“Young man, I tell you, arise!” (Luke 11:13)
On the wall in the northwest corner of my office, there is a framed photograph of every single 8th grade class I have seen graduate since I first entered a Catholic school classroom to teach some 17 years ago. Up there are six different schools, hundreds of kids, and countless memories. I’ll return to those photographs later…
Today’s readings show us God’s mercy and compassion at its life giving best. We get not one but two readings of the son of a widow being raised from the dead. In the reading from the first book of Kings, we hear of Elijah raising the son of the widow of Zarephath to life and in the gospel we hear of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain. This is not the only person who Jesus raises from the dead in the gospels. He raises Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus as well, but what makes today’s miracle unique is that unlike the previous two I mentioned, at Nain, Jesus isn’t asked by a family member to raise this young man. In fact, with Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus, Jesus was asked to heal them before they died and when Jesus arrives he finds that they have died. At Nain, Jesus sees the weeping mother, a widow and is “moved with pity.” He knows that a widow will languish without her husband and now her only son dead. So filled with utter compassion for this woman he tells her not to weep, stretches out his hand to the coffin and tells the young man to rise. And if any of these remarkable details that St. Luke spells out doesn’t get you, maybe this one will: “Jesus gave him to his mother” like a newborn infant handed over into the arms of his tired yet joyful mother after childbirth. A day that started off with a tragic scene turns joyful. A mother is reunited with her son.
St. Ambrose, one of the fathers of the Church, said the following about this gospel reading: “The widow signifies Mother Church, weeping for those who are dead in sin and carried beyond the safety of her gates…” This is where Jesus encounters this widow and the coffin of her son: near the gates of the city. So many times I sit on the steps of our church and pray for all her children who have wandered far from her. If you stand at the top of the dome of St. Peter’s in Vatican City and look down on the square, you will notice how the colonnade of Bernini’s columns form like two arms that extend from the basilica and wrap around the square and then stop to form an opening where the Via della Consiliazione ends (the street leading up to the Vatican) as if the church was waiting with open arms to embrace her children. Whenever the square and the Via are filled, it produces this beautiful effect. Our own church here in Immaculate has this same effect which I have mentioned before. (Yes, I know I’m comparing our church to St. Peter’s but work with me here.) This church fans out from a singular point which is the back of the sanctuary where the tabernacle and crucifix with Christ’s outstretched arms are found and from there the church fans out as with open arms, and if you’re driving down 45th Place to go to Mass, you always see that Immaculate always stands ready to welcome her children home with open arms.
Which brings me back to those photographs on my office wall. Just like I sit on my church steps and pray for those who have wandered far, I sometimes sit in my office and look at this collage of portraits, each one telling a hundred tales, and pray for those kids. Some haven’t been kids in a while. Some have kids of their own. Most, sadly, have wandered beyond the safety of the gates of Mother Church. This past Friday, we celebrated the last school Mass with the entire school present since our 8th graders graduate Tuesday night. It was the Feast of the Sacred Heart and the gospel was about the lost sheep. As I was preaching, it started to dawn on me the finality of the next few days, and I stood in front of our 8th graders and implored them not to become the lost sheep, not to wander far from Immaculate after they’ve received their diplomas. Since becoming a pastor, I’ve joked with 8th graders of not wanting to hand them their diplomas at graduation because I do not want them to leave. As if echoing the very words of Jesus in John 10:28, “..no one will snatch them from my hand.” But then I look at them and realize that they are not mine. They belong to the Lord. And as I’ve preached many a time during graduation homilies, we have to let them go. It’s all so easy when they are children and you have them as a captive audience every Friday for Mass and whenever I pop into a classroom, but after that, again sadly, they are gone and then we wait. We wait for them to come home. We wait like the father of the prodigal son to hopefully one day catch sight of them returning home. Yes, there are some who still faithfully attend Mass every Sunday and who have done and continue to do some great things for the church. Yet, most of their classmates have wandered off. Sure many keep in touch, many have become very successful in their chosen careers. And while most of the time I look up at that wall with pride and think of what those kids have accomplished, there are times where I wish I could reach into those pictures and like the outstretched hand of our Lord in today’s gospel touch the ones who have strayed and put them safely back in the arms of Holy Mother Church.
This is our calling this Sunday. All of us know people who for some reason or another have left the Church. Some reasons may be legitimate, but we must remind them of the compassion and mercy of Jesus Christ. Our hands must be the hands of Jesus who touched the coffin at Nain this day. We must touch the hearts of those who are “dead in sin” and have been carried off by the world beyond the safety of the gates of Holy Mother Church. If you’re a parent who weeps because your children don’t come to Mass with you anymore, “do not weep” your Savior tells you this day. And, the Church, his bride, has been weeping with you, and waits for the day when all her children, especially those who were raised within the safety of her gates, rise up and return to the arms of their mother who weeps every day for those who have wandered far. And as for all those kids in those photographs, for me it’s not so much tears that comes to my eyes but a singular prayer that wells up in my heart: that the seeds of faith their parents and their teachers and their priests planted, may one day produce great fruit and ultimately lead them back home to their Church.