Homily From the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“Does God really care?”  That’s one of the first questions that we can begin to ask when things start to get really bad.  It’s easy to recognize your blessings when things are going really well, but when they turn south, we start to wonder where God is.  And if we think of God as an impersonal being, it can easily lead us to that question.  “Does God really care?”

In our first reading today, Jesus is travelling, and he approaches a funeral procession in the city of Nain.  In ancient times, funerals were a lot more public than they are today.  Large crowds would gather and carry the body of the deceased person out to the cemetery outside the city walls.  Funerals are always pretty sad occasions, but especially in the case we have in the Gospel.  This was the funeral of a young man, who was the only son of his mother, who herself was a widow.  Basically, he was all that she had.  She had nothing else left.  And so when they buried him, she would have nothing else left to live for.  She was basically walking to the place where she would give away the last thing meaningful to her life.

And so in the story, Jesus has compassion on her.  That English word compassion is nice, and from it’s Latin roots, it literally means to suffer with, which is what Christ is doing.  But the Greek word that is used in this case means something so much more.  It means that his sorrow was so deep for her that it wells up from his deepest being – the Greek word says from his bowels.  Think about the pit in your stomach as you watch a really sad movie or the last episode in the 6th season of LOST.  Jesus has sorrow for her.

So he tries to tell her, “Don’t cry,” but it falls on her as empty words.  He is trying to be there for her, to say something comforting, but she doesn’t feel the connection.  After all, she is going to bury her son.  So he decides to go deeper into her sorrow and tells the young man, “Arise.”  And of course, the miracle happens as we hear; he is risen.  But he is not just resurrected and brought back to life, but he is restored as a son, as the Gospel tells us Jesus “gave him to his mother.”  In some ways, I think the miracle focused on here is not so much the miracle of the raising of this young man, but the miracle with the mother.  The miracle is performed for her because Jesus deeply cares about her suffering, and through it, she again finds meaning for her life.

The same is true for us.  When we are suffering, Jesus does speak to us to offer words of comfort and peace.  I mean, he left us 73 books worth of it!  But sometimes, as genuine as those words are, and as loving as they are, they fall on us as empty words.  Christ calls us deeper though.  He calls us to open ourselves to receive his comfort personally.

In a lot of European churches, you’ll find a lot of altars decorated with paintings of the crucifixion, and other scenes from the Lord’s passion and death, and most of the time, they are portrayed with a lot of realism.  His wounds are bleeding, his face is contorted in pain, Mary and the soldiers are waiting there at the foot of the cross.  But sometimes, you’ll look at those paintings and find something that isn’t quite so realistic.  For example, in the background of the scene, instead of showing Jerusalem or Judea or whatever, you’ll find Ravenna or the port of London or something.  And then, mixed in with the soldiers and the disciples, you’ll find someone dressed like he’s at a Renaissance festival or wearing armor from the Middle Ages.  What the heck happened?  It’s actually pretty simple; the family who paid for the painting asked the artist to put them in the scene, painting them into the suffering and death of Jesus.  I guess that would be easy to see as self-promotion or advertizing.  Good thing we don’t have that anymore, or we’d find someone like Ray Vinson painted on the walls here!  In reality though, this has deep and rich symbolism.  Jesus really did suffer with us and for us.  He feels sorrow for us when we suffer, even from the depths of his soul.  We need to know that we never suffer alone, and we can always turn to him in our dark moments to find him right there, linking his cross to ours.  We can paint ourselves into Christ’s sufferings even now – not through artists or artisans, but through prayer and faith.  We can enter into Christ’s sufferings because he entered first into ours, so that we would never suffer alone.

So does God really care about us?  Yes.  God hears us and cares about us.  As the Gospel says, “God has visited his people” here in the Eucharist, the great mystery that we celebrated last weekend for Corpus Christi, and the great mystery that we will celebrate now.  May we open our hearts to his compassion and his grace working to bring us meaning and fulfillment in our lives.

The Holy Apostles: St. John

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The next apostle up on our list is St. John, the brother of last week’s saint, St. James the Greater.  St. John is an Evangelist, literally from Greek a “giver of good news”.  Multiple early Church Fathers support the claim that St. John was the author of the 4th gospel, the Gospel of John (hence the name?), written before 95 AD.

John’s gospel is the same story as the others, obviously, but goes about recounting it in a very different way.  It is a much more reflective, symbolic, and theological approach.  In the eastern Churches, this gives him the name St. John the Theologian.  In some ways, he seems to presuppose things already in the other gospels.  For example, in John’s gospel, Jesus never says the words “This is my body” or “This is my blood.”  Instead, John presupposes that and focuses on the meaning of the Eucharist – service (washing of the feet) and sacrifice (blood flowing from Jesus’ side on the Cross).

Anyway, in his own gospel, John refers to himself as the “beloved disciple”.  He defines himself not by his own achievements, but by his relationship to Jesus.  He is one of the core group of disciples, but had a special place in Jesus’ heart.  We hear that he rested his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper, and that he was the only apostle not to abandon Jesus.  With Peter, he is the first to receive news of the Resurrection and go to the tomb, and we hear that “he saw, and believed.”

One of the greatest priviledges that St. John was entrusted with was the care of Jesus’ mother – “Woman, behold your son.  Behold your mother.”  The tradition is that he cared for her in Jerusalem, and later in Ephesus in present-day Turkey.  In fact, an ancient house in Ephesus is still commemorated as the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos
Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos

You might recall from last week that it was John, along with his brother James, who had inquired about being seated at Jesus’ side, and that he would indeed drink the cup of suffering.  John wasn’t martyred like his brother, but he experienced suffering in a different way.  He supervised and governed the Church in Asia Minor (Turkey), and when persecutions broke out under the Emperor Domitian, was taken to Rome and boiled in oil!  Or at least they tried, to boil him in oil, but nothing happened!  He walked out of it, and the legend says that all the spectators in the Colosseum who witnessed the miracle were instantly converted.  I suppose I would be too if I just saw some guy walk out of a vat of boiling oil!

St. John was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation, before returning to Ephesus, where his earthly life came to an end.  For 900 years, the Basilica of St. John stood over his tomb, until it was destroyed by invading armies.

St. John was indeed the “beloved disciple,” and it is said that his parishioners grew tired of his sermons, because they relentlessly emphasized the need to “love one another.”  But truly, we can see the courage and zeal that comes from a heart that knows God’s love for itself and gives entirely out of love for others.  Do we know that love for ourselves?  How do we live it?  May St. John inspire us and pray for us, so that we too can claim our identity as beloved disciples!