In the Middle East, and indeed throughout the Roman Empire, cemeteries were always placed outside the city walls. Many people from cultures outside the British Isles, both in past centuries, and even today, would find it offensive that we place cemeteries in the centre of our communities and locate them around our places of worship. Perhaps this says something significant about the Christian response to the fact of death. It is no longer a taboo. It is no longer something frightening and destructive of society. Rather it has been defeated, and those Christians who have preceded us into the presence of God are buried in our midst, since we believe that they are not dead at all, but are truly alive in Christ and with God.
I was watching a documentary on the First World War during the week, and there was a section about the massive clearing up operation which took place after the hostilities had come to an end. Part of this process included the recovery and burial of the bodies of as many soldiers as possible. At one point they showed one of the national memorials and entered a crypt underneath it where the skeletal remains of thousands of soldiers had been reverently placed. It seemed to me as I was watching it that there was nothing fearful about these remains. Rather than a cause for despair it seemed to me that they were a reminder that those soldiers ‘were not there at all, but had passed to a heavenly reward beyond all pain and suffering’.
When we turn to the passage in the Gospel we find that our Lord Jesus and his disciples come across a funeral party slowly making their way out of the little town of Nain. I did a bit of research on this location and it seems that though the town has been rebuilt several times it still occupies the same hillside, and the ancient cemetery contains some grave markers from the Roman period. Now the cemetery was a distance outside the walls, and the party were carrying the dead body of the widow’s son away from the town so that its population would not be ritually contaminated.
There are some wonderful lessons which we can learn from this short account. And we should remember that the Gospels are essentially eye-witness accounts. We can imagine that in the early witness of the Church there were those who had been there that day, perhaps even the widow and the son themselves, who shared the good news of what had happened to them with all those who trusted in Christ.
Firstly, we do not find that the widow or any of her friends had approached Jesus. This is not a miracle like that of the Centurion’s servant, or of the daughter of Jairus. On this occasion the widow and the other mourners were too much taken up in their own grief to be even aware that Jesus and his disciples were approaching. Yet he is suddenly in their midst and the pall bearers find themselves standing still in his presence. Do we see that though we are encouraged and even commanded to pray without ceasing, though we are shown that we must be like a man with a complaint who won’t go away and won’t stop bothering an unwilling official until he does something, in this case we can imagine that the widow, having lost her husband, and now her only son, so that she is left facing a future of poverty and even destitution, was not able to do more than cry out to God in private despair, perhaps not even able to form any coherent words.
Yet the Lord is with her in the midst of her pain and hurt, even when she does not notice him and does not call out to him. We can be sure that the Lord is not absent from our situations of pain and hardship, even when we are too caught up in them to form a prayer of words. The Lord does not act for us because we convince him by many words, but because in his love he sees our need. Are there those around us, family and friends, colleagues and neighbours, who are unable to form a prayer for themselves but who are in need. Certainly we must pray for them, but let us be sure that the Lord wishes to be suddenly present before them in their need and is not absent from them, even if the eyes of their spirit are clouded and darkened so that they do not see him.
But Jesus does more than simply stop the procession. He stretches out his hand and touches the open coffin. This is highly significant. It means nothing to us here in the British Isles, but in the time of our Lord it meant that he became ritually impure. It would be as if we reached out and touched a badly decomposed corpse. Yet our Lord neither fears death nor such ritual uncleanness. He has come to destroy the power of death, and has in himself the power over life and death.
We should never despair believing the lie of the enemy of our souls that we are too wicked and sinful to ever be worthy of the compassion of our Lord. Of course we are never worthy but he gives us his compassion anyhow. We are truly as this dead body being carried away from the community of the living, but he stops the procession and reaches out and touches us, neither shrinking from our corruption nor fearing that he will be contaminated.
And we may believe this for all those we know and love who show no sign of spiritual life and are a cause of grief to those who love them. The Lord has not forgotten them, nor does he fail to see our sadness. If there is nothing we can do which excludes us from God’s compassion, so there is nothing which those whom we know, and those whom we love, could do, which would separate them from God’s care and silence God’s constant call to them.
Our Lord reaches out and touches the coffin and the dead son rises to life. Neither he nor his mother asked for such a miracle but it was freely given by the one who ‘had compassion’. This is the miracle which the Lord has performed in our own lives. He has raised us to life without fearing that our sins and weakness might contaminate him. He desires to offer the same grace to those around us, in our families, among our friends and neighbours.
The people of the town of Nain saw this miracle and exclaimed ‘God has visited his people’. How true a word they spoke. And to us who know indeed that God has visited us, and is Emmanuel, God with us, let us be filled with hope believing that he has not withdrawn himself from the world, but still wills to transform all those souls who struggle under the burden of sin and suffering of various kinds. Let us join our voices in prayer, not as if we needed to urge an unwilling God to raise those who are dead, but as if we are blessed to participate in a spiritual work of salvation which God has begun himself of his own love for us, and which he desires to accomplish in the lives of all.
God has visited his people. May we be aware of his presence with us and for us, to the glory of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.