[Luke 7: 11-17]
This past March I went with a group of students from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale on pilgrimage to Rome. Not unnaturally a bit of our time was focussed on the Vatican, where we went to a general audience with the Pope and about 10,000 of his other best friends, discussed ecumenism with present Roman Catholic leaders, and where we also spent hours literally underground, seeing why the Vatican was even there.
Rome was a city where like Nain, featured in today’s Gospel, the dead were brought outside the walls for burial. Ancient Jews, Romans, and Greeks did not create burial places around the picturesque streets of cities like the Granary burial ground, or in gardens like at Mt Auburn - they took the dead solemnly out to quite separate resting places, from the realm of the living to realm of the dead.The cities of the ancient mediterranean were thus divided by their walls into two parts - the realm of the living, of houses and streets and taverns inside, the polis - and outside was that of the dead, the necropolis, outside.
At one time the Vatican, outside the city walls of Rome, included a cemetery. St Peter’s Basilica stands where it does because Peter, and Paul, were according to tradition martyred in Rome under Nero, and Peter’s remains were buried in that very necropolis. Paradoxically then, the Christians came to view these places of the dead as monuments to faith and life, and centered communal worship around them, turning space inside out, the realm of death becoming a place where life could be celebrated.
Today’s Gospel spells out this strange claim of the Gospel more fully. It depicts not only the two spaces, the inner and the outer, but reports the movements between them; a procession familiar in the ancient world, a large crowd of mourners including a widow who are taking the body of a young man, her son, outside the town and the realm of the living, to the place of the dead outside.
But in this story, two processions encounter one other; for Jesus and his disciples, and a second large crowd, are coming in. These two crowds meet outside the town gates, almost like two armies at this point, or like two tides contending in uneasy equilibrium; which way will the water flow, between the realms of life in the city, and death outside where they stand.
The mother does not ask Jesus for anything, but “he had compassion for her,” saying “do not weep”; he touched not even the body but just the bier and said “young man, I say to you, get up.”
After this event we know nothing of the man or his widowed mother. We can celebrate that story implies not just return to life for him, but rescue from destitution for her. Yet this is not really the point of the story.
The mysterious victory that Jesus achieves in this skirmish with death is implicitly transformative for the lives of these two, widow and son - but also, and just as importantly, for that crowd flowing out of the city gate of Nain, if not in an easy way: “Fear seized them all” Luke says "and they praised God, saying 'a great prophet has arisen among us' and 'God has looked upon - cared for - God’s people’.” Fear seized them, because something had happened there that disrupted the usual flow of life and death, and reversed the tide.
I said we know nothing about these two, widow and son, but actually we do know one thing - they died. Eventually they were both carried by a similar crowd out the same gate, and no opposing flow of life led by a great prophet stopped the tide, at least not visibly or materially. If the point of the story was that Jesus could revive corpses, the story rings somewhat hollow then.
This is however a story about life and death, and about Jesus’ authority over death.
The human struggle with death is universal; but unlike the ancients and unlike many today, we in the developed West or at least in its more privileged sections find ourselves in a world in he grip of death but also possessed by the delusion that money, political power, or technical expertise, thinks it could solve the problem of death. If we could just develop the drugs, or buy the care, or understand the genome, or develop the policy, or build the wall, or elect the President, we wouldn’t die. The more fantastic elements of this involve cryogenics and cybernetics; perhaps if all else fails, the rich could freeze and/or download themselves to avoid mortality. This however is all a perverse expression of the realm of death, even in the attempt to escape it.
Death is not a technical problem to solve, it is a theological, a spiritual problem, to confront.
We rightly struggle against death however, both as the specific threat over a particular life, our own or others, but also as a force that claims to be the true character and meaning of existence. We can and should seek health and longevity for ourselves and others. We rightly oppose the absurdity of gun violence close to home, and warfare further afield, that takes innocent lives prematurely and meaninglessly. Christians do so, not because our struggle is really with death in that immediate and universal sense, from which Jesus only rescued the widow’s son temporarily; for we cannot eradicate death itself as the natural end of human life. Our struggle is rather with death as the principle of existence, as a realm of fear that prevents life being lived fully and freely.
In time Jesus himself will be taken out of the great city to the place of death and burial, borne on a tide of hatred and fear. For us however that story is not one of mourning but of triumph; and these two stories make the same claim about Jesus, death and life. The claim that life triumphs over death is even bolder than the one in today’s Gospel with which our modern mindsets may struggle, about a story of miraculous resuscitation. We cannot cheat death of those victories over us all. The claim is however that even when death finds us, it has no victory; for we have joined Jesus’s procession of life.
That place and this are places where the crowd following Jesus, among whom we are called to include ourselves, has surged forward through the gates and into the city, and the tide of life has prevailed. We judge this success not from the persistence of mortality but from the persistence of love; from our willingness to proclaim in the city that no death is mightier than this. Our claim is not that we can avoid or deny death, but that life and love are stronger than death; not just that there is life after death, but that if love reigns, then there is life even before death.