Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on 20th Sunday after Pentecost/The Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

Gospel: [Luke 7:11-16 (§30); John 17:1-13 (§56)]

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear ones:

In our first Gospel today, the Sunday Gospel, we continue with our Lord in St Luke’s Gospel, as He moves from the Mount of the Beatitudes on the NW slope of the Sea of Galilee, where the Gospel we heard last week was preached, and proceed about 20 miles or so to the SW, to the ‘city of Nain’. This village can still be identified today as the village of Nein, 4 miles from Mount Tabor in the shadow of Mount Moreh. Today this is a poor hamlet consisting of about 20 houses with some fairly extensive ruins of an ancient wall together with a series of tombs hewn into the rockface a short distance to the east of the village. It was in this direction our Lord approached, and probably to one or other of those very tombs that the people were bearing the young man’s corpse which forms the basis of today’s reading. As is our custom let us look at this Gospel through the prism of one of the God-bearing Fathers, this week, St Ephrem the Syrian, who gives us just a very short though lapidary comment on this Gospel story of just a few lines which we will try to unpack together.

Now when He 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.

In his commentary, St Ephrem’s short paragraph on this story starts –

The virgin’s son met the widow’s son.

St Ephrem reminds us of the parallels between the Mother of God and this poor widow of Nain. Like our Lady the Theotokos, this poor widow had only one son, one flesh of her flesh. And in him was invested all of her hope and, at a practical level, all of her material and physical security, the roof over her head and food at her table. Now that he has gone, who will protect her, who will provide for her? Again, like the Theotokos, this mother was alone, having lost her husband and her son, in the same way in which the Mother of God had also lost St Josepth the Betrothed at some point in Jesus’ teenage years and early youth and then, at the prime of his adult life, would – at the foot of the Cross – also lose Him, her only son. This loss of the only-son was thus a profound one at so many different levels: emotional, existential as well as directly and immediately practical and concrete, which is what must have made it so completely overwhelming for this poor lady.

and much people of the city was with her.

We are used to these Middle Eastern scenes of public empathy and grief. Indeed, over the past week or two we have become uncomfortably familiar with them over and over again, of whole communities accompanying the bodies of the dead, such as those 18 enshrouded corpses from the ruins of St Porphyrios’ Orthodox Monastery in the greatly-suffering city of Gaza, about 95 miles to the south of Nain.

What a contrast there is to the commemoration of death in our own society. Here in the secular modern west, not only are we isolated and alienated from each other but we are also terrified of death. Our funerals are strictly private affairs of a few lonely individuals in hushed, mute and dignified tones. In most secular funerals, the dead and death are not seen but are hidden in the coffin. What a contrast there is between the small band of mourners in their black clothes and the pulse, colour and hum of the surrounding city which continues around them in loud and blank indifference to their grief.

And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.

Our Lord, though comes to this little place and, for a moment comes part of this tragic scene which was unfolding before His eyes. Whilst everyone around him is weeping, our Lord says ‘weep not’. It is only natural for us to weep in the face of death, in the stark reality of our finitude and mortality. Indeed, when our Lord was confronted with the death of His dear friend Lazarus and saw the tears streaming from Martha and Mary, He gave rise to the very shortest sentence, but also the most profound verse in the whole Gospel – ‘Jesus wept’. Our Lord, God Incarnate wept. Yet here in Nain the Lord instructs the widow to ‘weep not’. How can our Lord say this? By what power can he stem the flow of a mother’s tears for her dead son?

And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.

Not only did those who held the bier stand still, but in this moment, where the Lord of Life touches the bier of death, time itself stood still. What daring, what audacity, in that moment with everyone wailing and weeping to mock the finality of death and to ask the dead to arise.

And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.

Yet, He who was the author of Life, the Pre-eternal Word of the Father, who brought the world from non-being into being, by a Word, through a single word – “Arise” – brought this nameless young man of Nain back from the dead. St Ephrem in his commentary comes up with the most beautiful analogy for the impact of our Lord on the widow of Nain. He became, St Ephrem writes, like a sponge for her tears. To the tears of death and Hades our Lord brings the Life-giving sponge of His Holy Resurrection which dries away every tear from every face. He came, in St Ephrem’s words – as life for the death of her son.

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.

We hear that fear came over the witnesses of this awesome miracle, as they were coming directly face to face with Divine Energy and Activity. As St Ephrem concludes –

Death turned about in its den, and turned its back on the victorious one.

Through the resurrection of the dead man of Nain the people round about felt the direct presence of God, that ‘God hath visited his people’. Thinking about these last words of our reading, it is also appropriate that on this Sunday we commemorate the Fathers of the Seventh Oecumenical Council which had been convened by the Empress Irene and met at Nicaea from 24th of September to the 13th of October 787. The council ended – at least doctrinally – almost fifty years of iconoclast persecution which had led to the martyrdom, maiming and exile of many hundreds and thousands of Orthodox Christians who had refused to deny the ancient practice of the veneration of the holy ikons. Although this Council seems to be directed at something aesthetic, the external trappings of our religion, in actual fact, the Fathers wisely understood that the veneration of ikons is an outward expression of something at the very dogmatic heart of our Faith. As the Synaxarion says, “It was not simply the veneration of the holy images that the Fathers defended in these terms but, in fact, the very reality of the Incarnation of the Son of God.” For it is only a God that has Truly become Incarnate, that has Truly united Himself with human nature, with human flesh, with a visible, material body, that can be seen, and can, therefore, be painted for, as we heard in today’s Gospel, in our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘God hath indeed visited his people’ – and the material can be sanctified.

Dear father, brothers and sisters: reflecting on today’s Gospel reading let us therefore not weep, let us not sorrow, when we behold the reality of death remembering those powerful words of the holy Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians –

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.

It is precisely our belief in the reality of the Resurrection of Christ, and the Victory of Life over Death, which should act as a heavenly sponge to wipe away the bitter tears of human grief from every face. May the joy of the widow of Nain who received back her only-son from the dead, and the joy of the Virgin who beheld Her only-Son Risen from the dead be ours always now and ever and unto the ages of ages.