Suffering with the Distressed
Tenth Sunday of the Year. fr Colin Carr reflects on the nature of Christian compassion.
Elijah befriends a foreign widow in a time of famine; she’s collecting sticks to make a fire to cook a last supper for her and her only son. A piece of bread, and then nothing. They will both die from the same famine which has driven Elijah out of Israel. He is parched with thirst and then when she goes to fetch him water he remembers he’s hungry too and asks her for a bite to eat. A BITE TO EAT? She has nothing but the last handful of meal and a few drops of oil for her and her boy; but somehow she is convinced that the ancient law of hospitality can and must be obeyed, and from then on she is never short of meal or oil.
But then her son dies anyway. Let’s not try to be nicely pious and say, “All shall be well”. Life is hard. Life is cruel. Ask any tsunami survivor. Ask any Syrian refugee. Ask any claimant whose benefits have been stopped for 6 weeks because of some mix-up over hospitalization 5 years ago. And that’s just the survivors. The drowned, the suicides can’t answer you.
And Elijah says, “Give me your son”. Like any passionate and compassionate believer he is furious with God for doing this to the widow who has saved his life. He does what he can with some form of artificial respiration, and tells God what he thinks. And God listens. And the life which God gave Adam, breathing into his nostrils, come back into the boy by divine respiration. And he gives the bairn back to his Mam as we say where I live, in that cradle of civilisation which breathes the names of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. And the Mam believes that God’s word is in Elijah’s mouth.
Jesus, the man of God, the only son of God, the Word of God, encounters a widow who has lost her only son. Luke, the scribe of Christ’s compassion, refers a few times to only children: Jairus’ daughter, the demon-possessed son of the distressed father at the foot of the mountain of Transfiguration, and this lad of Nain.
Jesus doesn’t know the widow of Nain, but his compassion for her and her son is as strong as Elijah’s for the widow whom he knows so well. The compassion of Christ includes anyone, friend or stranger, whom he encounters. I am somewhat shamefacedly impressed by people who hear a news item about a disaster in a foreign country and say to me, “Isn’t that awful?” when I have simply noted it and passed on to the latest cricket scores.
The compassionate Lord – Luke often refers to Jesus as The Lord, indicating that majesty and mercy go together – this Lord encourages the widow to dry her tears and orders the dead son to get up, which he does emphatically, bursting into speech which shows that the breath of life is back in him. And Jesus gives the talkative bairn back to his Mam, and the divine compassion for the vulnerable is demonstrated again.
Christian art has reflected on biblical themes, and often gone beyond the bare narrative, and imagined scenes which aren’t in the Bible. One such scene is what we call the Pieta, when the lifeless body of Jesus rests on his mother’s lap after he is taken down from the cross. The one who comforted distressed parents of only children is no longer capable of comforting his own distressed mother. Other people have given her back her bairn. The one who showed compassion pays the price, in his own passion, of being the bringer of comfort to others. And the mother who had welcomed his new life into her lap now receives the lifeless one and shares his pain and loss.
We reflect, this year, on the mercy of God. The one who brings life into deathly situations is not an effortless dispenser of comfort. Compassion is suffering with the distressed, and we know of many who have been Christlike in bringing health and light into broken and dark places. In my own lifetime Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Blessed Oscar Romero have paid the price, among many others.
Some years ago a friend sent me an unusual Christmas card: it had a picture of a candle – half burned down – and the message was: “Those who would bring light shall endure the burning”.
Readings: 1 Kings 17:17-24 | Galatians 1:11-19 | Luke 7:11-17
The image above is a Victorian stained glass window from Ely Cathedral depicting various episodes in the life of Elijah.