The Heart of an Only Son

Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
As he drew near to the gate of the city,
a man who had died was being carried out,
the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her,
he was moved with pity for her and said to her,
“Do not weep.”
He stepped forward and touched the coffin;
at this the bearers halted,
and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.  –Luke 7:11-15

*            *            *

At first she was just a little confused, having trouble remembering the passwords to her computer and her phone.  She had lost some weight; she was very tired; she had a persistent cough that was strong enough to trigger the automatic water faucet a few yards away from her bed in the ER.  But nobody seemed particularly concerned.  “There are some anomalies in her blood work—we’d like to keep her overnight for observation—but don’t worry; she’s not being admitted.  She’ll likely go home in the morning.”

My mother had walked into the ER, normally if somewhat reluctantly. But the next day she was stumbling a little, the bloodwork was still a little “off.”  She was admitted.  On day two she needed assistance walking, and by day three she was a little confused as to where she was.  “How is Teresa going to get into the school if they lock it up at 3:00 p.m.?” she worried.

By the weekend she could not get out of bed unassisted.  Each day brought dramatic decline, both physical and mental.  “Do you know who is there?” the nurse asked my mother, pointing to where I stood by her bedside, as I had every day for a week.  She looked up with benign bewilderment.  “No,” she said, “I don’t know who that is…”

But she could figure out certain things. “If they ask you where you are, tell them you are at XYZ Hospital!” she would tell me and anyone who would listen.  But then add with a devious grin, “even though we know it’s not true…”

An MRI revealed part of the cause: a shower of strokes over both hemispheres of her brain.  “I’ve never seen anything like this!” reported the doctors with amazement.  Her bloodwork continued to reveal more strangeness, markers that didn’t match, and the doctors began to look for a cause for this “mystery illness.”

A few weeks in, still confused, she began to complain of stomach pain.  This was a new symptom.  “It’s probably just constipation,” they said.  “Or she’s just confused.  Don’t worry.”  This continued for three days, until a new blood draw revealed a drastic drop in her hemoglobin. By then she was crying, begging to be given something for the pain.

After looking at the CT-Scan, the doctors finally gave us permission to worry.  She had an internal bleed the size of a watermelon, and was being rushed down to ICU.  “I have to be honest—she may not make it through the night.”

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes face-to-face with family grief.  From within the crowd that accompanied Him—many no doubt begging Him for favors, answers, healings—He sees a coffin being carried.  His heart is moved, not just by the young man’s loss of life, but by the grief of the widowed mother.  Why does this touch him so much?  What is it that so moves the heart of the Unmoved Mover?

Father Paul Scalia writes:

By His divine nature He performs the miracle.  But He is moved to do so in His human nature.  That He was moved with pity refers to His Sacred Heart and His capacity to be moved with human love.  Saint Luke tells us that the deceased was “the only son of His mother, and she as a widow.”  (Lk 7:12) This describes Our Lord Himself, and His mother.  So it should not surprise us that He turns first to the widow, in whom He sees the anticipation of Mary’s sorrow.  “Do not weep,” He tells her—as if to tell His own Mother.  Yes—Our Lord is all-powerful.  But in His sacred humanity He places Himself within our reach—so that our misery moves Him to act on our behalf.1 (emphasis added)

Jesus touches the coffin, and the man is raised back to life.  Saint Luke then uses an interesting expression, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”  Father Scalia notes that Jesus does not “allow the miracle of raising a man from the dead to obscure the importance of the man’s human relationships.”

We know that God is love, but the words do not always reach us.  Some time ago I watched a grim-faced woman on the subway who barked at high volume: “Jeee-zus loves you!  Jeee-zus loves you!”  I watched as people rolled or averted their eyes.  Some squirmed; a man across from me seem apoplectic with agitation at her words.  I, who claim to be willing to die to defend such a pronouncement, found myself cringing and sliding down in my seat.

Yet I’ve also seen those same words move men twice my size and strength, and reduce them to tears.  “Jesus loves you!”  When these words become real, when the hearer is convinced that God’s love is in fact profound and personal, something greater than resurrection happens in the human heart.

This weekend Father Columba spoke about the power of Words of Knowledge.  God uses human instruments, to speak into human hearts, often by revealing small, intimate details that only a concerned Father would know to reveal.  It is one thing to believe in a love that is generic and amorphous.  It is something much more when we realize that His concern and care for us is concrete, specific and personal.

Like the widowed mother, Our Lady would also be given her Son, there under the cross.  We see her suffering, that Michelangelo carved into the Pieta.  She held in her arms the lifeless Body of one who died that we might know that personal love.  But she received Him forever when He rose from the dead.

*            *            *

I was there in the ICU that night as my mother journeyed to the edge of death, but came back.  I was there again at his bedside, several months later, when my father took that same journey, but he did not return.

There was much suffering that year; it would be months before my mother returned home, her illness still classified as a mystery.  There were many days in which I thought that I could not endure more, that there was nothing left in me to die.

But one of the beautiful things about hitting rock bottom is that you discover just Who that Rock Is.  We are never alone.

 

 

Notes:

1Scalia, Rev. Paul. That Nothing May Be Lost. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017) p. 134

Labor of Love

O LORD, you mete out peace to us,
for it is you who have accomplished all we have done.
– Isaiah 26:12

O LORD, oppressed by your punishment,
we cried out in anguish under your chastising.
As a woman about to give birth
writhes and cries out in her pains,
so were we in your presence, O LORD.
We conceived and writhed in pain,
giving birth to wind;
Salvation we have not achieved for the earth,
the inhabitants of the world cannot bring it forth.
– Isaiah 26:16-18

Jesus said:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
– Matthew 11:28-30

It seems the LORD has a lot to teach us about our works in today’s readings. We have, respectively, a pure admission of God’s generosity and our inability to effect goodness upon the world, a lament of actions and struggles that leave us unsatisfied, and a promise from Jesus of what working IN HIM can do.

Having witnessed the birth of our child, the second verse listed above has an entirely new depth of meaning. The anticipation during pregnancy, the extreme anguish and sheer determination of labor, all to come to… naught? Devastating. Work, anguish, labor, struggle, without a prayerful heart, does not bring life to the world. Doing anything other than pursuing your current calling with your whole heart does not bring life into the world. The verse is moving and poetic (maybe even a bit off-putting or strange), but it’s also quite direct: nothing we can do apart from Jesus will bring life.

Conversely, ALL who are burdened, ALL who labor can find rest in Jesus Christ. No matter the work, no matter the recognition. Alyssa and I discussed the powerful sermon she mentioned yesterday (Here’s the link again if you want to watch it), and how it gave her renewed hope in this season as a stay-at-home mom: Our heavenly Father notices every little ounce of effort we put forth in our lives. In case you don’t know, stay-at-home mom life is not the most public of existences. Sure, with lots of planning and hauling of gear, you can have a fairly busy social life, but even so, so much work is behind the scenes. If she were to live her life solely running on the affirmation of human beings, she would have run out of gas a long time ago. That’s when exhaustion, resentment, or apathy can kick in. If we live our lives oriented toward our friends’, coworkers, and family’s perception of us, we will run out of steam. Every time.

Do you feel like you’re running out of steam? Read that last verse. Let it soak in. Read it again. These are Jesus’ words to you. ALL who are burdened. ALL who labor. Seek Jesus, and there is rest. Every time.

(…and if you feel like you’ve got it all made, you should seek still Jesus, just in case you turn out to be human.)

Love Is Stronger Than Rejection

Reading 1

HOS 11:1-4, 8E-9

Thus says the LORD:
When Israel was a child I loved him,
out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the farther they went from me,
Sacrificing to the Baals
and burning incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
who took them in my arms;
I drew them with human cords,
with bands of love;
I fostered them like one
who raises an infant to his cheeks;
Yet, though I stooped to feed my child,
they did not know that I was their healer.

My heart is overwhelmed,
my pity is stirred.
I will not give vent to my blazing anger,
I will not destroy Ephraim again;
For I am God and not man,
the Holy One present among you;
I will not let the flames consume you.

From today’s Gospel:

“Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” 

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Sometimes, Bible verses hit home. For me, today’s first reading reminded me of how I felt after a conversation (albeit mostly one-sided) I had with a close family member on a recent family vacation, a yearly family reunion on my dad’s side during the Fourth of July week. My heart was overwhelmed, I held a blazing anger in my heart… and slowly, my pity was stirred when I thought of the Cross.

I know many of you have had similar experiences with a loved one, so I share this personal anecdote especially for you, to let you know you are not alone in your suffering.

A close family member of mine has a serious mental illness and struggles with substance abuse. Other close family members have quite literally saved his life three or four times, now, and yet, he still has not made a huge effort to change his ways that continually lead him back into these grave circumstances. That is, until he decided he was going to be sober after the last close run-in with death, a decision that lasted for about six months. He started drinking again right before the family reunion, and there was hardly a time during the week where I didn’t see a drink in his hand. I tried to simply ask why he made that decision, but it turns out, it wasn’t such a simple question and he did not want to answer it. Turns out, he did not want to talk about anything with me, even just normal conversation like how he’s doing and what he’s into these days… I tried almost every angle of what I thought was non-combative conversation topics, and tried this on several different occasions, and I got nothing in return. He simply did not want to talk to me.

So, one night, I got really upset. I cried and told him that he deserved to listen to me because of how he has affected my life. I thought of the pain he caused me during the months-long stretch last summer when I didn’t know where he was or if he would even be alive at the end of the day. I thought of all the pain he has caused other close family members of mine, his parents, who have completely rearranged their lives to accommodate his illness and needs and bad decisions. But all he could think about was himself. He scoffed at me and said, “Oh, you’re upset about how my problems have affected your life?” I was filled with pain and anger and immediately fled to the nearest bathroom to cry it out. 

When I was ugly-crying and nearly getting an instant headache from the stress that tightened the muscles in my shoulders, Jesus met me. He gave me a safe space to tell Him how furious I was and frustrated that someone could be so oblivious and uncaring about my pain. The hurt I was feeling was magnified by his total ignorance and selfish response. I let it all out internally. Then, it suddenly became clear to me that this was a new part of the Cross He was allowing me brief access to in my heart. I saw people standing around the Cross, walking by, scoffing and laughing at His pain. My pain was His pain. Then, I realized, this pain I was feeling also told the story of His mission: to come and save the ones who had rejected and paid no attention to His Father. I wasn’t alone. He knew how it felt, and magnified to a greater extent than my heart could ever fathom.

And today’s first reading shows us this agony: how relationships can change as people change, and even those who were once nurtured closely in our arms can grow to forget that it was those arms who had fostered them into the life they know now. It is the tragedy of lost souls: not knowing Who they are rejecting. And, being a parent now to a growing toddler, with the efforts of caring for an infant still fresh in my mind, it is extremely difficult thinking about what it would be like if my beautiful, kind son grows up to reject and forget about me. How there would be this anger and immense sadness at the same time, and yet, a tether in my heart to always care for him no matter how much he rejects me. 

The subtitles of these sections in Hosea say it all: “The disappointment of a parent,” and “But love is stronger and restores.” Love is stronger. Love is always stronger than hate, rejection, ignorance, bitterness, betrayal. That is a truth children of good parents know in their bones, but a truth that is learned and given in a whole new way after becoming a parent. And being a parent is to know the double-edged nature of love as we grow along with our children, who’s capacity to embrace or reject you is always increasing. This giant well of love suddenly unearthed in your heart might be tested by a child who wants no part of it, the part of what makes you you, the part of you that is “mother” or “father” indefinitely. It is a harrowing possible reality for new parents to grapple with, and some parents to live through: how do you love your child who puts themselves in danger when they reject your protection?

This is why we must ask for the grace to understand our identities as “daughter” or “son.” And the best response to a deep knowledge and understanding of our identities as children of God is to give as we have been given. “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” Children can never earn the exceeding amount of effort it takes to care for them, it is given out of love. So, with this in mind, we should also give this love freely and unconditionally to others, no matter how much the cost. 

Lord Jesus, I pray we all would grow to understand the deep familial bonds that draw us together on Your Cross: 

We are Your lost children, we are Your redeemed prize. 

May we grow in felt appreciation for how we are connected by Your Blood and Body. 

And I pray especially for all of the prodigal children who are still away from their Home, that they would remember the eyes of their Father, Who longs to embrace them again. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa