Thirty-fifth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-14a, 15ac, 16a, 17, 19; Luke 7:11-17
One of my favorite lines from the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer occurs in the season 5 finale, when Buffy tells her sister Dawn: “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” And I find myself pondering this line as we settle firmly back into the Church’s “ordinary time” of the year. The seasons of fasting and feasting are over, and it’s time to actually live out these truths we celebrate. And that can be hard to do for most of us when Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter aren’t there holding us by the hand. Ironically, this is the time of year that we need the refreshment of the Sacraments the most, and the time when most people tend to let that relationship with Jesus – of which the Sacraments are the ultimate token – founder. As a result we can end up treating our Lord and His Church like relatives we see only at reunions and weddings and funerals, or like friends whom we turn to only when things go bad. And even then, hidden feelings or long-dormant resentments can impede relationship in these few-and-far-between moments, and in ways that could be more quickly resolved if the relationships were more constant.
In today’s First Reading, which is set during the time of a great drought in the Kingdom of Israel, the prophet Elijah is living with a widow whose son becomes sick and dies. And in her frustration the widow turns on Elijah, saying that the presence of the holy man must have attracted the attention of God to her sins, and so cost her the life of her son. Even Elijah, who speaks for God and acts on His behalf and at His command, questions the motivations of God even as he requests that God restore the boy’s life – which He does! In this revival, Elijah’s question must have been answered: the boy died so that both he and his mother could be restored. The mother’s faith was dead before her son’s body was – she even treats God as if He were some petulant genie! – but in the revival of her son’s body her faith is once again alive. “Now indeed I know you are a man of God,” she cries out to the prophet – and now indeed she and her son are alive and well in the midst of drought.
We find a similar story in today’s Gospel reading, as Jesus revives the son of the widow of Nain. This time there is no middle man but Jesus’ human nature; the God-Man Himself expresses pity for the woman and bids the young man “[A]rise!” The two great crowds present at this event – one following Jesus, the other following the widow – react much like the Israelite widow in the time of Elijah, “crying out ‘A great prophet has arisen in our midst!’ and ‘God has visited His people!’” A jaded and mourning people is filled with wonder and excitement that shakes them awake and reminds them, as the Israelite widow and even Elijah were reminded, that God’s dwelling is with the human race, at all times and in all places. And because God is always with us, the opportunity for relationship with Him is always there! In this regard we are especially privileged, because God always takes the first step.
Saint Paul testifies to this fact in the Second Reading when he tells the Galatians that “the gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s conversion experience was famous even in the 1st century (or perhaps, infamous!), so much that he relates it very briefly and subtly to his audience. There came a time when God “was pleased to reveal His Son to [him]” and that God “had set [him] apart from [his] mother’s womb” for that very moment. Our conversion experiences may not be as dramatic or as immediate as Paul’s, but relationship with God through Jesus is just as much a part of our destiny.
And look how much God desires that destiny for us! In addition to all His beautiful creation through which we can recognize and come to know Him, He has given us Sacraments as tangible tokens of His personal love, including His very Self in the food and drink of the Holy Eucharist. He has given us architects of mighty and sacred buildings in which these gifts may be found again and again – noble structures that because of this intimacy are both His house and ours! And He has given us direct knowledge of Himself through the revelation of the Gospel, safeguarded by the Sacred Tradition of Jesus’ very friends the Apostles. It is one of the great ironies of the religion of the “both/and” that it is through the organization of the Church that we have the best opportunities to develop and deepen our own personal relationship with God. And these opportunities are there not just when things go wrong, or on special occasions during the course of the year, but all year ‘round – all day, every day! God has given us an open invitation to the biggest and longest-running party in history; all we have to do is get up off our butts and go!
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” said the Slayer to her sister – to which she added the words I would also add for us now: “Be brave. Live.”