As the husband of a woman of Scottish descent—Kathy’s maiden name is Matheson, a Highland Clan whose ancestral seat is Eilean Donan Castle near Kyle of Lochalsh—I hesitate to venture an opinion about a Sunday entitled “Kirkin o’ the Tartans”. While I believe that it is important to celebrate all cultural traditions, my enthusiasm for scratchy plaid wool fabric would be greater around St. Andrew’s day (November 30) than in the early onset of Michigan summer. I once worked at a school where we observed a seemingly endless weekly parade of cultural heritage occasions, dressing up alternately in serapes, lederhosen, kilts, and yarmulkes. When a colleague asked me about my own heritage, I said it was a a mix of Irish and Norwegian. She asked, “And what are your cultural rituals?” I thought for a minute and said, “We drink, fight, and cry, usually in that order.” Luckily for me, some other ethnic groups are pretty practiced at that sort of thing, too.
As important as it is to celebrate our particular cultural heritages, though, we always must be careful to see that our own ethnic identities are part of a larger comprehensive fabric of human identity. Especially for those of us who are of European descent (and by that I mean us white people), it is vital that we remember that no one particular human identity is normative. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3.28] Scottish clans were as famous in their heyday for their territorial warfare against each other as they are now for their colorful kilts, bagpipes, and fuzzy sporrans. One of the Scots traditions I like best has it that when a person is ordained to the ministry in the Church of Scotland, he/she gives up their own clan tartan and takes on the clergy tartan. Symbolically, the cleric belongs to no one but to all clans and is thus free to move among and minister to all the various groups. At home I have a Matheson clan vest and a clergy tartan vest, (neither of which you will see until the fall) and both remind me of how my identity is tied both to my own family and to the wider human community. Our true identity has finally little to do with the accidents of our genetic heritage; it has everything to do with our status as people baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and the universal fellowship which gathers in his name.
We are now entering the season of the church year called “Ordinary Time”—the long stretch of Sundays between Pentecost and Advent—and the focus of our attention thus shifts from the faith about Jesus (his birth, his resurrection) to the faith of Jesus—what he actually did and taught during his Galilean ministry. The other seasons of the year recall big events in the Jesus story. This period of Ordinary Time gives us a chance to experience the historical Jesus as healer, teacher, companion, and table host.
Our Gospel today gives us a first glimpse into what spending this time with Jesus will be like by recounting Jesus’s visit to the widow of Nain and the restoring of her son to life. You and I tend to think of Jesus primarily as a teacher, but the earliest Christians understood him both as teacher and as healer. To them, the sayings of Jesus had authority because they were validated by his powerful acts of healing. Wherever Jesus goes, health, wholeness, life, and blessing seem to follow. This is what he means by proclaiming the “Kingdom of God”. In Jesus’s presence, there is a place or space or zone of what Jews would call in Hebrew, Shalom: peace, wellness, right relationship. In Jesus’s presence the blind see, the deaf hear, even the dead come back to life. This is what we encounter in this morning’s Gospel.
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”[Luke 7.13] Jesus approaches a town and sees a dead man being carried out through its gates. We learn that the man was the only son of a widow, and widows in Jesus’s day were at the bottom of the social ladder. They had no status, no money, no power. They were dependent on their children for whatever livelihood they could get. So it is no accident that Jesus has compassion on a widow who has lost her only son and thereby her means of living. He realizes how destitute she will now be. He acts toward her with empathy and compassion.
When we hear stories like this one (or like the corresponding story today in 1 Kings 17 about Elijah raising the son of the widow of Zarephath) our first tendency is to focus on the miracle. How did it work? Was the man really dead or in a coma? These are important questions, but I think the texts of both stories direct us not to the mechanics of the miracle but to the underlying human process. In both stories a prophet raises the son of a widow to new life. These stories are not primarily about resuscitation of the dead. These stories are about grief and about God’s helping us make our way through it.
Grief is a universal human experience. This past week I have been reading a new book of poems by the Canadian poet Anne Carson, who teaches Classics at the University of Michigan. The book is called "Nox" [Night], and it is an extended free-form elegy for her dead brother. The book begins with Carson’s own translation of the Roman poet Catullus’s great Latin elegy [Catullus 101] which is itself a lament for his own lost brother.* She placed the translation in a book which is more of a craft project than a volume. "Nox" is a collage of sorts, reproducing postcards and letters from her brother, photographs of her family, her own drawings. She made the book originally as a box, and the only way the publisher could reproduce that boxed collage of a poem was to print it on one big page that folds out accordion-style so that one can view all its contents simultaneously.
I heard Anne Carson interviewed on a radio book program last week, and she explained that she made this poem/box/book as a kind of “grief project”, a way of organizing her feelings so that “order can arise out of it.” Here is how she put it:
Because I think that the first experience for a long time of grief is that it’s chaos. There’s no map, you bump into it everywhere you go, it’s always seeping up through things. And the effort of making a book out of it is gradually a process of seeing what do I have here in the way of raw materials, how can I make it into a thing that’s got a beginning, middle, and end and will seem beautiful or pleasurable to somebody else to look at. And that takes you beyond the grief because you’re making something already that is ordered and that is to be given to somebody further.—Anne Carson, "Bookworm", May 20,2010
Now I’ll include the text of the poem in the printed version and on my blog, but I want this morning to talk about Carson’s project for three reasons. The first is that the depth of pain with which the Roman poet or his Canadian translator speaks gives us a glimpse into the reality of the loss experienced by the widows of Zarephath and Nain in today’s Bible readings. The deaths to which Jesus responds are real deaths. The women who grieve are real people, and they have feelings just as you and I have feelings. We are better at feeling our own pain than at imagining others’. One of the things that makes Jesus “Jesus” is that he experienced no boundary between other people’s suffering and his own.
Second, I share this with you because Anne Carson gives voice to that experience we all have of grief as chaos. “There’s no map, you bump into it everywhere you go, it’s always seeping up through things,” as she says. When my father died a decade ago I felt for a year or so the way I had when I quit smoking: disorganized, dazed, confused, disoriented. When someone we love dies a big part of us—shared experience, shared vocabulary—dies too. We not only lose them. We lose a large part of ourselves. The loss of that much life makes our mental and emotional world chaotic. Well-meaning people always tell you to move on and get over it, yet you still can’t make sense of life in the aftermath. This was the poet’s experience, it was my experience, it was the widows’ experience, and I am sure it has been or will be your experience.
And then there’s a third reason for us to share Catullus’s and Anne Carson’s way of engaging grief: in our Gospel this morning, Jesus goes right to the heart of a real woman’s pain. Approaching the town, he sees a man’s body being carried out followed by his grieving mother. Jesus has compassion on this woman, and I am convinced he goes to her because he knows what her grief feels like. He responds to her grief by giving this woman’s son back to her in a way he is uniquely empowered to do. The point of the story has to do with God’s compassion for our suffering. God in Christ knows what it is to suffer and to lose, and in Jesus’s response to the widow of Nain we see what God wants for all of us: our pain assuaged, our beloved dead restored to us. Jesus gives this woman her son and her self back. The promise of the Gospel is not that we will not suffer loss. The promise of the Gospel is that the One at the center of things knows our suffering and feels with us and wants to restore all that we have lost in new and abundant life.
We come now to gather with Jesus at his table. We are invited to this table not in spite of our losses but because of them. Try as we might, you and I cannot raise the dead. But we can be with each other in our grieving; we can help each other recover ourselves. As he does with the widow, the God we know in Jesus goes right to the heart of things. So, along with your tartans, bring your wounds and losses to this table, where they too can be held up into God’s healing light. No matter what clan or tribe you belong to, the greatest truth about you is that you matter to God—all of you, including your interior life matters to God--and that means God feels what you suffer at least as intensely as you do. If we are faithful in opening ourselves up to the divine compassion for us at the heart of the universe, we will see that all our tartans blend, finally, into one indivisible fabric of love. And wearing that universal garment, because we will have ourselves and our loved ones restored to us in hope, we will no longer feel the need to drink, fight, or even cry. Amen.
Translated by Anne Carson
Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this – what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials—
accept! soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.