"Young man, I tell you arise!"
Word for Sunday: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/060516.cfm
For a number of years here at the parish we have referred to our funeral liturgies as a “Mass of Christian Hope.” On the cover of the brochure printed for each funeral service, along often with a picture of the deceased, perhaps some psalm or favorite poem provided by the family and other serving in the liturgy, we print: “Mass of Christian Hope” rather than Funeral service, Mass of Christian burial, or Celebration of Life (not the Catholic preference at all). Why the word, hope?
It explains the position towards death we as Christians should have. It’s not so much the sense of “I hope I’m going to heaven” but rather a hope based on a promise. While we all want to go to heaven, and unfortunately there’s only one way to get there, that promise which Jesus made for those who believe in him, are baptized, and follow his will (live by Gospel values essentially), are assured of eternal life. That’s pretty hopeful in my estimation. However, as we should know, this opens another set of questions: purgatory, those who die without baptism, those who die as atheists or in contempt of religion and/or God himself, etc.
The point is we really don’t know how God deals with the departed after we die. We surely lack the important details and the inner mind and heart of God. However, we do know he is a God of mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love, but also justice. We do know that no one dies in a perfect state. Yet, Blessed Mother Teresa? Pope St. John Paul II? We don’t know for sure.
Do some people go directly to heaven while many others pass through that final state of purification we call Purgatory before entering eternal union with God? We don’t know for sure. What about Hell? Does anyone go there? How evil must you be to be eternally damned and separated from God? Who is there – only Hitler? While there may be much we are confident in through the lives of saints and certain approved revelations or apparitions, we simply don’t know much about the life beyond. As St. Paul stated: “We live by faith and not by sight.” (2 Cor 5: 7 and Rm 8: 24).
Such questions concerning the afterlife can only be answered by embracing the great Christian virtue of Hope. In times of death we find peace and comfort knowing that our loved one is now experiences in a real way what we can yet only hope for. Yet, the assurance of our Lord provides closure for us. This is essentially what we remember during our funeral liturgies. Yes, we remember the deceased of course but more what he/she is now encountering and what we still hope for.
Unlike a “celebration of life” which is centered on the departed and all their past accomplishments with maybe little reference to eternity, our Catholic/Christian funeral liturgies look forward rather than back. Yes, we want to remember their now past life and give thanks but even more at this time want to think of them now in the present and future. We as Christians are eternal optimists in that sense and we have very good reason to hope for something better and eternally lasting.
As we look to our readings this Sunday both from Kings 17: 17-24 and Luke 7: 11-17, I think we sense this optimism, this hope of life restored and new life given to the loved ones and wonder to those who shared in this miracle. Yet, we also see a God who initiates, by his own will and not from a request, that gift of beauty and hope realized before eternity. Two widows and two dead sons play a key role. Now, that may not sound very optimistic to say the least and quite a downer but when God steps in everything changes.
In our first reading from the book of Kings, Elijah the prophet plays a role which mirrors that of Jesus in the Gospel. As a great prophet he is accused, strangely enough, by a desperate widow of Zarephath of killing “my son.” She feels that his presence has, according to cultural interpretation, brought the guilt of her sin forward which caused the death of her son. She cries to Elijah: “Why have you done this to me, O man of God?”
In these ancient times widows were a somewhat unfortunate lot. Those whose husbands had died had no security net as we experience today. Their only hope was to plead the protection of their elder son, marry again, or be taken in by their husband’s brother and family perhaps. If none of that was present, they were relegated to begging and desperation. So, we can understand the hopeless cry of this widow whose son was now dead!
In what seems a calm response, Elijah simply says: “Give me your son.” He carries the son to an upper room and begins to pray to God for compassion upon the plight of this widow. Then with dramatic flair, the prophet stretches himself out over the child three times and calls to the Lord: “O Lord, my God . ..” when “life breath” returns to the child. The reaction of the widow is to place her faith in the God of Israel. It is a reminder to us that even in the face of what seems so final (death) God will bring hope through our own faith response.
By a mirror the Gospel tells a similar event between a widow, a dead son, and Jesus. Here, however, there is a significant difference. Jesus initiates the response as no one asks him to raise a dead son back to life. He views a funeral procession and a widow in mourning and without a request, out of deep compassion, he stepped forward of his own initiative and “touched the coffin.”
In what sounds familiar he addresses the corpse of the dead child: “Young men, I tell you, arise!” An almost resurrection theme with echoes of the little daughter of a couple who had died: “Little girl, I say to you get up.” (Mk 5: 41) or the man paralyzed who lay before Jesus (Mt. 9: 1-8) or the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11): “Your brother will rise again.”
I once heard that one way to view this raising of the widow’s son is to know that Jesus, in seeing the suffering widow whose only son had died a reflection of the future suffering of his own mother, who will witness the brutal death of Jesus, her only son. So, our Lord acted out of compassion not only for the sad widow but out of sympathy for what his own mother would experience. To be replaced by joy in the return of her son in the Resurrection. I found that image quite touching.
So, we are convicted that God will always bring light in darkness, hope in sadness and compassion in the face of indifference. The key here is that God in Jesus wills this of his own accord without a request.
Yes, when we pray we ask for much and we hope for much. But, God is not dependent on our prayers. He isn’t simply sitting in heaven answering his mail, texts, emails, playing video games with the angels or twiddling his divine thumbs waiting for requests and only then considering a response.
Like the widow in the Gospel who simply received what God offered of his own compassion through his Son we too may never know how much God is involved in our lives, how close he wants to be to us, how much he knows. We are reminded that he looks upon us with love and mercy and knows our needs before we ask (Mt. 6: 25-34).
What is our response to all of this? - Gratitude and mercy ourselves. Our celebration of the Eucharist is that great prayer by the Church assembled of giving thanks to a God who offers more than we can ever equal, his word and the living presence of Christ our food. Our humble response of thanksgiving is the best we can offer in return.
Despite so much that we don’t know, in the beginning of these summer months such a thought should offer us hope.
O God, from whom all good things come,
grant that we, who call on you in our need,
may at your prompting discern what is right,
and by your guidance do it.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Roman Missal - Collect of Mass)