06 - The Grief of the Widow, Oct 11, 2009

II Corinthians 9:6-11

Hebrews 13:7-16

Luke 7:11-16

John 17:1-13

Our commemoration today of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) puts before us again the Church’s theology of the icon, which is centered on Christ Jesus Himself; for, Christ is Himself the Icon of God.[1]

This reminds us that all the events of Jesus’ Incarnation are iconographic, because they are events of Christ, the Icon of God, the Word of the Father by whom all things were made and in whom all things are held together. As iconographic, centered on the Icon of God, Christ Jesus Our Savior, the events of the Gospel are not merely historical. They are not events, that is to say, like other events of worldly history that pass away into the past, leaving behind only memories and maybe a few artifacts or memorabilia. They are iconographic events of the Icon of God, the Christ on whom the Spirit of the Father rests. They are not merely of the flesh. They are also of the Spirit. As such, they have an eternal quality about them. They are “historical” in the sense that they actually happened in space-time; but they are “spiritual” in that, as iconographic, they open onto the eternal and reveal Immanuel – God With Us, who received from the Blessed Virgin our human nature and who clothed Himself with it as with a garment and became flesh and dwelt among us, walking in our midst as our God.

In this theological vision of the Church, we receive the reading of this morning’s Gospel and see immediately a beautiful icon of the mystery of Our Lord’s Incarnation. It has the effect, aided by Saturday morning’s snowfall, of putting us in a Christmasy frame of mind; not the sappy sentimentality of tinsel town Christmas, but a state of mind tinctured with an awed sense of a sacred excitement as we draw near the cave of Bethlehem that opens onto the unfathomable, unseen depths of the Holy God, the Holy Mighty, the Holy Immortal.

“As He drew near the Gate of the City:” the “Gate of the City” is the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Savior draws near the Blessed Virgin in the mystery of His Incarnation. The great crowd of disciples walking with Him is the choir of angels, of Moses and the prophets and all the saints of the OT looking on in awe and wonder at the mystery of the timeless, immaterial God emptying Himself and descending out of His great love for mankind into the world of space-time in search of the one lost sheep – that’s each one of us who, created in the image and likeness of God, i.e. in Christ, is of eternal value – and taking us upon His shoulders that He might carry us out of the darkness, out of the tombs into which we have fallen and into the Light and Life of His own Heavenly Kingdom.

He drew near the Gate of the City and He was met by a funeral procession, led by a widow, whose only son had died. The Evangelist, in the unadorned simplicity of his narrative, steps back and out of sight so that we see without distractions the widow surrounded by the funeral procession. We feel her grief and the Savior’s ineffably tender compassion for her. She could be an icon of Eve. In her, we are brought face to face with the tragedy of our human existence; for Eve was the “Mother of All Living,” but her only son, mankind, is dead. Call her now the Mother of All Living, if you will, if you can, confronted by her grief, and you will begin perhaps to appreciate the palpable darkness of the evil that has overtaken us all, to which we have become altogether blind and indifferent in our greed and vanity, pursuing so glibly the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes and the pride of life whose pleasures open onto the bitter grief of death and corruption.

Or, the grieving widow who has lost her only son could also be taken as a prefiguring of the Blessed Virgin Mary as she takes down from the Cross her only-begotten Son, pierced in her heart by the sword of grief.

Here, it would seem, we are touched by the wonder of this morning’s Gospel. The image of the widow’s grief brings our mind and heart to a standstill. We stand at attention. We can sense that we are in the presence of the holy in the Person of Christ, the Icon of God. In His presence, grief over the tragedy of our existence opens beyond itself onto a Light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot put out. We remember the words of St Paul to the Hebrews, that the Christ who “is in our midst” is the Word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword, who pierces to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[2] Is He not, then, the sword of grief that pierces the heart of His Mother when she sees Him dead on the Cross?

I wonder if this sheds new light for us on the Good News of the Gospel. Christ Himself is the sword of grief that pierces us when we are brought face to face with the tragedy of our existence in the death of a loved one, or when we see that we are dead in our trespasses. Such grief, does it not pierce like a two-edged sword to the division of soul and spirit, to the division of joints and marrow to reveal to us the impure thoughts and deceitful intentions of our secret heart? Might this grief be the Word of God Himself piercing us like a two-edged sword? If we would stand still and let it touch us, would it not turn us away from our outer man to our inner man to reveal how the thoughts and intentions of our heart are oriented not towards the Eternal but towards our own greedy aspiration to possess this life that is passing away? And if we let it touch us, would it not turn us away from chasing rainbows in the dark to discern in the principle of our humanity that Image of God in whom we were made, that has established us in a fundamental capacity to become like God, to become merciful, holy, good, spiritual and eternal, living and full of light?

St Paul writes, Do not grieve as those who have no hope.[3] From our meditation this morning, we now take this to mean that we should grieve, rather, in the death of Christ. This is the grief of a broken and contrite heart that calls upon the Lord from the depths in prayer to create in us a clean heart, to put a new and right spirit within us, to purge us with hyssop that we may become clean, to wash us that we may become whiter than snow. It is the grief of mourning for one’s sins and for the sins of the world, mourning for the tragedy of our existence brought upon us by the choices each one of us has made in his or her secret heart. But it is also the grief by which we unite ourselves to Christ in His love for mankind to become for us the palpable demonstration of Christ’s Holy Resurrection through the joy that is born of this sacred grief, that grows in us as the seed of Christ’s ineffably tender compassion for mankind grows in us so that we become and more like God; more and more like the most precious rose brought forth by the Virgin in the cave, that makes the desert of this life to blossom like the rose in the eternal life and love of God. United to Christ in His love for mankind, our grief in Christ raises us up to become the hands through whom Christ touches with His tender compassion those around us who are in need, who are in despair, who are sitting in darkness.

From this, we begin to understand that our Baptism is our call from the Lord to unite ourselves to Him not just so we would be saved, but so that we would be raised up to become united to Christ in His compassion and love for mankind, to be pierced by the sword of the grief of Christ’s death that we might become, through the joy and love for mankind born of that grief, concrete demonstrations of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. Amen.

[1] Col 1:15, 2 Cor 4:4

[2] Heb 4:12

[3] I Thess 4:13