Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence. Paul Claudel
Trinity tide is full of examples taken from Scripture that lead the faithful pilgrim into the experience of the Real Presence of God. And I am not speaking of somehow feeling God in the way that we feel the cold or heat, feel the pressure of another body against our own, or feel anything sensibly or tangibly. I am speaking of a kind of spiritual feeling, whose power and strength assure the mind, fortify conviction, and infuse man’s inner being with the stable and unchanging determination of God’s power. I am talking about an inward and spiritual perception and sensation of God’s presence that halts and governs the uncertain and changing here and now of earthly existence, only to carry it progressively into the permanent realm of truth, beauty, and goodness. More specifically in relation to today’s Lections, I am trying to describe the belief that opens itself up to the power of God’s love in Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the kind of faith that finds His suffering and death to be the model and pattern for the man who would find everlasting life.
So let us travel back in time, and find ourselves with Jesus in about the year 30 A.D.. We find ourselves in the city of Nain. Nain is a desolate place emptied of any civil society. Dean Stanley tells us that on a rugged and barren ridge, in an isolated place, sits the ruined village of Endor or Nain. No convent, no tradition marks the spot. (Trench: Miracles) The place is about eight miles south of Nazareth and has a population of about 1,600 Muslims, who descend from those who defeated and expelled the last of the Latin Crusaders. A Franciscan Church, renovated in the 19th century, sits silently waiting for pilgrims and the call of revival from within and without. Both the village and its church are rooted and grounded in the ancient grief and loneliness of the town’s most famous resident. Now when Jesus came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. (St. Luke vii. 12) We read that a widow woman’s tears have been augmented and advanced by the recent loss of her only son. Her neighbors are silent, fearing, no doubt, that their words would only stand to add to her pain. The soreness is acute and penetrating because her nearest and dearest both are gone. She does not express but most surely did feel that additional, How could God allow this too? or perhaps Why me…now? But she says nothing. Loss is loss and grief must be allowed to run its course. For now there seems to be no consolation, relief, or hope. With the psalmist this morning, she cries inwardly and spiritually, the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm cxvi. 3)
But it is into this pain and agony of soul that Christ comes. And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And He came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And He said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. (St. Luke vii. 13-15) When Jesus approaches, all are still. He as much says, with St. Paul this morning, I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Galatians vi. 11) Christ comes into this situation as one who will bear the burden and shoulder the relief. He will offer a kind of compassion that neither she nor the mourners have ever experienced. His words will be few, but their power swift and efficacious. His pity will upturn death and make new life. God’s Word, through Whom all things are made, acts upon the inner, spiritual man. The body dies, but the soul endures. God is ever with the soul and is now about to command its reanimation of the decaying corpse. The Word is spoken and the same Love that gave the mother joy when her man-child was born into the world now vanquishes death in the wake of new life. The only words that emerge out of this situation come from the resuscitated youth. With the psalmist he sings, The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken…(Psalm cxvi 6-10) The young man speaks, and mirrors the thoughts of his mother’s heart. He has new life; so too does she. The Word made Flesh has given him words –speech that heralds new birth and new life, words of joy that respond to God’s Word. The Word made Flesh has given him words -words of new life, words emerging from spiritual and physical rejuvenation, words that will commence the spiritual awakening of the young man for a higher life, through which, indeed, alone the joy of the mother could become true and abiding (Trench, Miracles) as Archbishop Trench remarks. Only then do the others respond. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people. (St. Luke vii. 16)
The point of this morning’s Gospel runs far deeper than the surface-level details of an historical event. Historical experiences must find their respective meaning in the truth that the Spirit brings. Think about the widow of Nain. She is confronted with a spiritual problem; on the one hand she can mourn, despair, and give up on life because the last and final contributor to her comfort, peace, and joy has been removed. Since the familial source of her present joy and future hope is now gone, she might just as well die herself. Perhaps she has forgotten the power of God in human life. Perhaps nothing short of a dramatic surge of this power in her son’s resuscitation would pry her out of the jaws of his death, a death that even now is consuming and killing her. One thing is clear, Jesus will use the miracle to draw both her and us away from earthly sorrow and human weeping so that we might learn to lean solely on His power to carry us through another kind of suffering and death.
God in Jesus Christ is all-powerful. And yet this power is not to be sought out chiefly in the remedy for human illness or the reversal of human loss. Sometimes God surprises us, as He has in this morning’s Gospel Miracle. We do well to notice that the Widow of Nain did not seek out Jesus. Jesus sought her out. He, the Lord of Life, encountered a train of death and reversed its course. He gives the woman and her son another chance to follow Him into a more profound kind of suffering and death. He does this every day as doctors discover the secrets of His wisdom and give people a little more time to reverse the course of their death-bound lives.
Earthly suffering and death will visit us all. Sometimes it happens sooner and sometimes later. When it happens sooner, we call it an untimely tragedy. When it happens later, these days at any rate, we tend to sue. The adolescent age we inhabit kicks and screams at the unfairness of death. Not content to twist and contort the natural life into perverse and profane uses for which it was never intended, our age seems bent madly on finding a way to have it last forever. And woe betide the man, group, clan, or country that stands between the human will to power and its lustful determination to find a cure for death!
Of course the interesting thing about death is that we are powerless over it. No matter how hard we try, in the end, we cannot resist it. The best we can do is to try to delay its immanent arrival. But to what use? Today’s Gospel leads us into a far more difficult truth. Christ is Lord of life and death. And if this is the case, hadn’t we better start getting right with Him? He who called the son of the Widow of Nain out of death is calling us out of death here and now. Of course He calls us out of spiritual death. If we are alive to the world, the flesh, and the devil, in the eyes of God we are as good as dead. And this means that we have not, as yet, arranged to get ourselves right with God. Oh, you protest, but I am a good person. Indeed. Good people go to Hell. Yes, that’s right, good and respectable earthly citizens of the City of Man go to Hell because they have never needed Heaven and her Goodness. Only those who are suffering and dying inwardly and spiritually will reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who are suffering the all-powerful Word of Life to come alive in them, and who are thus dying to all else, will be saved. What kind of suffering does Jesus invite us into today? The suffering and death to ourselves that alone confesses that without God we are as good as dead. The suffering and death that confesses that God alone can generate Goodness in human life through the unmerited gift of His Grace. This is the suffering and death that travel up with Jesus to the Cross of Calvary in order to discover that the only power worth having in this earthly life is found in loving heart of God’s Crucified Son.
Again, today St. Paul says this to the Church at Ephesus: Faint not at my tribulation for you, which is your glory. (Eph. iii. 13) St. Paul is suffering his own death so that Christ may live in Him and set him above it. He suffers too that others might join him in the spiritual death that is the first step towards salvation.
Oswald Chambers says this about our spiritual suffering and death.
No one experiences complete sanctification without going through a “white funeral” — the burial of the old life. If there has never been this crucial moment of change through death, sanctification will never be more than an elusive dream. There must be a “white funeral,” a death with only one resurrection— a resurrection into the life of Jesus Christ. (My Utmost…Jan. 15) Have you been to your own white funeral yet? If not, welcome to it. I bet you didn’t know that this Church was really a funeral parlor!