Jesus did not come to explain away
suffering, or to remove it.
He came to fill it with His presence.
Trinity tide is full of examples taken from Scripture that lead the faithful pilgrim into the experience of the Real Presence of God. And I am not speaking of somehow feeling God in the way that we feel the cold or heat, feel the pressure of another body against our own, or feel anything sensibly or tangibly. I am speaking of a kind of spiritual assurance, whose strength and might comfort the mind, fortify conviction, and infuse man’s being with the stable and unchanging determination of God’s power. I am talking about an inward and spiritual faith that encounters God’s presence in the uncertain and changing here and now, only to carry it progressively into the permanent realm of truth, beauty, and goodness. In layman’s terms, I am trying to describe the belief that opens itself up to the Jesus who desires to begin the salvation process now, as he leads us slowly but surely to his kingdom. And I hope to show why belief in the spiritual truth is to be preferred to despair over earthly and mundane matters.
So let us travel back in time, and find ourselves with Jesus in about the year 30 A.D.. We are in the city of Nain. Nain is a place barren of any civil society. Dean Stanley tells us that on a rugged and barren ridge, in an isolated place sits the ruined village of Endor. No convent, no tradition marks the spot. (Trench: Miracles) The place, to this day, is lifeless, empty, and void of any future fertility. Its external and visible characteristics show little sign of promise. But it is into such a place that Christ’s presence is drawn often than not. Barren places have no power in themselves to resuscitate or renew themselves. They are sterile, impotent, and lifeless. They need the intrusion of an alien energy to live, and move, and find their being once again.
And so we read: Now when Jesus came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. (St. Luke vii. 12) As the physical surrounding is parched, dried, and depleted so too is the heart of the widow woman whose sole pride and joy has been snatched away from her embrace. We all know someone who has suffered the tragedy of losing a child. And, perhaps, its pain is worst when the parent is widowed and the mother of an only child. Whatever the conditions, consolation, hope, and future joy seem the distant dream of wishful thinking. The child in whom the parent has invested all manner of hard work and anticipatory hope is no longer. With the psalmist this morning, she cries inwardly and spiritually, the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm cxvi. 3) And yet it is always into this pain and agony of soul, that Christ comes gladly, with much people. Christ never comes alone since the presence of those who are following Him make up the new community of hope into which the bereaved is welcomed.
The crowd of mourners that surrounds the mother is silent and still, for they can do nothing to alleviate her suffering. But when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. (St. Luke vii. 13-15) Christ alone bears the burden of compassion that can say, Weep not. Christ alone can suffer to bring new life out of death. I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Galatians vi. 11) The Widow of Nain’s tears are the seeds of new life that Jesus will infuse into her dead’s son’s corpse. Jesus says, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. (Idem) The Word is spoken and the spirit of the dead obeys. The only words that emerge out of this situation come from the resuscitated youth. His words are the only suitable response to the power of the living God in the heart of Jesus. With the psalmist he sings, The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken…(Psalm cxvi 6-10) The young man speaks, And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people. (St. Luke vii. 16)
The point of this morning’s Gospel runs far deeper than the surface-level specifics of an historical miracle of physical resuscitation. Surface level experiences and historical events must find their respective meanings elsewhere, through the Spirit that reveals their deeper significance. Think about the widow of Nain. She is confronted with a natural loss and earthly death; she can mourn, despair, and give up on life because the object and recipient of her natural love is now gone. She can live in her body but be dead in her soul because of the loss of her son. But when her son is brought back to life, she can choose to reignite her obsession and addiction to her son’s earthly welfare. She can treat the miracle as a strange but welcome surprise that will be forgotten with time. Or she can find in the miracle an awakening to another kind of life. Perhaps now she can see that her son was brought back to life so that he and she might come alive spiritually to the love of God in Jesus Christ. The point is this: suffering and death are common to all men, and sooner or later one or both will visit us all. But what will be the relation of our spiritual lives to this suffering and death? In the process of suffering, are we also dying to ourselves and coming alive to God in Jesus Christ, so that whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lords? (Romans xiv. 8)
Today we are alive physically, alive to the happiness, creature comforts, good food, fine wine, the economy, the hustle and bustle of political madness, and other accoutrements of what God calls mammon. But are we spiritually alive or dead? Are we conscious that we possess souls that are made to die to all of this that we might come alive to that righteousness that leads to eternal bliss and joy in God’s Kingdom? Are we ready to admit that our souls are too alive to uncertain, unpredictable, impermanent, and perishable lesser goods? Do we claim and confess that we have been too dead to those better, nobler, truer, and more reliable riches whose value never diminishes and whose power never fades away? And if this is true, are we ready to suffer and die to all earthly gods in order to be raised up into that new life which is moved and defined by the unchanging and undying love of God alone? Paul Claudel says that, Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence. Jesus intends that what we should learn from the death and resuscitation of the Widow of Nain’s son is that we are made to die to earthly things and come alive to those spiritual motions of His real presence that will carry us on to everlasting life. Young man, I say unto thee, arise. (Ibid, 14)
The condition which Jesus expects to find in us when He visits us with the compassion and mercy of His real presence is nicely summarized by Shakespeare, in Sonnet 146, where the poet comes at last to see that his soul has been imprisoned in a body that has worshipped the things of the earth. This is what he writes:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Why feed'st] these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there's no more dying then.
Within be fed, without be rich no more. Jesus wants us to admit that the time has come to die to earthly things. The time has come for us to see that we are not created to die a death that never ends, a soul whose body is finally consumed by the worms of the earth. Nay, rather, the soul is meant to swallow the body up into the new life which Jesus will fashion for everlasting habitations. The soul is made to consume and use the body for heavenly ends so that the death that feeds on men will die. Just as Jesus has commenced the spiritual awakening of the young man for a higher life, through which, indeed, alone the joy of the mother could become true and abiding (Trench, Miracles) as Archbishop Trench remarks, He will lift us up out of our earthly suffering and death and into that spiritual life that will wholly refashion us into the creatures we were made to become. Today we must ask ourselves: Will we begin to pray habitually for the compassion and mercy of Jesus that alone brings life out of death? Will we begin to pray for release and emancipation from the rule and sway of earthly things, and for the freedom and liberty with which obey and follow the commands and desires of Jesus Christ? Will we begin to pray for that new life that promises to lead us into God’s Kingdom? If we do, He will awaken our senses to His real presence and we shall sing with the Psalmist, I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living…[for] thou hast delivered my soul from death …Behold, O Lord, how that I am thy servant, and the son of thy handmaid…, thou hast broken my bonds in sunder. (Ps. cxvi. 14) Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons