Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sometimes there is only one who believes.

on Luke 8:26-39

The people of the Gerasene countryside loved their pigs too much. Perhaps they were overly fond of bacon – as are some of us. I like bacon, but the bacon-love of some seems to border on idolatry. I saw a Little Caesar’s pizza ad that said “in bacon we crust.” The Gerasenes preferred their bacon to Jesus. 

Seeing what Jesus had done – how he had healed the possessed man and driven the pigs over the cliff – all the people of the Gerasene countryside were afraid – and they asked Jesus to leave…. So he got into the boat and went away. Just like that. Jesus cast out the man's legion of demons and, in reaction, a legion of the man's countrymen cast out Jesus.

How sad. How tragic. When we ask Jesus to leave our country, when we send him away, it seems that sometimes he does go away.

He taught his disciples to behave in the same way – that if any house or town does not receive us or hear our words of peace and good news that we are to shake the dust of that place off our feet and go on our way (Matt 10:14). He taught us also neither to give to dogs what is holy nor to cast our pearls before swine (Matt 7:6). That is, when we encounter those who relentlessly scoff and deride our gospel of eternal life and union with God, we should not try to force them to listen. There’s no point. The worldly are not worthy of the godly (cf. Heb 11:38). The question is, am I among the worldly or the godly?

Jesus comes to the country of the Gerasenes. He heals the first person he meets. He casts out demons. He offers the Gerasenes healing and life and, best of all, his presence among them, but they ask him to leave. The good that he has to offer is clearly displayed for all to see. If, seeing his goodness, we reject him, we are lost.  

Likewise, the gospel we have to offer the world is nothing less than eternal life and union with God. If, hearing this good news, some part of the world rejects it, then that part of the world is lost.

But not all rejected him. One man alone among all the Gerasenes, seeing that Jesus was leaving, begs to go with him. The man Jesus healed and restored to his right mind could not bear to see Jesus leaving them so soon.

But Jesus sent him away. He had for him a higher purpose. He told him to return to his home and declare how much God had done for him. And he did. He went away proclaiming throughout the whole city just what Jesus had done for him.

Notice, by the way, his subtle realization of Christ's divinity here – Jesus told him to preach what God had done for him and he preaches what Jesus had done for him. He puts Jesus in the place of God, and rightly so for that is what he is.

Jesus makes this man he healed to be an evangelist to the people he is leaving. So while he gets in the boat and goes away, he leaves behind an emissary. He does not abandon these people utterly. And this is unusual. Usually, after healing someone, Jesus tells the person to keep it a secret. But this time he tells the man to declare the good news to his countrymen. There is still hope for them to see the truth.

Of all the Gerasenes, only this one believed in him. Only one saw that Jesus was God. And that was a demoniac that he healed. But if the Gerasene demoniac can be healed and can see the truth of God, then there is hope for the other Gerasenes as well, due to the sort of evangelism coming from this man.

Sometimes it gets down to one. Sometimes there is only one who believes. I think immediately of Noah. In all the world, only Noah and his family were faithful to God, and so God turns away from the rest of the world, flooding it all, sparing only Noah and his family in a boat.

Jesus also gets into a boat to leave the country of the Gerasenes. The only faithful one among the Gerasenes wanted to get into the boat too, just as Noah had been spared from his generation in a boat. But this time, even though Jesus leaves the Gerasenes behind, he does not flood them, true to his promise. And instead he leaves the faithful one among them to give testimony to God and to the good healing and deliverance that God has brought into his life.

In addition to Noah, I think also of our holy father Theodore Romzha, whose feast day is October 31st. He also must have felt pretty alone in his faith. As a young, new, and inexperienced bishop he had immediately to deal with the invasion of the Soviet Red Army – arresting his priests, confiscating his parishes and assigning them to the Russian Orthodox, taking even his car and leaving him with nothing but a horse and buggy to visit his parishes. They pressured him too, of course, to break his communion with Rome, but he steadfastly refused – preferring whatever persecution they would offer to betraying his church. Ultimately the Soviets resolved to simply do away with him. And they deliberately crashed a vehicle into his horse and buggy hoping this would kill him. When it didn't, they poisoned him in his hospital bed. And he died close to midnight on the 31st of October – November 1st, Moscow time. Nikita Khrushchev personally signed the order for him to be murdered.

Just as the Gerasenes cast Jesus out of their country, so too did the Soviets try to cast Jesus out of their country and all the lands they occupied. But as in the countryside of the Gerasenes, here again Jesus left behind some of the faithful to tell all that God has done for them. And the seeds of their testimony watered by the blood of their martyrdom has borne fruit in the re-blossoming of our church in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

We don't know whether the Gerasenes were persuaded by the testimony of the man but we do know that such a testimony can have that effect. We have seen it in our own time.

There are also some who would like to cast Jesus out of our country. But it doesn't matter even if they were to become the majority. Even if we were as few as the Byzantine Catholics were against the Soviets – or as few as Noah's one family against the world – or as few as one man formerly possessed by demons against all his pig-loving countrymen, it is our gospel, our true God, our true Church that will prevail in the end. Christ has already won over death and that is the last enemy. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Regarding the Dead in the Light of 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. 

A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange

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