Today’s Gospel reading is short, so short we may easily overlook its significance. Doubtless, we have heard or read this passage tens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of times. Perhaps our hearing has been dulled, perhaps we are tempted to pass these words over lightly, perhaps we failed to pay any attention to them as they were being read. Let us then return to them more closely, for in every line of the holy Gospel, we encounter Jesus Christ, the God-man, whose words are spirit and life.
We hear, And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain. The day after what, exactly? In Luke’s Gospel, which is the only one to record this event, we learn that the Lord went to Nain immediately after healing a centurion’s servant in Capernaum. Just the day before the Lord raised the widow’s son, Luke tells us, the servant of a certain centurion, dearly loved by his master, was sick, and ready to die (Lk. 7:2). Not being himself a Jew, but having heard of the many miracles and healings worked by the Lord, this centurion sent the local Jewish elders to Jesus, to ask him to come and heal the dying servant.
The Jewish elders resorted to flattery in their request to the Lord, appealing to national prejudices, as though the compassion burning in the heart of the impartial God-man needed to be convinced to show mercy. “This man, this centurion,” they said, “may be a Gentile, but he is still worthy of your solicitude. For he loves our nation, and even built us a synagogue.” These Jewish leaders, in their hardness of heart, thought these things could justify a man, and make him worthy of God’s mercy. But mercy is no more mercy, if we suppose ourselves worthy—it is then simply our just reward. Still, the Lord followed them, not because he was impressed by their persuading, but because he could see beforehand the true spiritual greatness of the centurion.
As they drew near the centurion’s house, the man sent other messengers, to tell the Lord, “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; no, I am not even worthy to present myself before you in person, and to look on your most-compassionate gaze, so I sent these men in my stead. Lord, just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I know what it means to bear authority. I tell this man, ‘Do this,’ and he does it; ‘Go there,’ and he goes; ‘Come,’ and he comes. I know that you are the Lord Almighty—your mere word at once becomes reality.”
Men marveled at Christ’s miracles, but Christ marveled at this man’s faith, the like of which he found not in all Israel—faithless Israel, who had been prepared over the course of nearly two millennia for the coming of the Messiah, but who failed to apprehend its Savior when he finally appeared. Instead, a Roman commander sooner perceived the Lord’s identity than most of those well-versed in the Law. And even the Jews who believed in Christ had not such great faith as this pagan; think of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, who still required the Lord to come and heal his dying daughter in person, after the Lord had already healed the centurion’s servant by a word.
Of course, the incident with the centurion left room for doubt on the part of the uncharitable and unbelieving. The servant was indeed healed, but not publicly. Perhaps, the skeptic says, it was just a happy coincidence that he became well by the time the centurion’s messengers returned home—where is the proof that it was the Lord’s word that healed him? By the miracle in today’s Gospel, the Lord silences all such quibbling. Today, it is not just the household of a soldier that witnesses the power of Christ’s word, but many of his disciples … and much people who followed him, along with much people of the city who were taking part in the funeral procession of a widow’s only son.
The Lord met this sorry spectacle as he was entering the city; and when he saw the grieving widow, he had compassion on her. The impassible Lord is moved to compassion, in the fulness of his humanity; and indeed, what human heart could fail to be wrenched at the sight of a woman, bereft first of her husband, now deprived of her only son, and leading his pale, stone-still body to burial? Her plight was desperate, and her grief inconsolable. This was before the days of Social Security and equal opportunity—with no living male relative, this widow had no one to support her, no earthly protector. Emotionally, spiritually, materially, she was exhausted and spent. All she had left were the burning tears she shed over the dead body of her young son.
Christ’s tender and sympathetic heart did not wait to require faith of her—how could someone so distraught be expected to believe? Seeing her, he was filled with pity for her, and went up to her, and simply said, Weep not.
What impossible words! When we see someone weeping and wailing, our natural desire is to comfort and console them, but so often, we have only words. Weep not. How empty these words are on our sinful, impotent lips. How easy to utter, but how void of power to put an end to any human grief or sorrow. But on the tongue and in the lips of the sinless, omnipotent God-man, they have an altogether different force:
“Weep not, O woman, for the Father of orphans, and the Judge of widows is here. I adopt for my own the orphan and widow, and I will never let them go unprotected or unassisted. Weep not, for your son is only sleeping; for in my presence, death is as evanescent as sleep. Weep not, for before you stands the Resurrection and the Life, which life is the light of all men. Weep not, for with me is the fountain of life, and in my light, your son shall again see the light of life. Weep not, for I call the things that are not as though they are; out of nothing, I brought all things into being. Is it a great thing, then, for me to call your dead son back among the living? Weep not, for I hold the keys and the power of death; I put to death, and make alive; I bring down to hades, and bring back up again; the lifespan of all men is in the light of my countenance; death and hell cower and quail in my presence. Weep not, O woman; your son shall rise again.”
Who could have asked for such a thing? for to ask, one must first conceive, and this request was beyond all human hope or expectation. Surely, the widow knew of the Prophet Elias, and how he had restored a widow’s son to life. But those things had taken place long ago, in ages past, when the grace of prophecy was still strong in Israel—God’s people had not know a prophet of that stature for centuries. And even then, how often did the prophets raise the dead?
But what is beyond our capacity even to hope for, God hastens freely to give; what is beyond the scope of our imagining is as easy for God as speaking a word. And so he did. Going up to the bier, he touched it and stopped those who carried it in their tracks. Then he told a lifeless corpse, Young man, I say unto you, Arise. “I say unto you, I do not ask or petition anyone else; I speak in my own name, I act by my own power—mine only, and no other. All that my Father has, he has given to me. As the Father has life in himself, so has he given me to have life in myself. Though I am also the Son of Man, marvel not; for I am still one with my Father in heaven; I remain God the Word, the Only-begotten.”
Hearing this mighty word, spoken with authority, the gates of hades could no longer hold the young man’s soul, and it immediately returned to his body. Then Christ, who wipes all tears from every face, delivered him to his mother (Lk. 7:15). Her bitter tears of mourning were exchanged for incredulous tears of rejoicing. And the rest of the great crowd that witnessed the miracle, in the face of such an unprecedented show of divine power, were filled with fear and awe, and gave glory to God.
Yet even after seeing so great a miracle, their faith did not rival that of the Roman centurion; for they said to themselves only that a great prophet is risen up among us (Lk. 7:16). They still did not grasp that this is the Almighty Lord himself in the flesh. The prophets were known to speak in God’s name, and not their own—so they began their oracles with thus saith the Lord. Which one of them ever dared to do wonders, cast out demons, heal diseases, and raise the dead by his own word. Elias too raised a widow’s son, but after much pleading and prayer to the Lord. He had to lay him out on a bed, and breathe on the boy, and only with many sighs and tears was his life restored. Elisseus, who had a double measure of Elias’ grace, also resurrected a boy, but he had to press against him, hand to hand and face to face. No, this one who speaks with authority is no mere prophet, this is the very Son and Word of God incarnate, whose word is all-accomplishing, and cannot be withstood even by death.
Have we yet learned this truth as well as that centurion? or do we rather resemble the hard-hearted Israelites, who through familiarity with the letter of God’s Law, lost the sense of its living power? We are Christians, and so we are without excuse; for unlike the Jews and the centurion, for us, Christ has already come, has already died and risen again, has shed his blood for our salvation, and given us the precious and sanctifying Mysteries of his Church.
If he has done all this for us, what else will he not do for us? he who has already given us all things, even when we least expected it, and were not looking for anything. Though we can never render anything to God worthy of all he has rendered to us, let us at least repay him with a daringly humble trust that all he brings to pass in our lives, down to the most minute detail—and especially the things we find unpleasant, humiliating, difficult or incomprehensible—that all of these things are in his power, and that he brings them to pass for our good, and our eternal benefit. This path of humble, trusting, child-like faith is the path trodden by all the saints. May we tread it also, and so attain the like end, through the grace and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ; to whom be glory unto endless ages. Amen.