The widow of Naim: sermon on the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Whom when the Lord had seen, being moved with mercy towards her, he said to her: Weep not. And he came near and touched the bier.”

The miracle of the raising up of this young man, the son of the widow of Naim, as well as being a real historical event, has always been seen also as an image of the restoration of divine life to those who are dead in sin. This is why this gospel is read in Lent: Lent is a time when the Christian people, as a whole, pray and do penance for those who have received the grace of baptism in the past, and who have now lost it. In Lent, the Church is like a sorrowful mother: she remembers how many people are living on earth who have been born again from her womb — that is, the baptismal font — by the power of the Holy Ghost, but who might as well now be dead, like the young man of Naim, for any good works that they are doing for God. So, she prays, during Lent, that all these people may be brought back to life and reconciled to the Lord.

In fact, this same gospel is also read on the feast of one of the most famous of all penitents, St Augustine of Hippo, the great doctor and father of the Church. We celebrated his feast last month. The gospel fits his conversion perfectly. If you know his life, you’ll know that, although he was not baptised as a baby, he was enrolled among the catechumens, and so was brought into the threshold of the Church. After he had become a young man and fallen into sins of the flesh and of the spirit, and was thus, as it were, carried out of the city of God, it was above all the prayers and tears of his widowed mother, St Monica, which brought about his conversion. The Lord raised up Augustine from the death of sin, and, like the young man in the gospel, he sat up and began to speak; he sat on his episcopal throne of Hippo Regius, and spoke as no one has spoken before or since.

But today, on this Sunday of mid-September, we may see a slightly different figurative meaning in this gospel. Our Lord chooses to work this miracle, like other miracles, in a symbolic way. He stretches out His hand, and touches the bier, that is the stretcher, on which the dead man is lying. It is a wooden bier, of course — what else would it have been made of, in the ancient world? By stretching out His hand to the wood, Christ raises the dead man to life. As with so many of the details recorded in the gospel, this is a simple image of our Redemption: by stretching out His hands to the wood of the Cross, Jesus made satisfaction for sin, and so made it possible for souls to return to supernatural life. 

But if Christ’s way of working this miracle puts us in mind of His crucifixion, then the widow whose sufferings call it forth may well put us in mind of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St Luke says that our Saviour sees the widow and being “moved to mercy”, says to her, “Weep not.” Humanly speaking, we can suppose that one of the reasons why our Lord was so moved by the sight of this widow is that He saw the similarity between her situation and that of His own mother; she too was a widow, and she too was about to lose her only Son. But in any case, we can say that this widow is a type or figure of the Blessed Virgin, as she stood sorrowfully next to the Cross of her Son.

This sermon therefore comes at the most appropriate time possible: today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, with the feast of the Seven Sorrows of our Lady tomorrow. And of the seven sorrows that are traditionally attributed to Mary, the last four all pertain to the Passion and Death of her Son.

St John, in his account of the Passion, tells us that Mary stood next to the Cross of her Son. The gospels, of course, do not attempt to describe her feelings during the Crucifixion, but the tradition of the Church sums them up in one word, which must be understood in its fullest possible sense; namely, the word “compassion”. Compassion means literally to “suffer with”: our Lady suffered with her Son. She had accepted these sufferings in advance, at the moment of the Annunciation. Mary knew the prophecies; she knew that Isaiah had foretold that the Messias would be rejected and would make Himself an offering for sin. And so, when she replied to St Gabriel’s message, “Be it done to me according to thy word”, she knew that in becoming the mother of the Messias, she was also providing a Victim for the great sacrifice. At the foot of the Cross, she renewed her loving consent to the Father’s wishes. She surrenders whatever rights she might be said to possess over her Son, and she makes her Immaculate Heart into one offering, and as it were one altar, with His.

And this is why we often speak of our Lady as Co-redemptrix. It is impossible that Mary’s sufferings, accepted as they were with so much love, should be of no value in the sight of God. On the contrary, it is necessary that they were of the greatest value. Jesus alone is our Redeemer: but the Blessed Virgin united herself so perfectly to His sacrifice that His redemption comes to us through her. Just as the widow of Naim, by her mourning, called forth the miracle in the gospel, so our Lady’s deep sorrow calls forth God’s mercy on souls dead in sin.

And even though she is now in beatitude — in heavenly glory — yet, in some mysterious way, our Lady’s compassion for her sinful children still continues. That is why we speak of her “Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart”. If you ask how it is possible that bliss and sorrow should exist together in the same heart, I do not know that I can give you an answer, except to say that it was already the case during the earthly life of our Lord. He, in His human soul, possessed the beatific vision from the first moment; and so, throughout His earthly life, He always enjoyed the bliss that came from seeing His Father’s face, and yet at the same time, and especially during His passion, He had sorrow and pain from bearing the sins of the world. And in something of the same way, our Lady is in beatitude, and her peace cannot be disturbed by anything that passes on earth, and yet there is in her Heart still a sorrow at the sins of her children: at the offence which these sins give to God, and at the danger in which they put those who commit them of finally losing their souls. That is why, in the apparition of La Salette, in France, in 1846, our Lady was weeping.

So, this Sunday, and the feast days of the Holy Cross and the Seven Sorrows, are doubtless a good time to pray for those whom we know who seem to be dead at the moment by reason of sin, such as those who have lapsed from the practice of the faith. Our prayers for them do not go unheeded by heaven. Speak with confidence to our Lord and His holy mother about your loved ones who are in this state. As the angel of Fatima told the three young children: 

“The hearts of Jesus and Mary are attentive to your supplications.”