Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Widow of Nain

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today’s Lesson, from the 7th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel (Luke 7:11-16), tells of Jesus raising from the dead the only son of a widow. There are three approaches I would like to take in examining this story. The first will be to look at what literally happened and to consider it in connection with another healing that is recorded earlier in chapter 7. The second will be to a reflect on a spiritual interpretation of what the elements of the story also mean to us, as suggested by one of the saints of our Church. And in the third point, to address the concerns of any skeptics or doubters, we will consider why we should believe in such miracles at all.

And so if we go back just a bit in St. Luke’s narrative, we find the story of the healing of a centurion’s dying servant. You may recall that on behalf of this centurion, the elders of the Jews came to Jesus and besought Him to heal the servant, saying that his master was an honorable man who loved the Jewish people and had even built for them a synagogue. Jesus consented to go with them, but before reaching the house, the centurion sent word saying that he was not worthy for the Lord to enter under his roof, but if Jesus would only say the word, he knew his servant would be healed. Jesus marveled at his exemplary faith and healed the servant instantly.

As great a sign as this was of our Lord’s mercy and divine power, there would be those who would doubt it as a lucky coincidence, as if the servant would have recovered anyway. To disprove such speculation, the Lord then performed a miracle which would not be so easy to deny.

Seeing the funeral procession, He stopped it and touched the funeral bier, saying, “Young man, I say to thee, arise”. At once the dead man sat up and began to speak. Fear came upon everyone who witnessed this and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet is risen up among us!”

Please notice the extremely important detail that Jesus did not raise this man by His voice alone, but also by touching the funeral bier upon which the dead man lay. This was to draw our attention to His incarnation, by which His very flesh has become life-giving. Because God the Word who gives life to all things became flesh, His flesh is likewise life-creating, and takes away death and corruption. In John 6, Jesus taught this very same truth, saying that those who eat His Flesh and drink His Blood gain life everlasting.

Notice also that He did not even touch the man directly, but only the funeral bier. This also was a demonstration that objects can be sanctified by His life-giving power to transmit grace and healing. It recalls the story of the woman with the issue of blood, who straightaway received healing when she touched only the hem of His garment.

Now we must ask ourselves, can coffins raise the dead or tunics heal incurable diseases? They can if they’ve been sanctified by our Lord’s life-giving touch! Why is this important for us to know? Because God’s glorious salvation is not a “spiritual” salvation only, but a spiritual/physical salvation. God saves not only fallen souls, but fallen bodies and even the fallen world itself. If the entire world fell through the action of the first Adam, then the action of the Second Adam from above could do no less than to effect the complete redemption of that world and all it contains, to set it back on its original path to glory.

This is the full implication of the incarnation, and though we do not yet see the complete fulfillment of it, we clearly see its beginning in the glorification of the bodies of the saints, and in many cases their relics and images, in the bread and wine of communion, in holy water and holy oil and in many other manifestations. All of these things are in keeping with the scriptural revelation as we can see in the healings which took place through blessed objects, including even such lowly things as the handkerchiefs which were carried away from the apostles’ bodies to heal the sick.

Further reflecting on the spiritual meaning of this story, the Blessed Theophylact wrote in his commentary that the widow can be said to represent the soul which has lost its husband, the Word of God. The son of that widow portrays the mind which is dead and is being carried outside of the city, that is, outside of the heavenly Jerusalem which is the city of the living. And so when the soul of man is separated from the Word of God, the mind of man becomes dead. The funeral bier which the Lord touched represents the body of man which, when touched by grace, gives life also to the mind and raises it back up. The young man sits up and begins to speak, which represents the mind now restored by grace to proclaim the truth of the gospel. The mind which is dead cannot speak the truth of God nor even comprehend it, for it is dark and lifeless. Thus we see that in every action of our Lord Jesus Christ, there is not only an immediate result, but a profound spiritual meaning as well.

And speaking of darkened minds which cannot comprehend the truth, we know that there have been many skeptics over the years who have sought to dispute and discredit the miracles of Christ. Invariably the claim is that the historical Jesus was just an ordinary man who generations later was deified by corrupt church leaders who sought to secure their own power by making Jesus into a god. Quite often you’ll see TV documentaries that are devoted to this theme trying desperately to explode the “myths” of Jesus’ virgin-birth, His miracles, and His holy third-day resurrection. None of this is based on any legitimate scholarship, but is only an attempt to cast doubt on Jesus, the scriptures, and the Church to dispel moral accountability to the same. The agenda is so transparent as to almost be laughable, if it weren’t so deeply tragic.

True scholarship continues to establish the gospels as genuine first-century documents, and the earliest writings of the Church Fathers bear witness to this, as well as offer overwhelming evidence of belief in Jesus as God incarnate. But I think even if such proof were not available to us, the gospels themselves are written in such a straightforward and unassuming way as to demonstrate that they couldn’t possibly be later forgeries.

Take for example the simple, almost journalistic manner in which St. Luke describes the raising of this dead man, without embellishment or commentary. He even reports that the crowds mistakenly announced Jesus as “a great prophet” without a clue to His divinity. It seems to me that if the gospels had been later altered to change the story, those doing the work would have been careful to correct such errors and would consistently emphasize what they wanted you to believe. I think today they call that sort of thing “spin”.

But the gospels are entirely free from spin. They merely report what happened and allow the reader to form to his own conclusions. Considering how many false conclusions about Jesus have been formed by casual readers of the gospels, it is very difficult to accept that “corrupt church leaders” changed the texts, for certainly they would have done a more complete and convincing job of it.

And so we find that the miracles of Christ are entirely believable, not only because of the simplicity of the gospels, not only because of the witness of the early saints, but also we might add, because many more such miracles have occurred in the lives of the saints ever since, just as Jesus promised would happen. What we see in this story is consistent with the life and experience of the Church throughout the ages, and our theology is based upon this very foundation. True theology is always based on the Church’s experience of the life of God revealed through her saints. May this be the theology that always guides us to experience the fulness of that same life ourselves.

+To the glory of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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