“The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” (From Luke 7:11-17, Proper 5C). I can only imagine. I can only imagine what it was like for this mother and, believe me, I have. Thousands of times. I picture it in my mind. I feel the shock, the joy, each hug and kiss. I see tears of sorrow that now flow with happiness. I hear the silence of grief shattered by words of thanksgiving and celebration.
I’m glad for the widow and her son. I’m glad they got their lives back and I do mean “they” because I know that in some way she also died. It wasn’t just the young man. It was his mother too. With his death her future was forever changed, lost, dead. I know how that feels and I know many of you do too. Anyone whose loved one has died knows what that’s like. So I am really happy they got their lives back but I have to be honest about a few things. I also feel a bit angry, sad, and confused. Mostly, though, I am jealous. I wish Jesus would come and give Brandon back to Cyndy and me. I wish Jesus would come and give us back our lives. I want to hear him say, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
Surely, you know what I am talking about. Surely, you understand how I feel. Surely, you too have imagined and pictured what I have. Hooray for the widow and her son, but what about me? What about you and the deaths of those you love? What about all the other widows, parents, children, siblings, and friends throughout history whose loved ones have died and were not given back? What about our own deaths? What about those who look at their life through the eyes of death and see no future?
Today’s gospel answers none of these questions, at least not in the way we most often want. We cannot rationalize or explain death. We cannot gloss over it, deny, or ignore it. It is real and, regardless of when or how it comes, it is always painful. No logic can satisfy. We can never make sense of the loss that comes with death.
That has been and continues to be my struggle with this week’s gospel. It hits too close to home. It’s personal in a way that hurts. It raises questions I would rather avoid and not talk about. It challenges me to examine what I really believe about death and resurrection. I don’t think I am the first, the only, or the last one to feel this way or ask these questions. Some of you have sat in my office with the same feelings and asking the same questions. I know others who have kept silent and kept to themselves but the feelings and questions are no less real and no less present. We all weep and struggle with the mystery of death.
Beneath our questions and feelings lies a great fear. It is a fear that in many ways dominates and drives not only our lives but our entire society and culture. Despite what we know about the Christian faith and tradition, despite what we say we believe, despite what we want to believe, we fear and believe death to be final, the end, the ultimate reality. We have been deceived and convinced that death leaves us no future.
That’s why we so rarely talk about death openly and honestly. That’s why when we do talk about it we don’t know what to say. What do you say to or about one who has no future? That’s why we put a curtain around the grave and fake grass over the dirt that will fill that grave. Then we walk away before the body is lowered into the grave. It’s too much to see, too much to bear, when you believe that’s all there is and it is the end. It is one reason why, for much of history, children were so important. They carried on the family name and presence in this world. It is, at least in part, perhaps unconsciously, why we work to make a name for ourselves, to achieve, accomplish, and leave a legacy. We fear that with death our time has run out. We will be forgotten, no one will remember, and we will be no more. It is why a man once told me we could not ask the saints to pray for us. “Because they are dead!” he exclaimed. It is why I, and perhaps you too, hear today’s gospel and are jealous of the widow. We see her as the exception to the rule. Hidden within all these examples is the belief that death is the end.
Despite all my imaginings about the widow, she says nothing in today’s gospel. She does nothing. St. Luke tells us nothing about her response to her son’s sitting up and talking. That’s not because she has no response but because St. Luke wants us to see and focus on something else. In some ways the real miracle and the amazing thing about this story is the response of the crowds, not only what they say but what they do not say.
Everyone stopped walking when Jesus touched the bier. The crowd of mourners heard Jesus say, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” They saw the dead man sit up and heard him begin to speak. They saw Jesus give the young man to his mother. Never once did they say to Jesus, “Do that for us.” Not one of them asked, “What about me? What about those I love who have died?” That was no longer in question. Something changed for the crowds. They were changed. The rising of the young man was also their rising, our rising, everyone’s rising. They are not jealous and they do not seek more time for themselves or their loved ones who have died.
Instead, “They glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’” They knew, believed, and experienced this event to be as true and real for them as it was for the widow and her son. It was for all of them. In the raising of the widow’s son they recognized God’s favor and visitation upon themselves and those they loved, upon all God’s people.
The crowds are our witnesses that Jesus has already given us everything he gave the widow and her son. Death is not the end, the final or ultimate reality. Life is eternal and love is immortal. Life is not bound or determined by time, but by God.
As long as we see death as the running out of time, the end, the grand finale, we will always be jealous of the widow. We will always be looking for just a little more time, an encore. That’s why it so easy and tempting to identify with and focus on the widow and her son in today’s gospel. Their story is not, however, unique or particular to them. It is also our story, a shared story, and it has nothing to do with time.
This gospel is not about getting more time but about being given greater life. Isn’t that what our burial liturgy says? “Life is changed, not ended.” Isn’t that why “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia?” Isn’t that why Jesus can stand before this widow, feel in his gut her pain and loss, and still say, “Do not weep?” Isn’t that why every week we stand and say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead?” Isn’t that why we can join “our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven” to proclaim the glory of God’s name?
I wonder if we sometimes treat these words as pious superstitions to make us feel better rather than the truth of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We ought to be looking and listening. We ought to look for the resurrection of the dead and see our loved ones standing next to and surrounding us. We ought to join our voices with all the company of heaven and listen for the familiar voices we have missed and longed to hear again. Why would we settle for feeling better when we and those we love are alive?
I know this is not easy. I know how difficult this is. My struggle with this week’s gospel, with Brandon’s death, with the deaths of all those I love and miss has yielded no answers. I have no answers for you or myself. This struggle has, however, given me better questions.
The question isn’t whether this story is true for Brandon, Cyndy, and me, but what keeps me from believing the truth of this story. The question isn’t how can I get what the widow got, but what prevents me from seeing I already have it. The question isn’t whether death is the end, but why do I persist in believing that lie? They are questions for everyone who struggles with death, questions reminding us that a great prophet has risen among us and we have been visited and looked upon favorably by God.