Life and Death Collisions

 The Franciscan Church of the Widow’s Son at Nain in Galilee
 The Franciscan Church of the Widow’s Son at Nain in Galilee

The Gospel of Luke records a short but vital story of Jesus’ confrontation with death.

Hot on the heels of a very public act of healing the child of someone famous, Jesus leads an impromptu parade of followers, well-wishers, and the curious as he continues his travels and teaching. This parade is a celebration of healing and life. The one with the power of life leads the march.

Yet, as they approach the next village, a town called “Nain,” a word meaning “pleasant” or “beautiful” – likely due to the lush pastures that surrounded it – Jesus and his band of celebrants collide with a funeral procession heading out to the nearby village cemetery.

A young man has died, leaving his widowed mother to herself. His is a life cut too short. Hers is a life now at risk with no one to care for her.

The culture of the Bible had strict rules regarding one’s behavior around death. Contact with a dead body rendered one “unclean” for a week, unable to fully participate in the life of God’s people and at personal risk. Those who were attending to the needs of this nameless woman and her dead son were doing what was necessary, but there was no need for others to risk their own contamination. The message is clear, the power of death is such that it taints all of life. It’s an extreme case of the proverbial “one bad apple.”

Jesus, however, is moved by compassion and not fear. Without fanfare, he comforts the woman and then reaches out and intentionally touches the bier on which the body is being carried. Luke tells us that Jesus then tells the young man to get up, and the man sits up and begins to speak. The Word of Life is greeted by words of the living, and the whole gathering, both parade followers and mourners, are gripped by fear–the kind of fear that precedes worship.

This account is the first of Jesus’ miracles of restoring the dead to life. It anticipates his own resurrection from death. Further, Jesus’ resurrection is the down payment on your own. The parade of life continues.

We live in the same death-plagued world as this widow and her neighbors. Our newsfeeds are full of stories of violence, and our neighborhoods house the sick and the dying. In cities and towns, young people die before the promise of their life is even remotely realized. Some of us at Valpo have recently lost loved ones in Gaza. This day we mourn the loss of Varun, a treasured member of our community at Valpo. 

For those of us who are trying to get along, it might seem that the best course of action is to separate ourselves from it all.

But we cannot, and the death that haunts our newsfeeds follows us like a shadow.

Furthermore, we need not. We, who are seeking to be followers of Jesus, are following the One who is the power of life. He is not just the power to bring life, but the one who is life itself.

Wherever Jesus is present, life is present, and that life is always stronger than the death that threatens. 

How does this work itself out among us? It works in the same way that Jesus works it out. He is not afraid to be in death’s presence. He reaches out and comforts and touches with authority, not fear. We are empowered to be with the frightened and the dying. We are empowered to go with the mourning, never fearing that their sorrow will swallow us whole. We are empowered to live in our neighborhoods as agents of life who will not be overcome. For we are living toward the resurrection of all.

Peace be with you,

 Pr. Jim

Nov. 8, 2023

Rev. Katherine Museus and Rev. James A. Wetzstein serve as university pastors at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and take turns writing weekly devotions.