Regarding the Dead in the Light of the Resurrection

Jesus, his disciples, and a great crowd following them come to the city of Na’in, which exists to this day – a small village near Nazareth at the foot of Mount Tabor. As they approach the gates of the city, a funeral procession pours out through them. The only son of a widow had died.

These funeral processions could be a spectacle. When a loved one would die, a crowd would soon gather because the dead were usually buried immediately. There were people professionally dedicated to mourning those who died – sort of like funeral directors of the first century – accompanied by flute players, and people weeping and wailing loudly as they process and carry the departed one to the place of burial (cf. Matt 9:23; Mark 5:38; Luke 8:52).

Jesus comes upon this scene in Na’in and he has compassion.

Notice how the Jews carry the body out of the city gates. They take the body away from us. They don’t keep the body here with us where we live. This is of course a common approach toward dead bodies even now. And it was common in the ancient world also among both pagans and Jews.

Dead bodies were regarded as unclean by the Jews. For the Lord had said to Moses and Aaron that any who touch a dead body or even go into a tent where a person has died shall be unclean seven days (Num 19:11, 14). Therefore, priests, who had to remain ritually pure at all times so that they could serve in the temple, especially had to keep their distance from the dead (Lev 21).

It’s important to bear that in mind when we see Jesus, our great High Priest, go near the body of the dead man and touch his funeral bier out of compassion. The bearers stood still (Luke 7:14). And no wonder, for such an act would have surprised them.

Among the Jews, the Mitzvah to accompany the deceased to burial is more important than most other obligations, which is why they would willingly accept that period of uncleanness on behalf of their loved ones. Even a priest would do so if it was for his own son or other close relation (Lev 21:2). But for a stranger? That is unusual.

It would have been customary for Jesus and those with him to turn and escort the funeral procession a short distance to show respect for the man who had died and sympathy for his mother and the other mourners. But for Jesus, who was not of this man’s family, to defile himself by reaching out and touching the bier and stopping the procession was far from customary. He does this out of compassion and in so doing teaches us a new attitude toward the dead.

Think about what Christians do with the dead. Do we also avoid them and keep them in a separate place? No. No, we go into to the catacombs to worship God there. We use the tombs of our martyrs as our altars. We commune with those who have died. We believe in the communion of the saints. We bring their bodies inside our churches and put them in our altars. We venerate relics. We kiss the bones of our saints. Our attitude toward the dead is different because we follow Jesus who raises the dead.

And the first person he ever raised from the dead was the only son of a widow in Na’in at the foot of Mount Tabor. Jesus touches the bier and says to the dead man, “I say to you, rise.” And the young man sits up. The one who gave him life gives him life again. The one who speaks life into being in the beginning speaks life into being again.

This is the first time that Jesus raises the dead, but it’s not the last. Three times he raises the dead before he himself dies and rises from the dead.

He later raises the daughter of Jairus, practically at the moment of her death (Matt 9:18–26, Mark 5:21–43, Luke 8:40–56).

He raises this son of the widow from Na’in, who had died earlier that day.

And he raises Lazarus who was four days in the tomb and beginning to decay (John 11:39).

Sometimes doctors have to say they were too late to save someone, but it’s never too late for the Lord. When Lazarus is dying, Jesus waits four days before coming to him. Already he has risen the dead but still people don’t understand and so they think it a pity he had not come sooner (John 11:37). Still, people are bound up so temporally in their thinking. It’s now or never, we think, but in Christ there is forever.

These resurrections prefigure our own coming resurrection. It makes no difference to the Lord who made Adam out of dust whether we have just died or have turned back to dust. He will raise up because he has compassion on us.

He is rightly called the Lover of Mankind. He alone can end our weeping.

Jesus has compassion on the widow and he tells her, “Do not weep.” Maybe everyone around her was telling her that – “Don’t weep.” Sometimes people say that more for their own comfort than to comfort the afflicted one. It is not something I would recommend saying to a mother who has just lost her son. But Jesus alone has the authority to say “Do not weep.” For Christ alone, the Word of God, words bring into being. When he says to the widow, “Do not weep,” he knows what comfort he alone can give. He alone can give her back her son and so he alone can righteously say, “Do not weep.”

When he later comes to the house of Jairus and the crowd is beginning to mourn the little girl, Talitha, with wailing and weeping, and the flutes are beginning to sound, Jesus has compassion on them and he says “Do not weep.”

Later Jesus comes to Bethany and sees Mary weeping over her brother Lazarus, already four days in the tomb. And, deeply moved, Jesus weeps (John 11:35). Now, he who alone has the authority to say, “Do not weep,” weeps. So he is with us even in our weeping. And he raises Lazarus also from the dead.

Before his own death and resurrection, Jesus raises these three. Then, at the moment of his death, “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt 27:52).

All of this is to show that Jesus’s resurrection is not exclusively a revelation of his own divinity and unique power over death. It is that. But his resurrection is more than that too. His resurrection is for us. In him, we rise from the dead.

If we really believe this, it changes things for us. It changes the consequence of everything for us if we remember that after we die we will rise again and live forever in Christ. We are infinite and everlasting. You only live once, they say, but in Christ you live again forever. I’m telling you, this erases our fear of death and changes our perspective about everything.

It might change what you want to put on your bucket list, for example.

It should change our attitude toward politics. You know someone rightly said that here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14).  And the Letter to Diognetus says that, to Christians “every foreign land is a homeland, and every homeland is a foreign land.” Death and resurrection erase distinctions we think are so important.

The resurrection should change our attitude about wealth. What is the point of saving and accumulating great wealth, I wonder, except to increase our comfort on this earth? This earthly and temporal life becomes pretty inconsequential when held up against eternal life (cf. Matt 6:19-20).

The resurrection changes everything. So let us remember the resurrection and be changed by it.

Fr. John R.P. Russell

By

Fr. John R.P. Russell is a husband, a father of four, a priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma, and a painter particularly influenced by abstract expressionism and iconography. He has an M.Div. from the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and a B.A. in art with a minor in religion from Wabash College. He blogs here: http://holydormition.blogspot.com/. Some of his paintings can be seen here: https://paintingprosopa.blogspot.com/

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