The Dog-Woman post has been very popular in Asia, particularly in Vietnam and China. I originally wrote that chapter of the book for my parish bulletin in Australia. I started to pay special attention to the passage when I was able to use it apologetically with a Burmese political refugee in a TB ward in Rome. The Missionaries of Charity had asked me to go to see him at the hospital across town. He had been using the Dog-Woman passage in the Gospels as a way to conveniently distance himself from the Church. There are more chapters to the Dog-Woman book than that. Today, I’d like to put up another, very different chapter, about a woman I call the Grief-Woman, since this is the Gospel for today, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost in the Extraordinary Form. While many others have offered suggestions or corrections to what I’ve written here, I haven’t yet incorporated those into this text. You have to understand that my physical circumstances at the moment are not conducive to writing, not in the least, and that when I post anything up on the blog, I make many typos and other editorial errors, writing, as I am, as fast as I can go, in a flurry. Sorry, but, those are my circumstances until the hermitage is finished! Anyway…
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We are again in the Gospel of Luke, who stands out in his evangelical concern for the women in the life of our Lord and the Apostles. We are now up near the city of Naïn, which one can see from the precipice of Nazareth or the top of Mount Tabor, for Naïn lies just South, across the valley and up the hill of Moreh. The disciples, the Apostles in particular, would have had much to learn from this Grief-Woman, but they did not pay close attention to her. Her love was too much to bear. Let’s read Luke 7,11-17 (in my own pedandtic translation) –
And it came about in quick succession that He went to a city called Naïn. And His disciples and a great multitude went with Him. And as He drew near the gate of the city, behold, a boy, having died, was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a sizeable multitude from the city was with her. And the Lord, seeing her… His Heart was sacrificed for her… And He said to her, “Do not weep.” And having come up, He touched the litter, and the bearers stood still. And He said, “Young man! I say to you! Arise!” And the dead boy sat up, and began to speak. And He gave him to his mother. And fear seized all, and they were glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” And this report went throughout the entirety of Judea, and in all the surrounding region.
Luke recounts Jesus being up in Galilee before and after this account about the widow and her son in Naïn. Such geographic details are more fascinating than we might at first think. All the words of the Scriptures are inspired. Politically, Naïn was in the Tetrarchy of Galilee, North and East of the Roman Administration of Judea. At the time of our Lord, this political Judea, having its center in Jerusalem, engulfed everything far South of Hebron to the Eastern ranges of Mount Carmel in the North, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
Religiously, Naïn was in the old Northern Kingdom, specifically in the territory of Issachar, which is North of the territories of Manasseh and Ephraim (the later Samaria), which were, in turn, North of the territories of Benjamin and Judah. When the exiles returned from Babylon centuries earlier, they were interested only in a Jewish and specifically Judean center of the true religion in Jerusalem to which anyone in the North, including Galilee, would have to travel, which was more than ever the custom at the time of Jesus.
Since Naïn is not in Judea, it is curious that Luke insists not so much on Galilee, but on Judea as the center of thespreading fame of Jesus. Luke does mention how thankful the people were in Naïn itself, speaking of Jesus being a prophet and being God Himself visiting His people, but the report, Luke says, went throughout the entirety of Judea, and in all the surrounding region.
Since Luke is hardly excluding that Galilee rejoiced in the raising from the dead of one of its own, he is surely referring to Judea in all its vastness of influence, whether political or religious, not to mention its surroundings: Gaza and Phoenicia of the Province of Syria, Gaulanitis of the Tetrarchy of Philip, the Decapolis, Galilee, of course, and Perea of the Tetrarchy of Herod Antipas, and the Idumean region of the Nabataean Kingdom. Consider that the boy who had died was up in Naïn, and that his mother, a widow, was also in that Galilean village. It is not just a possibility, but even a probability that the father of this boy, before having met his untimely death, was entrenched, in Judea, in either religious or secular matters, or both, gaining fame among all Judeans for his goodness and kindness. One hint we have for this is that Luke wants us to grieve with the widow also for the reason that she is a widow, meaning that her husband’s death would have been a hard blow to take, he being so good. Another hint is that the fame of Jesus spread primarily in the entirety of Judea in a manner as positive as was the life of the widow’s husband, and this for Jesus’ having raised from the dead this particular Galilean boy of this particular Galilean widow. Luke’s provision of these hints speaks to the curiosity of Jesus’ spreading fame being centered in Judea even though the occasion for this was in Galilee.
The death of an intensely loved spouse is the single most traumatic event in married life. It can make the survivor bitter unless he or she has an extraordinary faith. I’m sure we’ve all heard the question from this survivor or that: “Why do bad things always have to happen to me?” On top of this catastrophic situation for this woman there is also the death of her young boy, her only son. In this way, it is as if she has been killed twice over. But she is not bitter. Her immense love is now manifested as a non-despairing abyss of grief. Hope is essential to true grief brought about by love instead of self-pity.
It is not easy to grieve, to have a love as strong as death, as ferocious as our own going to the cross, to have our unreality put to death. Death to our spiritual lethargy is a thousand times as terrible as the most terrifying physical death one could imagine. Twelve Apostles ran away. One returned. One committed suicide. Ten didn’t know what to do with themselves. Grief is not easy. It is in dying to ourselves that we receive this blessedness, this beatitude: “Blessed are those who grieve…”
The ones who were open to seeing the great example — a teaching if you will — of her true grief, her hope, her love, were the townspeople of Naïn and all those in Judea and all its districts. They were with her in force for the funeral of her son, her only son. Without prejudice to the goodness of this woman, it may be that they are numerous because of the greatness of her deceased husband. Yet, the religious reaction of the crowd does not speak to politics as being the source of their joy when the boy is raised from the dead by our Lord. The crowd pity the woman’s two-fold grief and notice what was going on between the Lord and this woman, something which speaks to our Lord being a prophet in their eyes, God Himself among us. A prophet would understand the capacity of the woman to take in what Jesus was about to do, which was, of course, something which ultimately only God could do.
This particular family was open to believing in the resurrection. The mother of this dead boy, this Grief-Woman, becomes a teacher of the disciples and, among them, the Apostles, specifically in regard to the resurrection of the dead. The Apostles were not the best students. They were demonstrably in need of her instruction. We read many times that the Apostles did not at all understand the instructions of Jesus regarding His being put to death and His subsequent resurrection, that is, until after the resurrection. Had they paid more attention to this Grief-Woman, they might have been more open to such instructions of Jesus.
Luke describes the situation using a verb for mercy that is reserved to Jesus alone thoughout the Gospels. He writes: ἐσπλαγχνίσθη ἐπ᾽ αὐτῇ, “His Heart was sacrificed for her” (with the σπλαγχνα, the viscera, referring in such cases specifically to the heart). In the Vulgate, this comes out as “Misericordia motus super ea,” the translation of which is, “His Heart was made miserable over her.” In other words, He took on her need as if it were His own, not as some sort of ‘transference’ wrought by a megalomaniac, but really, for the Lord makes us members of His own Body, and our need is, in some sense, His need. Yet, He is the very one who is able to fulfill this need (the working description of mercy), because of the sacrifice that He made of His Heart for us (the Incarnational description of Luke). The Lord had a right in justice to have mercy on this widow because He was to take on the effects of sin, including the death known by her only son. Jesus was to have His Heart break for us in that terrible agony in Gethsemane, and to have it pierced open on the Cross.
Mercy presumes something with which to work, especially, biblically, with this passive form of the verb about Jesus’ heart being sacrificed (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη). For instance, Luke does not use this verb for mercy with the father of the prodigal son when his youngest son is departing to spend his inheritance before his father is dead, and thus, effectively, wishing his father were dead. Rather, Luke describes the father’s heart being sacrificed, his being “moved with mercy”, when his son is returning, even if that return is made with the most minimal, self-interested repentance. His father truly “finds” him by merciful love, making him realize that he is a son to the point that he cannot continue his plotted, self-interested confession that was so concerned with keeping a certain distance from his father even while once again having his father’s bread to eat.
In an analogous way, this widow, this Grief-Woman, has much going for her, but much more than any prodigal son. It is not the lack brought about by sin which is the source of her need. Her grief, again, comes from love. She is hurting, grieving, precisely in proportion to the greatness of her love. It is precisely because of the greatness of her love that our Lord wants to do this for her, to raise her only son from the dead. Jesus’ own Heart is sacrificed for her, so to speak, because her heart has gone out in the same way for her son. She cannot bring him to life, but our Lord can.
The Grief-Woman does not say anything when our Lord tells her not to weep, even if weeping is so very appropriate in love. She has no bitterness against our Lord, nor does anyone else. At least for men of good will, our Lord’s very presence must have brought an atmosphere of majesty with it, a sense that our Lord could do the impossible, the unthinkably good. This is why I say they had hope of the resurrection, which was common at that time, but for some future resurrection, not an immediate raising from the dead. Yet, even this immediacy could not be said to be out of the question for this woman when Jesus was present.
Those carrying the litter stood still when Jesus touched the litter. All wailing and dirges would have stopped. No one, but no one, interrupts funerary rites like this, ever. People would be taken aback, but, seeing that the widow herself has not taken offense, would become interested. And then come the alarming words sending chills up and down the spines of all present: “Young man! I say to you! Arise!”
And he does. He sits right up on the litter and begins to speak about whatever it is that boys say in such a situation. How the litter bearers did not drop the litter in shock only the boy’s guardian angel knows. As the boy rises, so do the hearts of the multitudes rise up into their throats. Stunned, all watch without blinking. Jesus quietly gives the boy to his mother, perhaps lifting him up from his sitting position on the litter and placing him in the arms of his mother. She receives him, not weeping, but surely crying with great joy. Seeing the love of Jesus with the joy of the woman and her son, the mourners could not but speak of Jesus being a prophet such as Elijah, God Himself among them. God is love, and they saw Love Incarnate, God’s own Heart in action.
This was done for the Grief-Woman herself. Only later would anyone be able to make an analogy of her love and, therefore, her grieving, with another widow whose only Son met an early though not untimely death, the love and grieving of the Blessed Virgin. She also would have seen this event and taken it to heart, into her immaculate heart. This was also done for her, to get her through the three days of darkness, right unto that first morning of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. First it was Saint Joseph – how he must have been missed! – and then it was to be her only Son. Rightly have we seen the heart-rending exclamation in the Book of Lamentations (1,12) applied to our Blessed Mother with depictions of our Lord being taken down from the cross and placed in her arms: “Is it nothing to you all who pass by the way? Look and see if there is any grief like my grief !”
This Grief-Woman, in her steadfast love, by way of her grieving, teaches the disciples, the Apostles, about being open even to resurrection from the dead. Yet, the disciples were continually not understanding Jesus speaking about His own being put to death and rising from the dead. If only they had paid attention to her, if only. But they did not. Perhaps, later, they could have also remained with our Blessed Mother upon her only Son’s death.
Wouldn’t we all, in hindsight, wish to be there with her in her hour of need? It was in that hour that she interceded for us, becoming our mother with such birth-pangs of intercessory prayer for what we needed. We beg our Lord that we might pay attention to those women the Lord brings into our lives, that we might be prepared not to run away from Calvary when it presents itself to us by way of our Lord’s invitation to be with Him at the greatest moment of love the world has ever known, not only in the day to day circumstances of His providential or permissive will, but also and especially in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is there that we learn about love stronger than any death.