to know, brothers and sisters,
that the gospel preached by me is not of human origin.
For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it,
but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
For you heard of my former way of life in Judaism,
how I persecuted the Church of God beyond measure
and tried to destroy it, and progressed in Judaism
beyond many of my contemporaries among my race.
But when God, who from my mother’s womb had set me apart
was pleased to reveal his Son to me,
so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles,
I went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem
to talk with Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days.
But I did not see any other of the Apostles,
only James the brother of the Lord.
Alleluia LK 7:16
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
A great prophet has risen in our midst
God has visited his people.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel LK 7:11-17
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, crying out
“A great prophet has arisen in our midst, “
and “God has visited his people.”
This report about him spread through the whole of Judea
and in all the surrounding region.