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Jesus in today’s Gospel meets a funeral procession coming out of the gates of the town of Nain. Unlike when he raised Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5) or Lazarus (John 11), no one requests his assistance. Moved by compassion for the widow who had lost her only son, Jesus steps forward and, laying his hand on the bier, commands him to arise.
The onlookers were reminded of the story of Elijah in the first reading who raised the dead child of the widow of Zarephath and “gave him [back] to his mother.” They proclaimed that “a great prophet has arisen in our midst.”
Jesus of course is more than a prophet; he is the ruler over life and death. In the Mosaic law, contact with a dead body renders an Israelite unclean for a week (Numbers 19:11-19). Jesus’ touch and word reverses that; instead of being defiled by contact with death, he gave life.
Like the physical healings that he performed, Jesus’ raising people from the dead is a sign of the Messiah’s arrival (Luke 7:22). But it is more than that; these healings are visible signs of the awakening and liberating of men from the spiritual death caused by sin (see Mark 2:1-12).
The Church Fathers return to this theme again and again. St. Ambrose writes, “the widow signifies Mother Church, weeping for those who are dead in sin and carried beyond the safety of her gates. The multitudes looking on will praise the Lord when sinners rise again from death and are restored to their mother.”
When we are dead in sin, it is the outstretched hand and the words of Christ spoken by his priest, that raise us from spiritual death and restore us to the arms of our mother, the Church. With the Psalmist, then, we can sing “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me. You brought me up from the nether world; you preserved me from those going down into the pit.