Saturday, June 04, 2016

Life from the Dead: 10th Week of Ordinary Time

This Sunday we return to Ordinary Time, picking up with the tenth week in Year C.  “Tenth week?  What happened to weeks 6,7,8, and 9?” you might ask.  Well, weeks 7,8, & 9 were pre-empted by Pentecost, Trinity, and Corpus Christi, respectively.  And week 6 was skipped, because otherwise we would not get to Week 34 (Christ the King) before Advent 2017 started.  The practical result of all that is we omit Luke 6 from the cycle of readings this year, and skip ahead to Luke 7.

The Readings this Sunday are focussed on the theme of resurrection from the dead.  The First Reading recounts Elijah raising a boy from the dead.  The Psalm praises God for delivering David from Sheol (the grave). In the Epistle, Paul recounts seeing the risen Christ.  In the Gospel, Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain.

1.  We begin with 1 Kgs 17:17-24
Elijah went to Zarephath of Sidon to the house of a widow.
The son of the mistress of the house fell sick,
and his sickness grew more severe until he stopped breathing.
So she said to Elijah,
“Why have you done this to me, O man of God?
Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt
and to kill my son?”
Elijah said to her, “Give me your son.”
Taking him from her lap, he carried the son to the upper room
where he was staying, and put him on his bed.
Elijah called out to the LORD:
“O LORD, my God,
will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying
by killing her son?”
Then he stretched himself out upon the child three times
and called out to the LORD:
“O LORD, my God,
let the life breath return to the body of this child.”
The LORD heard the prayer of Elijah;
the life breath returned to the child’s body and he revived.
Taking the child, Elijah brought him down into the house
from the upper room and gave him to his mother.
Elijah said to her, “See! Your son is alive.”
The woman replied to Elijah,
“Now indeed I know that you are a man of God.
The word of the LORD comes truly from your mouth.”

This narrative comes from the Books of the Kings. The Books of Kings were originally one book, a sequel to Samuel detailing the history of David’s successors until the collapse of his kingdom at the hand of the Babylonians.  According to the report of Origen, the Jews in antiquity called this book by its first two words, wehamelech dawid (“Now King David …”; cf. 1 Kings 1:1).  Septuagint translators split the book in two to make it more manageable, and called the resulting volumes “3rd and 4th Kingdoms (basileiōn)” (“1st-2nd  Kingdoms” = 1-2 Samuel).  The point of division they chose—part way through the reign of Ahaziah (cf. 1 Kings 22:51-53; 2 Kings 1:1-18)—is not a major literary break in the narrative.  Nonetheless, in modern Judaism the work is broken at the same point into two volumes, melachim a and melachim b (“Kings 1” and “Kings 2”).
       The central focus of Kings is the rise and fall of the Davidic Kingdom, although there are many other important themes in this long and rich composition.  The first several chapters recount the glorious reign of Solomon, under which the Davidic covenant reaches its greatest visible expression, and indeed all the divine covenants to this point in salvation history are fulfilled, if briefly.  The high point of the narrative of Kings and of the whole Old Testament to this point is 1 Kings 8, the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Afterward there is a steady decline both spiritual and material, beginning in the latter years of Solomon’s own reign and culminating in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the exile of the last reigning son of David (2 Kings 25).
Furthermore, the long central section of the book (1 Kings 12–2 Kings 17) which tells the story of the divided monarchy, is arranged chiastically around the ministry of the two great prophets, Elijah and Elisha:

The Story of the Divided Monarchy (1 Kings 12—2 Kings 17)
       A. The Divided Monarchy Before the Great Prophets (1 Kings 12-16)
    B. The Divided Monarchy During the Ministry of Elijah (1 Kings 17–2 Kings 1)
                      C. The Transition from Elijah to Elisha (2 Kings 2)
              B’. The Divided Monarchy During the Ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 3–13)
       A’. The Divided Monarchy After the Great Prophets (2 Kings 14-17)

The Books of Kings, then, have been carefully structured in a balanced pattern.  Ironically, for a composition so focused on royal reigns, the ministries of the prophets Elijah and Elisha are the narrative high points of the otherwise dismal account of the decline of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the structural center-point of the whole narrative is the transition between Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings 2, a narrative which is not incorporated into the account of the reign of any king.
       The point of placing the prophetic ministry in the center of the narrative of the kings, is to emphasize that it is the spiritual rather than the political in which God’s people are to find their hope.  The political fortunes of God’s people during this whole time period were rather dismal, and for large stretches of time they were governed by monarchs who were not only unrighteous, but persecuted true faith and tried to compel the entire nation to worship evil by force.  Yet in the midst of this, God continued to minister to the faithful through his prophets, and he reserved seven thousand in Israel who did not worship the false gods, nor participate in their rites of sexual promiscuity and child sacrifice (1 Kings 19:18). This is a relevant message as we endure yet another election cycle in the U.S.  Our hope is not in politics, but in God’s prophetic ministry to his people.
       In this particular pericope, we see Elijah ministering to a woman who is not of Israelite ethnicity.  She is a Sidonian, an ethnic group related to the Phoenicians who were at odds with Israel for most of their history.  Elijah’s ministry to those outside of Israel foreshadows the opening up of the New Covenant to the Gentiles, as we see in Luke 4:26. 
       We see the Elijah’s prayer was not answered instantaneously, but in fact the prophet struggled in prayer before the LORD, unwilling to cease praying until God answered in the affirmative.  Three times he stretches out on the child, the first two times appearing to be ineffective.  He complains to the LORD: “Will you indeed kill the son of this widow with whom I am staying?”  This struggle with God in prayer reminds us of what the Catechism teaches:

2725 Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The "spiritual battle" of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer.

The three times that the prophet lays on the child before he awakes from the sleep of death and receives the breath of life reminds us of the three sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist. Through these three sacraments, we are filled with the “breath of life,” the Holy Spirit.  Though it would seem that only once should be enough, God in his wisdom ordains to come to us through these three sacraments in succession and not simply by one alone.  As the dead child is brought to life in three successive stages, so we, dead in sin, are brought to spiritual life in three successive fillings with the Holy Spirit through these sacraments.
P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13:
R. (2a) I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
Sing praise to the LORD, you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger lasts but a moment;
a lifetime, his good will.
At nightfall, weeping enters in,
but with the dawn, rejoicing.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
Hear, O LORD, and have pity on me;
O LORD, be my helper.
You changed my mourning into dancing;
O LORD, my God, forever will I give you thanks.
R. I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.

This Psalm comes from Book 1 of the Psalter, which has a high concentration of psalms of lament, in which the psalmist is faced with the threat of death from enemies or other external causes.  Psalm 30 is atypical of Book 1, because rather than lamenting the distress of the psalmist, it gives thanks to God for his act of deliverance.  In this case, the psalmist describes his salvation as being “brought up from the netherworld” and “preserved from among those going down into the pit.”  The literal sense of these passages describe resurrection.  The psalmist himself may not literally have been resurrected, but he describes his salvation in that language, foreshadowing the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead at the final judgement. 

We take the words of this psalm on our lips at Mass, knowing that, in one sense, we have already been raised from the dead through the threefold sacraments of initiation, prefigured by the events of the first reading.  We have moved from spiritual death to life, and we praise God for it.  At the same time, this psalm anticipates the resurrection of our physical bodies at the end of time.  This is not a doctrine we have given up on, or that was removed at Vatican II.  We are, by nature, embodied creatures and we rightfully expect for our bodies to be restored to us—albeit transformed in a profound way—at the end of time.
2. The Second Reading is Gal 1:11-14a, 15ac, 16a, 17, 19:
I want you to know, brothers and sisters,
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.

For you heard of my former way of life in Judaism,
how I persecuted the Church of God beyond measure
and tried to destroy it, and progressed in Judaism
beyond many of my contemporaries among my race.
But when God, who from my mother’s womb had set me apart
was pleased to reveal his Son to me,
so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles,
I went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem
to talk with Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days.
But I did not see any other of the Apostles,
only James the brother of the Lord.

This heavily edited passage of St. Paul omits the curses that St. Paul calls down on those who would pervert the Gospel to preach a different one.  This liturgical editing is questionable in my opinion, and “protects” the Christian people from exposure to the virtue of righteous indignation.  Current Catholic culture seems to be of the opinion that anger is always a sin, but the saints, including the Apostles, did at times become very angry against sins that endangered the eternal salvation of persons, including doctrinal error.  Omitting those parts of Scripture that reveal righteous indignation against grave offenses only serves to perpetuate a culture within the Church that is passive in the face of doctrinal and moral perversion.

Be that as it may, in this passage St. Paul alludes to the revelation of the resurrected Jesus Christ that he received on the road to Damascus, as recorded in Acts 9.  There, Jesus risen from the dead appeared to Paul and challenged him: “Why are you persecuting me?”

Here in the Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul defends his authority as an apostle by appealing not to his great learning or to some other credentials, but to the fact that he witnessed the resurrected Christ.  This passage emphasizes that St. Paul’s ministry was authorized by and grounded in the Resurrection.  As he says elsewhere, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith ins in vain” (1 Cor 15:19).  Christian faith flows from the resurrection and is inextricabley tied to it.
4.  Our Gospel is Lk 7:11-17:
Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
As he drew near to the gate of the city,
a man who had died was being carried out,
the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her,
he was moved with pity for her and said to her,
“Do not weep.”
He stepped forward and touched the coffin;
at this the bearers halted,
and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, crying out
“A great prophet has arisen in our midst, “
and “God has visited his people.”
This report about him spread through the whole of Judea
and in all the surrounding region.

Jesus is in Nain, a town in Galilee.  The Galilee was known for its mixed population which included Gentiles—“Galilee of the Gentiles”—and it may be that this young man and his mother were Gentiles, like the widow of Zarephath.

Jesus is pictured here in comparison to Elijah, and the similarities are obvious.  Jesus is “a great prophet” who has arisen, like Elijah.  But there are also differences.  Elijah struggles in the battle of prayer for the life of the boy, but Jesus has no struggle.  He issues a command.  He is more than a prophet, he is God. His authority is such that even the dead obey him!  We recall the words of Ezekiel, who gave the Israelites signs by which they would be able to recognize God at work in their midst: “You shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people” (Ezek 37:13).  We know Jesus is the LORD as he commands the dead. 

This same power of Jesus is still available to us in the sacraments.  The sacraments raise us from spiritual death.
“But even the raising of the dead to life, the miracle by which a corpse is reanimated with its natural life, is almost nothing in comparison with the resurrection of a soul, which has been lying spiritually dead in sin and has now been raised to the essentially supernatural life of grace.”  Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, The Three Conversions in the Spiritual life (Rockford, Ill.: TAN, 2002), 15

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