The Gospel. St. Luke vii. 11.
And it came to pass the day after; that Jesus went into a city, called Nain: and many of his disciples went with him, and much people. 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. And 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. And he delivered him to his mother. 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. And this rumour of him went forth throughout all Judaea, and throughout all the region round about.
During the course of my life in the Church, one of the criticisms that I have often heard leveled against the Traditional Faith is that “our” God is a cruel god. These modern day critics look at the Church’s teachings about the Old Testament, with all its violence and bloody sacrifices, and they think that the God that we worship is one full of vengeance and wrath.
These same people have taken this notion a step further when they consider the traditional teaching about the Sacrifice of Christ. Some have even blasphemously suggested that such a doctrine amounts to little more than celestial child abuse; again basing their conclusions on their limited understanding of the Nature of God.
Now such a misunderstanding is not a new phenomenon; in ancient times, the Stoics believed that the primary characteristics of God were apathy, and the incapability of feeling. The Stoic thought went that if someone can make another person feel happy or sad, glad or sorrowful, then they had power over them and were, even for a moment, greater than them. And, since no one can have power over God, and no one can be greater than God, it therefore followed that God, by His very nature, must then be incapable of feeling.
The modern day critic has turned this notion of an “unfeeling God” completely round to the other extreme; their god is only about “feeling”. More specifically, their god is only about Love; at least as they define the word.
Now I will give the modern day critics this much credit; for they have chosen to focus their belief on this simple statement from I John (4:8), “He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is Love”. So, by their interpretation, God is “only” a God of Love, and that His Love is expressed “only” in acts of mercy. There is nothing of death, nothing of suffering, nothing of want that relates to the Love that is God.
But the problem with their doctrine is that they fail to acknowledge (or dismiss altogether) all the many ways and forms that Love can take. They fail to acknowledge that God is an all feeling God; they fail to acknowledge the Compassion of God; they fail to acknowledge the Compassion of Christ.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we are presented with a wonderful example of such compassion. We can imagine the scene that Our Lord came upon as he entered the small town of Nain; there was a funeral procession taking place; and let me assure you that in ancient times a Jewish funeral procession exceeded anything that we Anglican Catholics might expect for its seeming “excess”. There would have been any number of professional “mourners”, playing flutes and banging cymbals and uttering cries of grief. And they would have been followed by the family of the deceased, dressed in their mourning garb, and giving voice to their own lamentations.
To be sure, it was a most pitiful sight, and certainly one that was not unusual during those times. But what made this particular procession so different was that the young man who had died had also left behind his widowed mother; and she had been left with no one in her own family to whom she could turn for help. We are lead to consider not only the poignancy of a life that had come to an end all too soon, but also one that left an emptiness, a feeling of desperation for those who survived “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“
But in the next verse we see how Our God is not an unfeeling God; but rather that He is indeed a God of Love, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her: weep not“. “Compassion”; “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering”. Before he does anything else, Our Lord shows us his empathy and heartache for the widow’s condition, and he further shows his desire and intention to relieve her anguish.
This statement alone should be enough to refute the Stoic position that God is incapable of feeling (though, to be sure, there are many other examples throughout the Gospels); but what about the position of the “modern critics”? Remember that these people will maintain that God is “only” a God of Love, and that His “love” is represented “only” by works of mercy; and that this Mercy is reflected “only’ in the alleviation of suffering; and that true mercy would prevent that suffering from even happening in the first place.
Again, I must credit these “modern critics”, only because they are so very close; but they have also missed the point in its entirety; they have failed to take into consideration the totality of the meaning of the word “Compassion”; “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering“. They have failed to consider the fullness of the message conveyed in today’s Gospel.
First, we must remember the point at which Our Lord arrives in the little town of Nain; just as the funeral procession begins. Next, we recall how he observed the proceedings and the grief of the widowed mother, and “he had compassion on her“. Jesus then went and touched the bier upon which the young man was laid (and it is worth noting that at this point the procession stopped!). And then, Our Lord commanded the young man to arise.
The first lesson here is quite clear; Christ will come to us in the time of our utmost need. He knows our predicament and he likewise has the greatest “feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune“. And because he is also God (who is, by his very nature, IS Love), he also has “a strong desire to alleviate the suffering“.
But when Jesus touches the bier, he also communicates a very significant point; the young man is dead, and his body is on its way to the grave; but Christ stops the procession, and commands the young man to arise. By doing so, he lays claim to that which the grave would seek to grasp. By this simple act, Our Lord proclaims his power and authority over death. By this simple act, we are assured that those of us who have born the mark of Christ, will never be marked for eternal death.
The Compassion that Jesus shows in this episode disproves the Stoic contention that God is incapable of feeling; for in this Gospel lesson we see how Our Lord is moved to deep sympathy and sorrow for this widow. At the same time Our Lord’s actions show just how shallow is the understanding of the modern critics. Yes, “God is Love”; but this Love encompasses all things and all times and all ways. His Love is also shown to mankind in ways that we cannot comprehend. The modern critic might say that a loving God wouldn’t have allowed this widow to suffer to begin with. The Christian knows better.
You see, Jesus Christ is not only the Lord of Life; he is the Lord of death as well; for he has triumphed over the grave and given us his promise of eternal life: “Because I live, ye shall live also”, John 14:19). He has shown us the totality and awesome nature of the Love of God (“so God Loved the world, that he gave His only Begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”, John 3:16). He has shown us that our God “feels all”, knows our suffering, and has been moved to the deepest sympathy and sorrow for our situation. And he has shown us his Compassion, his “strong desire to alleviate our suffering“. He has shown us what it really means when we say that “God is Love”.
I know that this is a hard thing to accept, but it is actually through the suffering of mankind that God proves that he is an “all feeling” God. At the time of our greatest need, Our Lord will come to us and he will show us the deepest sympathy. When things seem to be at their most bleak, Christ will move to alleviate our distress. He will show us his Compassion.
This then is the same Compassion that Our Lord showed throughout the Gospels (Matthew 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 8:2). This is the same Compassion that he showed during his agony in the Garden (“nevertheless not my will, but thine be done”, Luke 22:42). This is the same Compassion that he showed as the nails were being driven into his hands and feet (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, Luke 23:34). This is the same Compassion that he showed as he hung on the Cross and alleviated the suffering of the whole world. This is the Compassion of Christ. This is the Compassion of God. This is the Love of God. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her: weep not.