Posted on October 6th, 2014
St. Luke 7:11-17: The Raising of the Widow of Nain’s Son
October 5, 2014
On October 17, in the year 379, a man named Satyrus died. He had been a lawyer, and held civil office in the Roman government, but had given it up to help his brother Ambrose, when he became bishop of Milan in 374. A deep bond connected these brothers, and Ambrose delivered a funeral oration that is historically interesting and spiritually comforting.
Ambrose lived in a time of fear, recognizing that the collapse of the Roman Empire was near. “This [is a] time of common fear, when everything is dreaded from the barbarian movements.” He talks about the unselfish nature of Satyrus, flowing from Christ: “Christ died according to the flesh for all, that we might learn not to live for ourselves alone.” Christ’s death is a vicarious atonement, He dies for us; and not only does this rescue us, it also teaches us to be directed to the needs of others.
He is grieving; and when we lose something, we can become angry or depressed. But “I cannot be ungrateful to God,” Ambrose says; “for I must rather rejoice that I had such a brother than grieve that I had lost a brother … I enjoyed the loan entrusted to me, now He Who deposited the pledge has taken it back.”
None of this is said stoically. Ambrose is not without feeling, but he has watered his couch with tears. You know what that is. And it is not wrong to be sad over death, and sorrowful over sin. God knows your times of sadness, and what is more, He makes them His own. God became man and was Himself sad, weeping for us and with us in our own human nature.
Beyond sadness, there is also a loss, a strange new reality when someone you love has died. How do you go on living in the same house, visiting the same places? Have you ever looked for the dead, expecting them to still be where you frequently saw them? Ambrose says his brother’s absence was constantly in his mind; “[I] kept on turning my head seeking him, as it were, present, and seemed to myself then to see him and speak to him.”
In today’s Gospel we heard that there was a large crowd traveling with the widow to the grave. It is important to go to funerals and burials, to show those who mourn that we mourn with them. Ambrose thanks his congregation “that you esteem my grief as no other than your own, that you feel this bereavement as having happened to yourselves.”
That is how Jesus responds when He sees the poor widow on her way to bury her son, her only son. He has compassion. He makes her sorrow His own sorrow. And this account of the raising of the widow’s son is of great comfort to St. Ambrose grieving the death of his brother, his closest friend. There is “no doubt,” he says, “that Christ is moved to mercy” by our tears. “Though He has not now touched the bier,” (the bier is the open coffin; and he means the coffin of his brother, but by this language he is referring to the Gospel lesson for today, where Jesus touches the bier of the widow’s son) “yet He has received the spirit commended to Him… And though he that was dead has not sat up on the bier, yet he has found rest in Christ.”
When we hear about the miracles of Jesus, like the raising of this widow’s son, it is natural to wonder, normal to ask, Why doesn’t Jesus do this for us?
First of all, the miracles of Jesus tend to have a specific purpose. You wouldn’t need many miracles to prove that Jesus has divine power, or that He has the power of life over death. So why this woman? The text emphasizes that her young son is her only son; and then the knife twists in our gut as Luke tells us, “And she was a widow.” This means that she is all alone, no one to love, and no one to care for her. A widow without a son would be destitute, without an inheritance. Jesus is giving special help to this woman in a terrible circumstance.
But it remains true that the wages of sin is death, and so we all must travel that path. And we shouldn’t want just this, a return to life in a world still fallen, a revival of a body that will only die again. The resurrection that happens to this boy, this son of the widow of Nain, is not the ultimate thing, but a foreshadowing of the great work that is yet to come, the restoration of human nature to a condition without sin and without suffering. We aren’t looking merely for an improved life, a better politics, a healthier body; we look for the new heavens and the new earth, where sin will not be diminished but abolished, a world where the implements of war are put down forever, where the gates of the city need never be locked.
That’s why Ambrose says about his brother’s death, “Though [Jesus] has not now touched the bier, yet He has received the spirit commended to Him,” meaning the day is coming when Jesus will touch Satyrus’s coffin, and He will come to the graves of all those in Christ and give them back not a few more years, but eternity. “[My brother] had no need of being raised again for time, for whom the raising again for eternity is waiting. For why should he fall back into this wretched and miserable state of corruption, and return to this mournful life, for whose rescue from such imminent evils and threatening dangers we ought rather to rejoice?”
We live in just such a world of “imminent evils and threatening dangers.” And is there a greater evil than the one within us, the evil that clings to created things instead of the Creator? Is there a greater evil than your heart, which stands in judgment over others, withholding forgiveness? Look at this scene, of a widow who has lost her son. See the same thing unfolding all around you, every day, across this mad world infected with disease, lust, and never-ending war: see it all, unfolding within you, as your heart clings to dead things that cannot satisfy. “We are half-hearted creatures,” C.S. Lewis said, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.”
Today Jesus doesn’t just address the widow of Nain. He speaks to you: “Do not weep. Rejoice in what I have done, take courage in what I will do; for I have pardoned all your sins, I have overcome the grave. Follow Me, and you will never walk in darkness, for I will transform your lowly body to be like My glorious body, and I will replace your heart of stone with a heart of flesh filled with wisdom and charity. Leave your weeping, abandon your anger, for great is My mercy toward you, I deliver your life from the depths of hell.” +INJ+