Spirituality of the Readings
Our readings for the Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time are about wombs and widows and raising from the dead. And this means they have raised the crucial question of death.
Often we do not get to celebrate this feast, but Easter was quite early this year, which gave the tenth Sunday a way to wedge itself in.*
The First Reading tells about a poor widow in Zarephath of Sidon whose only son has died. The Prophet Elijah happened to be staying at her house, so the widow promptly blamed him. “Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt and to kill my son?” Elijah immediately brought the son back to life.
In the Gospel, Jesus did a healing too. He was “moved with pity” for a widow, this time in the city of Nain, so he abruptly told her son’s corpse to rise. “The dead man sat up and began to speak.”
Finally, in the Second Reading,Paul the Apostle admits his own guilt in having persecuted Christians to death, but then talks about his birth into new life. He says that God “from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace.”
So, death. What are we to think when the fertile womb of mothers brings forth beloved lives, all of which end too soon, no matter when? Some of us have witnessed with our own eyes the death of people much treasured by us. Each of us will die too, as did the sons of these widows. Is this some kind of cruel joke? Isn’t death the end of everything, as contemporary unbelievers insist?
I want to give you a succinct reply by the great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. I hope you will read it with patience.
I remember my childhood when the sunrise,
like my play-fellow, would burst in to my bedside
with its daily surprise of morning;
when the faith in the marvelous
bloomed like fresh flowers in my heart every day,
looking into the face of the world in simple gladness;
when insects, birds and beasts, the common weeds,
grass and the clouds had their fullest value of wonder;
when the patter of rain at night brought dreams
from the fairyland, and mother's voice in the evening
gave meaning to the stars.
And then I think of death,
and the rise of the curtain
and the new morning
and my life awakened in its fresh surprise of love.**
Whenever I chance upon this poem I always worry that the intrusive line, “and then I think of death,” to reverse Tagore’s light but childish dreams. Death is the contradiction, isn’t it, the end of all that we have loved!
Then in a majestic and understated surprise, he gives us the real meaning of death and of life:
its “fresh surprise of love.”
In other words, being alive is the way we can wake in wonder to the tender caress of life, the love that softly surrounds everything that is (in spite of ISIS and all other forms of greediness) real trust that the gift of the “new morning” is awaiting us, no matter how dark the night might have been.
* Often Easter is late enough in the year so that the tenth Sunday goes uncelebrated in favor of the Easter Season, and Ascension, Trinity, and the Body and Blood of Christ. But with Easter coming early this year, we have extra time for our Tenth Sunday of Ordinary time.
Why does Easter occur on different dates each year? To make a long story short, in very old days, every date used to be governed by the phase of the moon. Liturgically the most important celebrations to change to the “new” way of determining time (by the sun) are saved in the old way (moon time), which traditionally we are loath to change. For instance, Easter. Easter’s date is still determined by moon time instead of sun time.
If you have an interest in ways of counting time, an abiding interest I mean, read Stephen Hawking’s small book, A Brief History of Time. You will not wonder again.
**Unfortunately many of Tagore's works have gone out of print, but here they are online.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University