06 The Widow's Son - Oct 7, 2007

2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9

Luke 7:11-16

In this morning’s epistle, St Paul records how he was caught up to the third heaven and heard inexpressible words which it is not lawful for a man to utter. To keep him in humility, the Lord gave to him a thorn in the flesh – whatever that was – that he would not be exalted above measure. When St Paul entreats the Lord to remove the thorn, the Lord replies: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The Church hails the Cross as the “rod of strength,” “unconquerable trophy of godliness.”[1] We can therefore take these words of the Lord to St Paul as a reference to his Cross. Christ seems to be saying that the source of his strength is in the weakness of the Cross; i.e., in his death.

The death of the widow’s son and his resurrection at the command of the Lord in this morning’s Gospel puts us immediately in mind of our baptism when we are united to Christ in the likeness of his death and resurrection. In our baptism, we are united to the weakness of Christ’s Cross – i.e., to its death. In the weakness of the Cross, we are united to its strength. Yes, of course, the strength of the Cross is the resurrection. But deeper reflection, while it may not catch us up to the third heaven, can open to us a vision of inexpressible beauty, revealing death and resurrection to be the outer face of an inexpressible mystery that gives deeper meaning to the words of the Lord: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

The widow’s only son has died and they are carrying him outside the city for burial. Against the backdrop of the Scriptures, one sees in this funeral procession Adam and Eve being cast out of Paradise to be buried in the dust of the ground outside of Eden. For, having transgressed the commandment, they have died inwardly; for, death, at its core, is separation from God. Separated from God, we fall back into the dark nothingness from which we were brought into being. In this life, we live outside of Eden. Our very life outside the Garden is, in effect, one long funeral procession back to the dust of the ground. We have forgotten God and become altogether ignorant of him. We have each one gone our own way. Even before we die, we are already dead in our trespasses, as St Paul writes; for we have been separated from God and we have fallen into forgetfulness and ignorance.

But this particular funeral procession, as it makes its way out to the cemetery, is met by Christ and his disciples at the gates of the city. Now, the liturgical texts of the Church tell us that Christ is the fruit of the Tree of Life that grew in the Garden. The Cross is the Tree of Life that carries Christ like a cluster of grapes full of life. Indeed, the Cross is called the “door to Paradise.”[2] Suddenly we see that this meeting at the gates of the city was not an accident of history. It was evangelical – it was of the Gospel – opening onto the mysteries of God. The gates of the city come into view as an icon of the Cross, which is the Tree of Life, the door to Paradise. Those in the funeral procession, children of Adam and Eve who are dead in their transgressions, have come upon the fruit of the Tree of Life, Christ God, at the foot of the Cross, the Tree of Life. It has been plunged like a sword into the darkness of this life outside the Garden. The funeral procession is not standing at the gates of the city that lead out to the cemetery. It is standing at the door of Paradise that leads into the Garden of Eden and to the Tree of Life growing in its midst. Christ God, the fruit of the Tree of Life, has come out of Eden looking for his lost sheep that he might carry them back on his shoulder by way of the Cross back into the Garden of Eden.

This is the same unseen Gospel reality that is going on beneath the rites of the service of baptism, when the parents carry their child, who is dead in the sin of Adam and Eve, to the gates of the Church where they are met by the priest and the faithful, icons of Christ and his disciples. The Church is the body of Christ. The gates of the Church are in the baptismal font. When we who are dead in our trespasses are carried to the baptismal font, we are being carried to the Cross, the door to Paradise. And there at the Cross, at the gates of the city, we come upon Christ God as upon the fruit of the Tree of Life who has come to meet us at the point of our death, the point of our absolute weakness. When you descend into the weakness of death in order to die in the likeness of Christ’s death, you pass over with Christ through the gates of the Church in the baptismal font, and on his Cross you are carried up into the likeness of his resurrection. Precisely in your weakness, in your dying in Christ, you find yourself standing in the Garden of Eden at the foot of the Tree of Life. On the Cross of Christ, your funeral garments are exchanged for the robe of light and you are made a communicant of life eternal in the partaking of his precious body and blood as the life-giving fruit of the Tree of Life. Having died and been raised up in the death and resurrection of Christ, you have been carried out of the city of the world. Your life is no longer in the world. Your life is in the Garden of Eden; for, in your baptism you were buried in the dust of the ground and you came upon the roots of the Tree of Life, Christ’s Cross. On that tree, you were raised up as a new creature, a child of God in the strength of Christ’s holy Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who is all in all.

Now, it says in the Scriptures that God planted a Garden toward the East, and that after he had formed man from the dust of the ground, he placed him in the Garden that faced the East. The East, of course, as the place where the sun rises, signifies the resurrection of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness. But there is no rising without dying. There is no ascending without descending. If the Eastward orientation of the Garden of Eden means that Eden was oriented toward the resurrection, that means that there was in the Garden, even before the Fall, a dying that would lead to resurrection. How can that be?

The baptismal service begins with exorcisms. This corresponds to the Lord touching the dead widow’s son in his open coffin and calling out to him in this morning’s Gospel. In the prayers of exorcism, the Word of the Lord penetrates the darkness of his death with the Light of his divinity just as it penetrated the dark emptiness of the abyss in the beginning. The light shines in the darkness of the dead man’s death, and the demons clutching his soul flee. The luminous Word of the Lord touches the soul of the widow’s dead son down in death’s dark depths, even as his hand touches his dead body on the surface of the earth.

Can you not see that the Lord in this morning’s Gospel, even as he stands on the surface of the earth, is descending into hell’s dark depths? It is but his descent into the waters of the Jordan when he was baptized by John the Baptist. Having defeated the devil and all his hosts and all his pride in the depths of the Jordan, the Lord by his Word even now, as both God and man, descends in the Word of his voice down to the soul of the widow’s dead son in the depths of the Jordan, the waters of creation, to find this one lost sheep, the widow’s dead son, to raise him back up to the light of life – not the life of the fallen world, but the life of his holy resurrection in the Garden of Eden.

So also, the prayers of exorcism at our baptism are the words of Christ; and so they are full of light, penetrating the darkness of our death and scattering the devil with all his hosts and all his angels and all his pride. They are so powerful because they are the expression of the very being of God, which is love, whose love is made perfect in the weakness of the Cross. Except that the weakness of the Cross is anything but weak; it is the strength of God descending into hell’s dark depths out of his ineffable love for mankind to destroy death and to raise us up from the tomb just as he raised us up from the darkness of the void in the beginning, to re-create us in his death and resurrection as children of God.

The weakness of God is this descending movement of divine love that creates life. Christ’s descent into hell in the ‘weakness’ of the Cross is the very same movement by which he brought all things into being from out of nothing. By this descending movement, God fashions Adam in the beginning from the dust of the ground and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. He breathed himself out. He died, as it were, in order to raise Adam up as a living soul. By the descending movement of this same divine love, he ascends the Cross in these last days and descends into hell, slaying it with the splendor of his divinity, filling its darkness with his light, and planting in the depths of hell the Cross as the Tree of Life, so that all who wish, may lay hold of it, and climb it as a ladder up into the Garden of Eden to partake of the Tree of Life in the mystery of Holy Eucharist.

These descending, creative movements of God’s Word have the form of dying. They are the movements by which God becomes “weak.” In his weakness, God pours himself out into the world that the world might live in his own life. The weakness of the Cross is the revelation of divine love making its strength perfect; for the weakness of the Cross is God in his love giving himself to us that we might have life.

Dying, then, is revealed in its essential movement as the movement of divine love: it is weakness that makes strength perfect because it is a weakness by which God creates life from out of nothing, and re-creates us from out of the nothingness of death as children of God by the virtue, the strength, of his Cross. This is why we call Christ’s death on the Cross a life-creating death. It is God making his strength perfect in weakness. Because man gave his love to himself in disobeying the commandment of God, he fell away from the love of God. The weakness of dying became – instead of the movement of love by which man would make his way to the East of the Garden and enter into the resurrection and into the very being of God – it became instead the movement by which man falls away from God and into the darkness of the abyss. And so God in his strength became weak in order to redeem us from the pit. The weakness of God is God, in the strength of his love, destroying death and raising us up to life eternal. In his weakness, Christ comes to us as the only Lover of mankind and opens the door to Paradise. In his weakness, Christ God unites earth to heaven. In his weakness, Christ consummates our union with him in the tomb as in a bridal chamber. In his weakness, Christ God reveals dying in its pure essence as the movement of love that makes his strength, his love, perfect, for by his weakness, he becomes one with us that we might become one with him in a living communion of lover and beloved in the weakness of love that makes perfect the strength of love.

Having been baptized into Christ, we have been raised up by his Cross into the Garden of Eden. The life we live when we take up the Cross of Christ and live the life of the Church is the life of God where weakness is revealed in its pure essence to be the perfection of strength, where dying is revealed in its pure essence to be our Passover into life, because weakness and dying are but the form of giving ourselves in love to the God who gave himself to us in the weakness of the Cross out of his great love for us. 

I pray that something of the inexpressible beauty of this vision has shone through my ineloquent expression of it. Its beauty is such that even if we get only a glimpse of it, it is enough to show the great joy that is to be found in making ourselves weak in the love of Christ, in the taking up of our Cross, in submitting to the moral and ascetic disciplines of the Church, that we might live the life of the Church, which is the life of Christ, in that weakness of God that makes his strength perfect in us. Amen.

[1] E.g., FM 139 & 140.

[2] FM 139