Wednesday, June 1, 2016

We in this vale of tears

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

One of the most popular prayers in our Catholic treasury is the Salve Regina, the Hail Holy Queen. The poetic analogies and metaphors within this prayer are sufficiently rich to evoke our imagination. One particular phrase often catches my attention, “lacrimarum valle”, translated as “vale (or valley) of tears.” We the “banished children of Eve” send up our “sighs, moaning and weeping” in this “vale of tears,” may seem to be an over exaggeration, but for many these words accurately expresses their experience of being trapped in suffering and pain as they hope for final liberation. Tears have a way of opening closed doors and healing broken hearts.

In today’s gospel, two processions meet in the little town of Nain. The first procession was a funeral cortege, transporting the body of a young man whose life was cut down in the springtime of life. What could be more poignant than a mother’s weeping over the death of her only child? In this case, however, the darkness was even worse.  She was a widow. When a husband died, it was the duty of the eldest son to care for a mother. Without a man to provide for her, and no social welfare state, she was now going to be reduced to being a beggar, destitute and abandoned. But as this death march was heading to the burial ground, they meet another procession. Jesus was heading in, surrounded by his disciples and a large crowd of followers.

In many ways, life too consists of two processions. One procession is a death march, a funeral cortege, a journey toward death. The existentialist philosopher Heidegger once claimed that humanity are “beings unto death.” From the moment that we are born or come into existence, we are plunging to our death. Sounds morbid? Certainly. But there is a second procession, a procession of life that involves walking together with Jesus. One of the greatest discoveries on our pilgrimage in this life, in this “vale of tears,” is that there is another pilgrimage going on. As we are journeying toward the Lord, we discover that he is coming to meet us. There’s perhaps no greater illustration of this spiritual reality than today’s Gospel from Nain. Jesus always makes the first move. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis never ceases to describe how God makes the first move, that when we journey, we discover that God was waiting for us. “The Lord always gets there before us, he gets there first, he is waiting for us! To find someone waiting for you is truly a great grace.”

The gospel tells us that when Jesus saw this grieving mother, he “felt sorry for her”, it was not just pity, but a profound compassion that would have come out of the very depths of his being. His first and only recorded words to her were this, “Do not cry.” I do not believe it came across as a reprimand or an order, “Stop sobbing! Stop wailing!” Rather, they were words of consolation and encouragement. The Lord did not mean that we should not weep for the dead.  He himself wept for his friend Lazarus.  He wept for the people of Jerusalem when he prophesied the destruction of that city; and lastly, in the Sermon on the Mount, He praised and blessed those who weep, “for they shall be comforted.”  In the Orthodox methodology of salvation, tears are among the first means of cleansing the soul, heart, and mind.  Tears are a gift.  In sorrow, they are part of the healing process.  In repentance, they are the “second baptism” that lead to genuine healing, confession, absolution, and reconciliation with God and the community.

But there is, though, a difference between tears and tears.  St Paul commands the Thessalonians “that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) like the pagans and the godless, for they mourn their dead as utterly lost. According, Pope Benedict XVI, “there are two kinds of mourning. The first is the kind that has lost hope, that has become mistrustful of love and of truth, and that therefore eats away and destroys man from within. But there is also the mourning occasioned by the shattering encounter with truth, which leads man to undergo conversion and to resist evil. This mourning heals, because it teaches man to hope and to love again.” Christian mourning, therefore, brings healing and change, rather than traps us in hopeless and endless grieving that leads to despair.

Even so, these tears can be useful.  They come when the pagan “who has no hope” comes to the end of himself and realises he is impotent before the powers of the world and that, despite his best efforts, he can protect neither his own life nor anything he values.  It is in this moment that the touch of Christ is so critical.  The Lord was there for the widow of Nain, and, even more significantly, he was there for her son.  He does not just offer the comfort of a warm embrace and a loving touch; He offers the lasting comfort of eternal love and resurrection from the dead.  Death cannot survive the encounter with Christ. In His presence the transformation is complete; our lamentation would be turned into the song and our mourning into joy. 

Yes, death is a reality of life. Every person in this room has probably been confronted by the death of someone we love; a family member or a friend. Death often raises more questions than it provides answers. Today’s gospel also answers none of these questions, at least not in the way we most often want. We cannot rationalise or explain death. We cannot gloss over it, deny, or ignore it. It is real and, regardless of when or how it comes, it is always painful. No logic can satisfy. We can never make sense of the loss that comes with death. It hits too close to home. We all weep and struggle with the mystery of death.

Beneath our questions and feelings lies a great fear. It is a fear that in many ways dominates and drives not only our lives but our entire society and culture. Despite what we know about the Christian faith, despite what we say we believe, despite what we want to believe, we fear and believe death to be final, the end, the ultimate reality. We have been deceived and convinced that death leaves us no future. That’s why we so rarely talk about death openly and honestly. That’s why when we do talk about it we don’t know what to say. That’s why many stay away from funeral wakes or even if they do attend they avoid viewing the body.  It’s too much to see, too much to bear, when you believe that’s all there is and it is the end.

The crowds are our witnesses that Jesus has already given us everything he gave the widow and her son. Death is not the end, the final or ultimate reality. Life is eternal and love is immortal. Life is not bound or determined by time, but by God. As long as we see death as the running out of time, the end, the grand finale, we will always be jealous of the widow. We will always be looking for just a little more time, an encore. This gospel is not about getting more time but about being given greater life. Jesus did not promise us a long life but eternal life. Isn’t that what our burial liturgy says? “Life is changed, not ended.” Isn’t that why Jesus can stand before this widow, feel in his gut her pain and loss, and still say, “Do not cry?” Isn’t that why every week we stand and say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead?”

Today, on altars all across the world, Jesus wants to touch us all. Today he is about to work a far greater miracle than raising a young man from the dead. He is about to change simple bread and wine into his body and blood so that we might, in receiving his risen body, have life through him. The altar is the place from which Jesus wants all of us, whether we headed to Church on a procession of life or one of death, to leave following him on a procession of life all the way to the heavenly Jerusalem. God still visits his people. He still interrupts our sorrowing and our grieving. He surprises us with life as He wipes every tear away and promise us that death will be a thing of the past. “After this exile (on earth),” whom do we meet but but the Blessed fruit of Mary’s womb Jesus,” the Lord of Life and the Living! In Him there is no death, only Life!

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