By Fr. Richard G. Cipolla, Ph.D., D. Phil.(Oxon.)
And as he drew near the gate of the town, behold, a dead man was bing carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large gathering from the town was with her.
This was a funeral procession: the dead young man being carried on a bier and the weeping mother by his side and the friends of the family accompanying the body and the mother. They were processing solemnly through the gates of the city to bury this young man before sundown, as was, as is the custom of the Jews. And when Jesus sees this he knows that this is a funeral procession and the young man on the bier is dead and his mother is weeping as she walks. And the Lord sees her, has compassion and said to her: Do not weep. And He went up and touched the stretcher and the bearers stood still. And He said: Young man I say to thee, arise. And he who was dead, sat up, and began to speak. And Jesus gave him to his mother. Jesus happened to be there at the gate and he recognized what this was, a funeral procession, and he saw the young man’s mother weeping and he had compassion on her, and the Lord of creation, the giver of life, touches the bier—this physical touch, so important, for He is the Lord of creation—and the speaks—so important for it is through Him, the Word of God, that all things were made—and the young man is returned to life and to his mother.
This is one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, the miracle of bringing a dead man back to life. And like all of Jesus’ miracles, it is a sign, a sign of who Jesus is. It is not a resurrection as was his own. It is an act of compassion by the one who is life itself. This young man, like Lazarus, will eventually die. But this act of our Lord points to that act of bringing to life eternal that is the resurrection. The Church fathers have much to say about this miracle. They allegorize it and spiritualize it in wonderful ways, but in the end it always points to the life giving power of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Of course, the miracle is no accident, but it is true that Jesus happened to be entering the gate of the town of Naim at that time. But it is also important that he recognized what he was seeing: a funeral procession. And it is because he recognized this, he was moved with compassion and performed this miracle.
But what if someone does not recognize a funeral procession, does not realize that what is going on here concerns death and grief? This is the gospel for the feast of St Monica, mother of St. Augustine. We just celebrated a triduum of this feast in this parish with the Sodality of Saint Monica whose ministry is to pray for fallen away Catholics, a ministry whose focus grows every day. St Monica prayed and wept for her son for over thirty years that he would turn his back on the immoral life that he was leading, a life that was deliberately shrouded in untruth at the deepest level. And St Augustine did not see that he was in a funeral procession, that he was lying dead on the bier and that his mother was weeping over him because he refused the life giving grace of Christ and his Church. He did not recognize the funeral procession. He thought he was in a procession of self-fulfillment, both sexually and intellectually. It is only when the scales fall from his eyes, when he is pierced by the grace of the Lord, that he sees that he lies on that bier dead from sin, and that the only one who can save him and bring him to life is the Lord Jesus, who has compassion on him and touches his bier and brings him to life. And it is then that he is restored to life and becomes on of the great saints of the Church.
But it is not only individuals who do not recognize a funeral procession, a funeral procession that concerns them deeply. Last week was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, at which Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his I have a dream speech that had such a deep impact on how this country thinks about race and not only thinks but how real changes came about that transformed in a real way, at least in the realm of law, the reality of black Americans. The 50th anniversary celebration of this event included gay rights as an extension of the civil rights movement of fifty years ago. That it did so without blinking shows how far, in a negative sense, we have come since 1963. The moral crusade led by Martin Luther King was founded firmly and explicitly on the biblical understand of the human being as made in the image of God and as a child of God; and on the injunction of Jesus to love one other as he has loved us. Racism is not evil merely because it treats others unfairly and hurts people. It is evil because it is against the moral law of God and of his revelation to us. This is something given, not thought out, something to be accepted and made one’s own, not something to be figured out on the basis of changing understandings of relationships. What our culture does not see is that the march for freedom and equality and justice of fifty years ago has been turned into a funeral procession, and the body lying on the bier is our culture. When rights are divorced from the moral law whose grounding is in God, then that culture lies dead on the bier. But contemporary culture cannot recognize a funeral procession. It confuses it with a march for rights, for a culture without God cannot conceive of the Lord of creation coming up to the bier and touching it and making it alive once more. For no longer are there references to the words of the Prophets who dreamed dreams inspired by God. There are only the empty platitudes of “God bless you” that mean nothing since God has been relegated to the unreality of Mt Olympus, there to reign in meaningless majesty.
What does it mean when red lines are drawn on what purports to be moral issues like use of chemical weapons to kill one’s own citizens? What is the basis for this appeal to moral authority? Is the basis our revulsion when we see photographs of the dead and dying? Is this reduced to emotional reaction? How can this red line be drawn at this particular time when the abortion of children is seen as a right and goes on unabated and is the law of the land? How can this red line be drawn in the dramatic and moralistic way it has been in the past week when our culture is increasingly driven by the pleasure principle that banishes moral judgment? The enemy laughs at such moral posturing with no objective basis. The American public replies with weariness at the thought of another foreign war. All the time not recognizing the funeral procession of this very culture that lies on the bier.
But it is not only this country that no longer recognizes a funeral procession when confronted. It is also the Catholic Church. The Church does not want to be seen as old-fashioned, a relic of a repressive past. The Church fears that she is seen an unwilling to be a part of the present scene, the new way of looking at things. She fears to be seen as unwilling to hold hands with everyone else as we march to a peaceable kingdom where every one is doing his own thing as long as it does not hurt anyone else. The fact is that many Catholics cannot recognize a funeral procession because of the very thought of a funeral procession that involves the reality of death has been neutralized and abolished by the liturgical practice of the Church for the past 50 years. And yet this funeral procession has been going on for quite a long time now. Why is it that the member of the Supreme Court who was one of the chief supporters of the Roe vs Wade decision was a practicing Catholic? Look at the makeup of today’s Supreme Court. There are six Catholics on the Court. This is a development that would make the Protestant founders of this country shudder. One would have thought that in the matter of moral issues that have a clear teaching in the Church the Court would rule on the side and basis of that teaching, teaching that is founded on natural law and Christian revelation. That this has not happened is obvious. Now this is not merely a matter of separating one’s religious beliefs from the supposed objectivity of make a decision based on the Constitution and on precedent. What we see here is the failure of the Church in this country to teach her people how to live a Catholic life and how to build a Catholic culture within a liberal democracy. Some may say that this is impossible. That is another conversation and sermon. But the fact is that the Church is reaping the harvest of cultural indifference, the harvest of a sentimental attitude towards the world, forgetting the intrinsic relationship between sin and death, and forgiveness and love.
Pope Benedict’s resignation will always be a painful mystery to those of us who love him and who love the Church. But for me, it is a symbol of the state of the Church, of a sickness unto death. It is the Church who is being carried on that bier in today’s gospel. And it is Our Lady who weeps as the Mother of the Church. And most Catholics do not even realize that this is a funeral procession and so cannot be there for the touch of the only One who can save us. Because they do not join in the procession, they cannot be touched by the Savior who is moved with compassion for his Bride and who comes and does come and will come to touch the bier, the one who by his touch can save and therefore give life. And he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He gave him to his mother. But a great fear seized upon all, and they began to glorify God. May that fear seize us and all Catholics, and may we all give glory to God.
Fr. Cipolla is Chairman of the Classics Department at Brunswick School in Greenwich, CT, and parochial vicar of St. Mary’s, Norwalk, CT