Today’s Gospel reading is one of my own personal favorites, probably because this Gospel reading is heard at the end of the conclusion of the funeral service when it is held in church. This Gospel reading of St. Luke is taken at the main entrance of the church, just prior to the casket being taken out of the church for the very last time, and it conveys a wonderful message about Christ’s triumph over death.
I’ve been to many funerals over the years, not that I’m keeping score; it’s just a part of the occupational hazard of being a funeral director. And I have to tell you, this particular reading still makes me stop and think each and every time I hear it, whether at a funeral, or in the regular Sunday cycle of readings. For almost five years as deacon here at our beloved St. Paul the Apostle Church, I have had the privilege of preaching on this Gospel several times already. Each time I prepare a homily to share with you on this Gospel reading, the theme of my message to you always comes down to one word, and that word is HOPE.
As you listen to the words of this Gospel, you cannot help but to take pity on this poor woman described by St. Luke, whose only son is being carried away for burial. Jesus was walking along with His Disciples and a large crowd of followers when He noticed this funeral procession intersecting with Him. St. Luke, in his pastoral style of writing, felt it was important to note that it was an adult son of this poor woman, and many of the townsfolk were walking along with this poor widow to the place of burial. Perhaps Jesus locked eyes with her as she was walking along, or maybe he recognized the parallel of this widowed mother and her dead son with His own mother, and the sorrow she would endure watching Jesus’ agonizing death on the cross. While we don’t know for certain what Jesus thought, we know his heart was moved with pity for her. Despite a multitude of people escorting her, she was truly all alone in her grief, probably still in shock at the suddenness of everything that had happened.
In Orthodox Judaism, it is not uncommon for a funeral and burial to take place the same day as when the death occurs, even only a mere few hours after the death has taken place. Despite all of the arrangements that must be made, coordinating with the hospital to get the body moved, coordinating with the doctor to get a signed death certificate and a burial permit, scheduling with the cemetery to get the grave opened, and in some cases getting permission from a burial society to allow the burial, and making arrangements for the body to be religiously and ceremonially prepared, washed, dressed and placed into the casket selected by the family, despite all of these things that must be arranged in order to ensure that the Orthodox practice of the burial happening before the next sunset, an Orthodox Jewish funeral can take place within 8-10 hours of the actual death. It isn’t all that different than 2000 years ago, when regulated funeral service didn’t even exist, before hospitals, automobiles, and the complex legalities surrounding who has the right to control the disposition of the body. No, it was a simple procedure: A death occurred at home, a group of men undertook to move the body, get them washed and dressed, laid on a stretcher, walked out to the grave, and buried within a few hours. It’s no wonder the poor widowed mother was in shock as she walked behind her son’s dead body…the death probably only happened an hour or two before. She didn’t have time to even comprehend the fact that her life had suddenly changed drastically, she probably lost her housing and all means of support; all of these scattered thoughts and realizations would occur during the seven day Shiva period following the actual burial.
Nevertheless, here is Jesus, simply walking into Nain, when His entourage mixes in with the funeral procession. It was a gesture of respect at that time to join in the procession when you happened to encounter a funeral, for it is a show of sympathy for the mourners, as well as a genuine Chesed Shel Emet, or act of true loving kindness for the deceased, because it is something that can never be repaid to you by the deceased. It is interesting, when you think about it, about how two polar opposites, life and death, converged upon each other at the gates of the city. If you analyzed it like a chemical equation, you have life, mixed in with death, equals New Life.
It is this resulting new property called New Life that is so important. Jesus, moved with pity, stops this funeral procession, and calls out to the dead man with only one sentence, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” (Luke 7: 14) The lifeless body hears and responds to the command of our Lord, and he sat up and began to speak. The command given by Jesus changes everything, for now. Sure, the poor woman had her son back, her only means of support. Sure, a friend, neighbor and co-worker was miraculously restored to life, but he will still die again someday, leaving the same pain, sorrow and sadness as this day. The difference here, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is that Jesus’ own death brings a true New Life upon everyone. Our own physical death is irrelevant, because we are born into a new and eternal life in Christ Jesus, along with all of His angels and saints, and all those who found favor with our Lord in their lifetime, keeping his commandments and living the faith according to what we have been taught. It is this new life that gives us hope as Orthodox Christians. We know that death is not the end of the road for us, but the beginning of our eternal life. You could say that today’s Gospel reading is a matter of life and death, for eternal life trumps the sting of death. Life always matters.
The wisdom of Rabbi Ben Sira, spoken over 2000 years ago, still rings true, for he said, “Fear not death, we are all destined to die. We share it with all who ever lived, and all who ever will be.” None of us asked to be born, it was a gift given to us by God. Nor can we be guaranteed tomorrow, for a sudden death could strike any of us without warning. Throughout the world, tragedies resulting in death occur every day by natural disaster, war, drugs, accidents, and other calamities. We’ve all been taught to live every day as a precious gift, and more importantly, to live each day as if it was our last, for one day, it will be.
We must always ensure our house is ready, not only physically and financially, but spiritually. All of us, as Orthodox believers, have the same goal: to be dead to sin, but alive in Christ Jesus. We have ample opportunity to keep that goal unhindered. Confession is available before or after each Divine Liturgy on Sundays or before any service during the week. Confession is available by appointment if necessary. There is almost never an inappropriate time to ask for the opportunity to make a good confession, for the Holy Spirit is always beckoning us to make the priority to clean our souls. And it isn’t something that should only be done before a major holiday, like deep cleaning the house or preparing for company. Our souls are much more valuable than that, and need more regular cleaning and maintenance than anything else we treasure in our lives. Jesus, the ultimate guest, wants to reside within our souls through the reception of Holy Communion. That is reason enough to keep our soul clean.
In less than two weeks, we will begin the Philip Fast on our liturgical calendar. Historically, the primary sanctuary color for this Nativity Fast is purple, so our Altar linens, vestments and candles will all reflect the somber tone taken by this upcoming liturgical season. This is the color of penitence and fasting as well as the color of royalty to welcome the Advent of our Lord, God and Savior by His Glorious Nativity in the Flesh. Now, you may be thinking it’s way too early to even think about the Nativity Season, but let me tell you, I actually heard a few Christmas songs on the radio on Friday, on Halloween, as I was driving home from work, so while it seems like it’s a long way off, it isn’t. Use this time of the Philip Fast to ease yourselves into the religious season. Use this time to get prepared spiritually by attending services specially prepared to help us transition into such a joyous time. Use this time to get your souls ready for Jesus to enter. Use this time to help keep your own sanity as the frenetic pace of the secularized world gets ramped up into madness, especially after Thanksgiving Day, which falls late this month, making for a shorter shopping season, and making a crazy buying season even more intense. Come and pray, come and sing our Lord’s praises, come and rest awhile, giving time back to Our Lord in thanksgiving for all of the blessings received by Him. Even if you come for part of the service, there is a sense of peace and calm that abides in this house of God. There is no clock in church, because time has no meaning. Song and praise to God cannot be restricted by increments of time. Check the bulletin for information on when we will gather in prayer, and make your best efforts to join us. Your soul will thank you for it.
As we go forward this day as Disciples of Christ, I feel compelled to share another brief thought with you. We are blessed, through the battles fought by our founding fathers of this great nation, to have the privilege and civic duty in helping to choose our leaders. While I do not stand here today to endorse anyone, I simply want to remind all of you that if you choose to not exercise your right to cast a vote, you throw away your right to complain about democracy, fairness, and how the entire system of government works. Unlike the point of view taken by Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t vote, who refrain from serving in the military, running for public office, and even pledging allegiance to the flag, our blessed Orthodox Church does not religiously shun the practice of voting. So, on Tuesday, I implore you to go vote. Take your neighbors, take your friends, take a car load if necessary, but don’t ignore the civic responsibility that so many have fought and died for in defending this right and privilege for all of us.
God bless you all, my brothers and sisters, as we continue on our journey as Disciples of Christ. Amen.