Opening the Word: The body of life

St. Cyril of Alexandria, commenting on the story in today’s Gospel, wrote, “Observe how he joins miracle to miracle. In the former instance, the healing of the centurion’s servant, he was present by invitation, but here he draws near without being invited.” The Roman centurion (see Lk 7:1-10), was a remarkable man: The Jewish elders not only vouched for him, they praised his love for “our nation,” demonstrated by the building of a synagogue, which was unusual. The centurion’s faith was also unusual.

When Jesus approached his home, the centurion asked him to stay outside, “for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” He requested that Jesus instead “say the word and let my servant be healed.” Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” The centurion was one of those rare men who pursued truth with modesty and rigor, and who recognized, even from afar, the power and authority of Christ.

We know nothing about the inner life of the widow from the city of Nain. Her only son had died, and she was alone, with no one to support her financially and otherwise. Although a large crowd from the city was accompanying the funeral procession, her isolation and vulnerability were very real. Jesus was also accompanied by a large crowd, and St. Luke provides a striking image of a widow and her dead son being watched by an only son — the singular Son of God! — whose own widowed mother would one day watch him suffer and die. “The Virgin’s son met the widow’s son,” remarked St. Ephrem the Syrian. “He became like a sponge for her tears and as life for the death of her son. Death turned about in its den and turned its back on the victorious.”

There is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death, with an astonishing demonstration of his power over death. When Jesus faced death, he allowed it to transpire. Unlike the widow’s son, he accepted and embraced it, for the sake of the world. This marriage of power and humility has been a source of theological contemplation and contemplative wonder ever since.

While the divinity of Christ was displayed in restoring the young man to life, Christ’s humanity is always evident. The divine and human are expressed in a simple line: “When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Those are words for all who suffer loss, who face death, and who experience profound hurt and pain, whether physically or emotionally or spiritually. The Lord sees us. That is, he sees who we really are and what sorrow and heartache is in the deepest and most hidden parts of our hearts. He sees us, and he is moved with pity — and so he speaks to us. Notice that when Jesus saw the widow, he was moved inwardly with a compassion that is filled with mercy — the same mercy he exhorts all of us to pursue and practice: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). But he was not just moved inwardly. He then “stepped forward and touched the coffin.”

Jesus does not just offer words, but he offers himself, the Word. He is not merely quotable, but touchable — and he moves toward us, hand extended. After all, each of us will one day be in that coffin. Why did Jesus touch the coffin? “It was, my beloved,” wrote Cyril, “that you might learn that the holy body of Christ is productive for the salvation of man. The flesh of the almighty Word is the body of life and was clothed with his might.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.