Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Widow of Nain and the Virgin Mary

I mentioned yesterday that Luke 7:11-17, in which Jesus resurrects the son of the widow of Nain, “is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Jesus raises the son out of love for the mother. There's an obvious Marian element to this -- given that Jesus has mercy on all of us for the sake of His (and our) Mother.”

Let's look at that passage again.  In it, we see Jesus approach the city of Nain, and coming across a crowd carrying out a dead man.  Jesus had pity on the man's mother, since she was a widow, and this was her only son.  Jesus wouldn't let the widow be abandoned, so He provided her comfort in her old age by raising her son from the dead.

Mario Minniti, Miracle at Nain (1620).
The miracles of Jesus are literal historical events, but they also have spiritual and symbolic meanings.  Jesus isn't just doing random magic tricks.  Instead, His miracles have meanings we should seek to understand.  Sometimes, these are obvious.  For example, He opens the eyes of the blind man in John 9:1-7, and then uses this as a starting point to talk about the Pharisees' spiritual blindness (John 9:35-41).

Other times, it's more subtle.  The miracle of the loaves and fishes is to teach us about the Eucharist, which is why He performs it around the time of Passover (John 6:4), and why He breaks the (unleavened) bread.  It shows us that through the power of God, even the laws of matter itself are suspended: if this mere bread can be in more than one place at a time and yet remain five loaves, then some major arguments against the possibility of the Eucharist dissolve.

So what does this miracle teach us?  Well, it's tied to the Resurrection in an obvious way - Jesus shows us that death isn't the final chapter, and in so doing, foreshadows both His own Resurrection, and the general resurrection we'll all experience at the Last Judgment.

It's also tells us about God's love, as I said yesterday.  But what I'd overlooked is what it says about Jesus' particular love for Mary.  Fr. Arne Panula's homily on this Gospel pointed out a scene from the Crucifixion, in which Jesus has pity on another widow -- this time, His own Mother (John 19:25-27):

Near the cross of Jesus stood His Mother, His Mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw His Mother there, and the Disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to Her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the Disciple, “Here is your Mother.” From that time on, this Disciple took her into his home.
He takes care of His sorrowing Mother in two different ways.  First, Easter morning.  Just as the raising of the dead man in Nain is an act of mercy for his grieving mother, we can say the same thing about the Resurrection.  It's a gift for Mary in a special way.  That doesn't, of course, diminish the fact that it's also a gift for all of us, that we might believe and be justified (Romans 4:25).

But the second thing Jesus does is provide Mary with St. John.  He makes Mary a spiritual Mother to John, and John a spiritual son of Mary.  There are two things to see here.

1.  Mary Had No Other (Biological) Children

First, this establishes conclusively that Mary had no other children.  If she had a son, or a son-in-law, she  would have somewhere else to go.  This is why it's important to Luke to mention that the widow of Nain had no other sons (Luke 7:12).  Instead, Mary goes to live with a non-relative.

Let's be incredibly clear on this point.  No Jewish son would permit this to happen to his mother.  Even if she drove him nuts, he had an obligation under the Law.  Nowadays, the Commandment to “honor thy father and mother” (Deut. 5:16) is sometimes read as if it only applies to children.  But the Jews understood this to be an order to care for their elderly parents, as well.  And Christians were similarly enjoined to care for their elderly parents.  St. Paul talks about the importance of caring for widows in 1 Timothy 5, and says, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).

Yet Protestant apologists like Matt Slick of CARM try to claim that Galatians 1:19 proves that the Apostle James was Jesus' brother.  Consider what Slick is claiming: one of the Apostles was Mary's actual biological son, yet Jesus sent her to live with a different Apostle, instead?  That the Apostle James lived out the rest of his life not taking care of his own Mother?  That's absurd.  If the Apostle James is literally a brother of Jesus, why wasn't Mary staying with him?  It would suggest that the Apostle James “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  It just doesn't make any sense.

That passage also establishes that Mary had no other children in a couple other ways.  It  mentions that beside her stood “His Mother's sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas.”  Obviously, the two women named Mary aren't literally sisters.  Instead, they're likely sisters-in-law.  So the passage shows the flexibility with which terms like sister or brother can be used in the New Testament.

Finally, from the parallel account in Matthew, we know that this Mary is the mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 27:56).  So when we hear James and Joseph referred to as Our Lord's “brothers” in Mark 6:3, we know that they were probably His cousins. They've got a different mom, and they clearly weren't born from a previous marriage (since their mom is still alive).  In any case, both Marys couldn't have given birth to those boys.

2.  Mary is Our (Spiritual) Mother

But let's go back to the passage about the widow of Nain in Luke 7.  The son is raised:

  • Out of love for the mother, and 
  • To take care of his mother.
And as we've seen, this seems to prefigure the handing over of the Apostle John to the Virgin Mary.  What's the message being sent here about our relationship with Mary, then?  John makes that clear enough in his own Gospel.  He refers to himself throughout his Gospel as “the Disciple who Jesus loved,” presenting himself as an example of what Christian discipleship looks like.  To come to enjoy the love of Christ, as he has, we're to walk in his footsteps alongside of Jesus Christ.

If that's true, this suggests that Christian discipleship should involve a strong Marian devotion - that, like John, we should take Mary into our homes, into our hearts, and care for her until our dying day.  That, after all, is the example he lays out.  He becomes a son of Mary, although he's not one by birth.

Other parts of Scripture confirm this message.  In John's Revelation, he sees the Mother of Jesus (Rev. 12:5), who he calls Woman, the same thing Christ called Mary in John's Gospel (John 2:4), including the scene we discussed above (John 19:26), and a nod towards Mary's role in salvation history as the New Eve (see Genesis 2:23).  This Woman is at war with a dragon, just as Eve was at war with a serpent.  At the end of this vision, John says (Revelation 12:17)
Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
So all of us, if we follow God's commands, and if we're to hold fast to our testimony about Jesus, are sons and daughters of the Woman, Mary.

We have the foretaste of our resurrection in Baptism, just as the son of the widow of Nain had a foretaste of his final resurrection in being raised from the dead.  His duty then was to care for his mother for the rest of his life.  Our duty is the same.

9 comments:

  1. This was great, Joseph. Thanks!

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  2. "It shows us that through the power of God, even the laws of matter itself are suspended: if this mere bread can be in more than one place at a time and yet remain five loaves, then some major arguments against the possibility of the Eucharist dissolve."

    Stealing this :-)

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  3. RP,
    You mean I'm not the only one to steal from Joe. Deo Gratias. I thought I might be.

    Michael

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  4. Robert,

    Just put it up this morning - glad you noticed! If you don't mind asking, (a) what browser do you use, and (b) does the logo say "SP" or "SP" with a Cross next to it?

    I tried it with the Cross, but it came out too tiny to see anything, so I switched it back. For some reason, my IE browser still shows it with the Cross, and my Chrome browser doesn't have a logo at all.

    Joe

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  5. "Obviously, the two women named Mary aren't literally sisters."

    Tell that to George Foreman!

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  6. Ok, phew, the first time I read this it sounded like you were still using IE as your primary browser and I was going to scold you.

    Anyway, I was on my phone, so I was using Android. It had the mere SP and my chrome also has the mere SP up on the tabs. Chrome doesn't have the logo on the address bar, where there is a globe. But gmail is the same way. So I think that is just how chrome rolls.

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  7. I use Chrome - I have the logo next to the site name in the tab.

    ReplyDelete