1 Kings 17:17-24
It’s nice to be back in green! I don’t know about you, but one of the things I enjoy about the liturgical year is that each season goes on just long enough to make me look forward to the next one. And so it is with joy that I vest today in the vibrant green of ordinary time. We pick up, and will continue until November, reading the Gospel of St. Luke. He is the only Gentile (non-Jewish) writer of the four Gospels and so he focuses often on the outreach of Jesus to those who were on the periphery of society, the outcasts, and the most vulnerable. This would have included the Gentile peoples, but also included women in general, widows, orphans, and those with disease or major affliction. So it is appropriate that we pick up here this weekend with the story of Jesus raising up the son of a widow. And it is appropriate, too, that it is prefaced with the story of Elijah.
As you may recall, the Jewish people was a faith but also an ethnic group – their faith was the nationality – and their oral culture was steeped in the telling of their stories. The people were so well-versed in their history that, despite the lack of books, they knew the major people of their culture and the stories that accompanied them. The Church gives us the reading for Elijah to help us prepare ourselves for the encounter with Jesus. Elijah, we hear, goes to stay at the home of a widow in Zarephath. The prophets were not desirable folks to be around because their presence often was accompanied by great works but also terrible trials. The prophets very frequently bore bad news to the Israelites since the people often fell away from the Law of God, and this was not well received. It is with this stigma that Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, comes into the scene. He stays at the widow’s home and right on cue, the terrible things begin to surround him in the form of the sickness and death of the son of the widow. She immediately arrives at the conclusion that it is because Elijah has come that her son has died and tells him such rather bluntly. In response Elijah takes her son, goes up to the room where he stayed, prayed three times as he extended himself over the boy in prayer, invoking the Lord to bring the boy back to life. In response to his prayer, the boy is revived and he is brought back to his mother and she exclaims joyfully that Elijah is truly a man of God, that rather than a curse, he has brought great blessing.
With this as our backdrop, we return to the story of the Lord. We see Him into the city of Nain with a large group following, when He comes across a funeral procession. A funeral procession was something of great importance in that time, with many people joining in the journey and even professional ‘wailers’ who would come to lament and cry out in sorrow on behalf of the deceased and their family. Unlike the majority of such scenarios, when a person from the crowd approaches Him with some plea for help or a disciple makes someone’s need known to Him, here the Lord sees the woman in great sorrow and His heart is pierced with pity for her. He knows that she is a widow and that this is her only son. She would now be completely vulnerable and unable to care for herself, requiring others to provide for her for the rest of her days. It would have been kind of the Lord to go up to her and to assure her of the salvation of her son, or to call to mind the life of the world to come, or to give some charitable donation to her from his pocket. And yet He doesn’t. He tells her “Do not weep” and proceeds to the coffin, where He touches it and says to the young man, “I tell you, arise!” The boy rises and begins to speak and the Lord gives him back to his mother. Instead of a kind word or some assurance of faith, He raises the son from the dead! The people respond with two different acclamations. The first recalls the story of Elijah, as the crowd says “A great prophet has arisen in our midst.” They acknowledge the similarity between the two occasions and connect the dots that Jesus is a great prophet, one who speaks the word of God. But the difference between the two is in the second response: “God has visited his people.” Elijah had to call out to the Lord to ask for the boy to be raised but Jesus simply commands it. Elijah is a man of God, but Jesus is God himself – the God who has visited his people. The people see it and are in awe.
The occasion is one in which the Lord shows mercy to a widow as well as reveals Himself as God and man. He showed the people that God was with them, walking among them. Furthermore, He walked up and touched the coffin, which was something that was not to be done. To touch the dead was to be rendered ritually unclean and thus unable to enter the Temple and worship, as well as unable to touch others, lest they too become unclean. And yet He reaches out to that thing which ought not to be touched and with his presence He brings the boy back to life. And He wants to do the same to us.
So the question is: where is your coffin? Where is that place in your life that Jesus ‘shouldn’t touch’, that place where Jesus ought not to go because He’s not supposed to. A place of pain, shame or fear, that thing which we wish would be revived in us but that we don’t even normally think to bring before the Lord Jesus. That’s the place the Lord wants to come to touch when we come to Mass. He does just as He did in the Gospel and comes to us on the altar and then descends to us without being called upon in order to touch us, to raise us to life. So ask for the grace to know where it is that you need the Lord’s touch today, where we need new life, new hope. And bring it before Him today, that we too might be able to rejoice and say that truly “God has visited his people.”