We recently heard the powerful account of Jesus raising from the dead the widow’s son at Nain [Luke 7:11-16]. This particular event is unique to Saint Luke’s Gospel. In his Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Luke, the biblical scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller summarized the over-all impression left by this extraordinary event in the following manner:
“This incident, only in Luke, shows the Evangelist’s special delight in portraying Jesus not only overwhelmed with pity at the sight of tragedy, but also turning with kindly regard toward women [cf. 7:36-50; 10:38-42].... This narrative possesses the charm, color, and pathos of an excellent story: two large crowds meet, approaching from different directions; the silence with which Jesus touches the bier and stops the funeral procession; the thundering message, calmly spoken, bringing the dead back to life.” [The Jerome Biblical Commentary].
Truly, it is nothing less than a “thundering message” when Jesus said: “Young man, I say to you arise!” [Luke 7:14]. And when the young man “sat up and began to speak” we should be able to understand, however dimly, the reaction of the crowd: “Fear seized them all; and they glorified God” [7:16]. The pathos of this story is further increased by the fact that the young man was “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow” [7:12]. There was no existing social safety net within first century Israel that would provide support for this woman. Without a son who could help provide for her, this widow would have been totally dependent upon the good will and the charity of her neighbors in the small village that Nain was known to have been. Hence, the power of the simple statement that accompanies the young man’s restoration to life: “And he gave him to his mother” [7:15]. What a reunion that must have been! Now Saint Luke makes it clear just who it was who encountered this funeral procession and dramatically brought it to a halt: “And when the Lord who saw her he had compassion on her” [7:13]. It was “the Lord.” This was the first of many times throughout his Gospel that the Evangelist Luke will use this exalted title for Jesus. The Greek ho Kyrios — the Lord — is the translation found in the Septuagint of the divine name Yahweh. Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, this title reveals that as the Lord, Jesus has power over both life and death. Anticipating his own resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ brings this young man back to life, revealing that even death is not beyond His authority and capacity to give life.
We are not told how this young man died. In our contemporary world, death can be more-or-less defined in a clinical manner. The shift in this clinical definition has moved toward a final determination of “brain death.” Be it the cessation of breath, permanent “cardiac arrest,” or the brain death just mentioned, we can identify death and its effect on our biological organism. And so could anyone in the ancient world, where death was such a more immediate and “up close” reality compared to the rather antiseptic experience of death that we promote today in a attempt to distance the living from the dying inasmuch as that is possible. But as Christians, we certainly understand death in a way that moves far beyond its current clinical definition and determination. That is because we understand life in such a way that the clinical is transcended by the mysterious: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” [Psalm 8:4]. Conversant with a biblical anthropology that refuses to limit a human person to his or hers biological functions, we perceive ourselves in a more complex and meaningful manner.
There are many ways over the centuries that within our theological tradition we have elaborated on that inexhaustible biblical affirmation that we are created “according to the image and likeness of God.” The Church Fathers will speak of the human person as a psychosomatic union of soul and body. Or, following the Apostle Paul, of a union of spirit, soul and body [1 Thessalonians 5:23]. Because of some of the Greek philosophical connotations—primarily dualism—of using the terminology of soul and body, there has been a concerted movement within theological circles today to use the more biblically based terms of “spirit and flesh” to describe the mystery of human personhood. Whatever the exact terminology employed to describe the fullness of human existence, the essential point being made is that the human person is more—much more—than “what meets the eye.” We are even greater than the angels according to some of the Fathers, because we unite in our person the “spiritual” and the “material” as the pinnacle of God’s creative acts. We have our biological limitations, but we can still know the living God! Even though we are so frail in our humanity, the psalmist can still exclaims in wonder: “Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor” [Psalm 8:5].
In describing the mystery of death as it pertains to all creatures, including human beings, the psalmist says (and we hear this at every Vespers service): “When you take away their spirit, they die and return to their dust” [Psalm 104:29]. This is what happened to the young man from Nain regardless of whatever may have been the immediate cause of his death. Something had happened that could not be fully described as merely brain death. His “spirit” had been taken away and his flesh was destined to return to the dust. Another expression that became almost classical as a theological description of death—and which essentially means the same thing—is that of the “separation of soul and body.” Either way, the wholeness and integrity of the human person is lost in death. This is what renders death a tragedy and why the Apostle Paul can refer to death as “the last enemy.” When the Lord brought this only son of his mother to life again, the spirit of the young man returned to his flesh—or the soul to his body—and he began to live again in the full meaning of that word. Yet, this is not resurrection in the fullness of that word’s meaning as we apply it to Christ: “For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him” [Romans 6:9]. The young man was resuscitated to life. He lived — and died — again, to then await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, a resurrection prefigured and promised by the Lord’s resurrection and victory over death. The same can be said of the synagogue elder Jairus’ daughter and, of course Lazarus, the friend of Christ who had been dead for four days.
There is a passage from his Discourse on the Holy Pascha, in which Saint Gregory of Nyssa offers a very “modern”—or is that “post-modern?”—evaluation of the loss of a moral/ethical dimension to life when we discard the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead:
“If there is no resurrection, and death is the end of life, then leave off your accusations and reprimands, having been granted an unimpeded authority for homicide: let the adulterers destroy marriage; let the covetous live in luxury at the expense of their opponents; do not scold anyone; let the perjurers curse continuously, for death awaits him who sticks to cursing; let another lie as much as one may desire, because there is no reward for truth; let no one help the poor, for the merciful will remain without a prize. Such considerations occur in the soul of those more chaotic than the flood; they cast out every wise thought and encourage every foolish thought and thievery. For if there is no resurrection, there is no Judgment; if then the Judgment is denied, the fear of God is denied along with it. Where there is no one who is humbled by fear, there the devil exults.”
We are told today that we are essentially a walking bag of chemicals with an evolved consciousness. This further implies that at death this biological organism collapses, all consciousness is irreversibly lost, and that final oblivion is our common fate. The Scripture revelation that we accept as coming from God tells us something radically different. To hear the Gospel is to fill us with the faith, hope and love that can only come from the living God. It is to hear of a different destiny and one that makes life infinitely more meaningful and hopeful. We too can cry out together with the crowd at Nain: “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and"God has visited his people!” [Luke 7:16]. And living within the Church we know that this is the Lord Who “shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end,” thus allowing us the final joyful affirmation: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”