Sunday, June 9, 2013

The happy funeral at Nain

I’m not in the business of recording sermons, but I heard one today that you might find interesting. At my local parish, the associate pastor gave an interesting sermon on the funeral in Nain; which was the Gospel reading for June 9, 2013. In this post, I simply paraphrased what the priest said and then took the liberty to supplement it with passages from the writings of the early Church Fathers.

This is one of the few sermons I ever heard on funerals. But the good priest made it interesting. He started off by recounting the Gospel story from Luke 7. There was a funeral procession leading outside a town named Nain, just a few miles away from Mount Tabor where our Lord was transfigured. A young man had just died and his mother, also a widow, was accompanying the procession when our Lord interrupted it. Imagine, the priest said, a modern day funeral procession of cars and someone stops the procession at an intersection. And in another bold move, this same person requests to touch the coffin.

Getting the feel of such impropriety may give us an idea just how bold was the gesture of Christ when he decided to reach out and touch the deceased body of the young man. As St. Cyril said, he came to the funeral self-invited. Yet, the hopeless situation of the mother of the deceased son seemed to have been the reason why our Lord took such bold measures. If there was anyone in a hopeless situation, it was the woman who had lost both her husband and, now, her son. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “The mother was a widow, and had no further hope of having children, she had no one upon whom she might look in the place of him that was dead. To him alone she had given care, he alone made her home cheerful. All that is sweet and precious to a mother, was he alone to her.”

You may recall, our Lord, moved with compassion for the mother, touched the lifeless body of the “young man” and he came back to life. Again, St. Gregory writes, “When He said, ‘young man,’ He signified that he was in the flower of his age, just ripening into manhood, who but a little while before was the sight of his mother’s eyes, just entering upon the time of marriage, the scion of her race, the branch of succession, the staff of her old age.”

During his sermon, the priest gave special attention to the incident when Jesus touched the body of the young man. It was through this physical contact that the soul returned to his body. This miracle was to foretell, not only the Resurrection of Christ, but the future resurrection of the faithful. He also noted that in touching the body, Jesus also touched the person and that the body is a symbol or expression of the person’s soul. Although a body may be lifeless, that body still has an affinity to the soul that once inhabited it. In fact, it is destined, no matter how disintegrated or decomposed, to be reunited with the soul. After all, it was through the body that the soul worked out its salvation. Hence, it is for this reason that the human body- dead or alive -takes on a sacred character.

This same priest who had given the sermon reminded us that for Catholic funerals, it is important that the body of the deceased be present. The commemoration of the deceased necessarily includes the body. As such, the presence of the body serves as a source of a hope in the future resurrection. Likewise, the burial of the body into the ground foreshadows its rising. Like our Lord’s body in the tomb and like a planted seed in the soil, the body will rise up towards the Light on the Last Day.

After having been touched by the Lord, therefore, the young man sat up and was reunited with his mother. Although the deceased body was a visible reminder of the mother’s loss, it was, nevertheless, an instrument through which Jesus gave joy to the grieving mother. After all, it was only when our Lord’s hands rested on the body that new life returned to it.

Perhaps, this Gospel story is what St. Paulinas of Nolas, another Church Father, had in mind when he attempted to console Pammachius, a Christian senator who had just lost his wife. Just as Jesus reunited the once-deceased son with his grieving mother at Nain, St Paulinas seems to be pointing to a similar reunion between a husband and a wife when he wrote, “Doubtless our love may weep for a time, but our faith must continue to rejoice. Let us long for our dear ones who have gone before us, but let us not despair of getting them back.” This is the hope of immortality that our faith rests on.

It is good to remember that the reunited mother and son of Nain had to say good-bye yet again. Chances are that one preceded the other in death. And although the time of separation of between the two was delayed, a temporary separation was an inevitable. In other words, one of them had to die while the other was called to live out the rest of his or her life here on earth. But upon such death, that is, when the mother and son had to say good-bye a second time, I can’t help but think that the miracle performed by our Lord at Nain prepared the only surviving family member to hope yet again; the hope of being reunited in the afterlife.