Life In the Midst of Death
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
June 6, 2016

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C
(1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-19; Luke 7:11-17)
04/05 June 2016 – St. Thomas More Newman Center, Columbus, OH

It’s Ordinary Time, but remember: the word “ordinary” does not mean “boring.” We are back in the ordered, or counted, weeks of the year.  And we’ll march our way through the Gospel of Luke from now until the end of November.  

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus proclaimed the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me… to proclaim liberty to captives.” Today, we meet the most voiceless person whom Jesus encounters, a woman many of us don’t remember: the widow from Nain. But this story made a huge impression on anyone in Luke’s time familiar with the Scriptures, because this story has eight remarkable parallels with the story of the widow of Zarepheth.  If you don’t remember that story, don’t worry: it’s our first reading today. Only one of the parallels is omitted in our reading selection today: Elijah initially met the widow of Zarepheth at the gate of the town, just as Jesus meets the widow of Nain.

The people will declare in today’s gospel, “God has looked favorably on his people!” Let us recall how God looks  favorably upon us! 

Dorothy Day once said, “The words ‘Ordinary Time’ put me in a state of confusion and irritation. To me, no time is ordinary.” And indeed, no day is ordinary in the eyes of the Church. At every Mass, we hear the gospels. The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word evangelion, meaning good news. In Jesus’ time, an evangelion was the announcement of the birth of a new king. 

In her grief, the widow of Nain was as distant from an evangelion as one could get. At this point in the gospel of Luke, Jesus has healed a number of people, but the widow of Nain stands out for being the most remarkably voiceless. She is alone, and presumably without resources. We don’t know her name, and Jesus comes across her seemingly by coincidence. The widow and her son are the first people for whom Jesus intercedes without being asked to do so. The widow apparently says nothing to Jesus, and it’s not clear whether she has faith in God, let alone in Jesus. But as R. Alan Culpepper writes, “If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.”

In the Old Testament, the prophets had a litmus test for if Jewish society was caring for the captives and the oppressed: they looked at how society cared for widows, orphans, and aliens. If these voiceless people were ignored by the larger society, the prophets concluded that the society had stopped being faithful to God.

Four months ago, I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and our group had plans to visit the little church built in the town of Nain. However, it’s not one of the main sites that pilgrims visit. We asked ahead, and we were assured that it would be open when we arrived. Our pilgrimage directors were glad, since they like to do a blessing of any widows in the group when we go to Nain.

In chapter 7, Luke makes lots of comparisons and contrasts among Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. That’s because he’s gradually making the case by the middle of chapter 9 that Jesus is greater than any prophet. Immediately after Jesus raises the widow’s son, John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?’ And Jesus responds: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the poor have good news brought to them.” Elijah was the great prophet, but Jesus will soon declare that John is greater than Elijah. Jesus also declares that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John.  

Last weekend, I visited my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the first time in a year and a half. One of the main reasons that I was there was to visit one of my dearest friends. Her family has been through a rough time since my last visit: three deaths in the family – her uncle, her mother, and her brother-in-law. All of them had died much too young. Her brother-in-law, in particular, was in his thirties, leaving two small children behind. But I was there to celebrate a joyful occasion: I was baptizing my friend’s long-awaited newborn son.

It was a glorious celebration. We began the ceremony with everyone – more than 50 friends and family members – standing at the threshold of 100-year-old family church, welcoming the baby, in his parents’ arms, to the church. But, for me, I couldn’t help but make connections between the rites we celebrate at funerals. I had not seen this family since they had gathered to accompany their grandmother’s casket across the church threshold. 

Back in February, when our pilgrimage group arrived in the town of Nain, it was clear that there had been a mix up. There was no one at the church. Even the gates to the grounds were locked. So we stood on the step in front of the gate, I proclaimed today’s scripture passage, and Monsignor Al led us through a blessing of not only the three widows in our group, but also a widower and a couple who had lost a child. Everyone agreed that it was fitting for this blessing to occur outside of the church, just as Jesus had met the widow of Nain at the city gate.

For most of us, decades separate the time between our first exit from the church after our baptism and our final entrance into the church in a casket for our funeral. And the vast majority of those decades is spent outside the church building. But we are still members of the Church. When we were baptized, we were knit, irrevocably, into the Christ’s body. 

At the baptism last weekend, I quoted Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now but yours.

When we are baptized, and every time we receive the Eucharist, we affirm that we are members of the body of Christ, that we are destined for the kingdom of God. We affirm our God-given ability to do more than Elijah. 

So, friends, the question comes back to us: How have I given sight to the blind? How have I enabled the lame to walk? How have I cleansed lepers? How have I made the deaf hear? How have I brought good news to the poor? How have I raised the dead? 

Last weekend in Pittsburgh, there was a real sense that the baby I baptized was an evangelion, the sign of God’s love in the midst of suffering and death. As today’s psalm said, their mourning was turned into dancing. 

Even the most ordinary times can be extraordinary. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. If God is to look favorably on his people today, he is to look upon them through our eyes. We must proclaim liberty to the captives and the oppressed. We must let the light of Christ shine for people who still walk in darkness. And at every baptism, we celebrate that we, like Elijah, can raise the dead to new life.