21 September 2017

What happened when… the funeral was stopped?

Peter couldn’t sleep! The happenings of the previous few days were messing with his mind, as Jesus’ words tumbled around in his head! He had never heard anything like it before. We are to be salt and light, Jesus had said. What fisherman didn’t know the importance of salt, Peter thought as he pulled the coarse blanket over his shoulders. Storing a catch in containers of salt kept the fish clean, preserving it and preventing it from spoiling before it could reach the marketplace or feed his family. That was one illustration the fisherman understood… up to a point.

“But how can we be light?” he muttered, more loudly than he realised, his wife groaning as she turned towards the wall.

The light from the little oil lamp nestling in the crevice above him had long since gone out. Glancing in its direction Peter wished he could understand more of what Jesus meant. Light dispels the darkness of the night, but what darkness was Jesus alluding to? Maybe the darkness of the Roman occupation… or could He be speaking of the darkness of men’s hearts?

“How can I do anything about that?”

“About what?” Peter’s wife mumbled.

“Nothing – it’s okay – I’ll ask Jesus tomorrow.”

Soon the sound of the rhythmical breathing next to him was overtaken by snoring, echoing along the passageways of Peter’s home. Every corner of the house was being used that night, leaving barely enough room to bring the goats and donkey inside. James, John and Matthew had reluctantly headed for their own houses in the busy border town of Capernaum, but Jesus was staying with Peter, along with the other new followers whom Jesus had called to be with Him.

“Apostles.”

Peter mused over the title given to the ‘chosen’ twelve, wondering why Jesus had chosen them from the many disciples now following Him everywhere. There were definitely men cleverer than he that Jesus could have called. Peter was no man of words… well, not learned words anyway! Words usually got him into trouble. Fish were more his business, and as he tried to sleep he was surprised that a carpenter from the countryside had caught his heart… hook, line and sinker!

The smell of drying figs carried on the warm night breeze filtered down from the roof, briefly diverting the fisherman’s thoughts to his more earthly needs. Morning couldn’t come quickly enough!

***

Twenty-five miles away someone else was having a sleepless night. Collapsed in a heap on the dirt floor of her little home the woman raised her arms heavenward, filling her lungs to expel the wail of all wails! This was not merely the announcement to her neighbours that death had visited her home yet again; it was the genuine cry of anguish from a mother’s broken heart.

“My son! My son!” she wept, not knowing how she herself would take another breath. Longing that she could go with him; distressed that he would have to face death’s ‘underworld’ alone.

As she swayed with the enormity of her grief, the body of her precious son lay lifeless on the mat where earlier that night he had closed his eyes in sleep. She had tried so hard to keep him with her, but each of the preceding days had rendered him weaker than the one before. Not long ago he had been muscular and strong: she could still hear his laughter as it had filled that simple room, and filled her heart. Until now he had provided her with the hope she thought was gone when the man she loved had died. She had dressed in black since that awful day when the sound of wailing rang through the streets of Nain announcing her husband’s untimely death. Back then it was her son who had given her a reason to go on.

While he lived, love would continue to bless her life; food would continue to find its way to their table… and, as all mothers in Israel longed for, she had dared to believe that the family name would live on – one day.

How would she survive now?

Another’s voice broke through the sound of her weeping, calling her name. Sympathetic hands lifted her to her feet, as she heard the noise of water sloshing around in a basin.

“That’s my job,” she said, forcing the words through trembling lips. Taking the cloth from the hands of a friend she bent forward to wipe the body of the child of her womb. His lanky limbs and broadening shoulders presented him as no longer the little boy she would always remember. Manhood, it seemed, had arrived without her noticing… until now.

“Quickly,” her friend said, moving her aside, “soon the mourners will arrive. We need to have him ready.”

The flurry of people working around her made the widow’s head spin. Deep in her mother’s heart she resented that everything had to be done in such haste. Before the next night would come her darling son would be laid in the tomb. A shelf in a cave outside the city would play host to his handsome body until his bones were able to join those of his father in the ossuary.

Surely, this cannot be all there is – to end as a pile of bones in a small stone box? As her son was dressed in a clean tunic and loosely wrapped in a linen cloth, the widow longed for an answer to the questions of her heart.

Was her son to wander as a ‘shade’ in the underworld, just like his father? The Sadducees said there was only hope in this life, but what if they were wrong? Perhaps the Pharisees were right! Maybe there was life after death. Didn’t it say in the prophecy of Daniel that “many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake”. She couldn’t remember the rest. Oh how she wished she could remember!

But she was only a woman… worse still – a widowed woman. Who would care about her grief after the last musician was paid and the wailing left for her to do alone? At least she was thankful that she still had her husband’s wicker bier and a few coins left to pay for the loudest mourners she could afford. She had to ensure that her son’s ‘shade’ would hear how much she loved him… how much he would be missed.

And the sun dared to shine in Nain that morning. But it couldn’t reach the dark places of one mother’s heart.

***

Peter was finding it hard to keep up with Jesus. His sleepless night was catching up with him, added to which Jesus hadn’t allowed much time for breakfast! They were heading south, and turning inland; away from the lake they soon lost the cooling breeze. It was hot! With each mile that passed the journey became physically uncomfortable, but every step was worth it, because as he walked, Jesus talked. And Peter wasn’t the only one with questions!

By late afternoon a large crowd was in tow. The atmosphere was happy… exhilarating in fact. Peter knew that some of their travelling companions were just tagging along hoping to see a miracle. Secretly he wondered himself, what Jesus might do. He had already seen people healed of dreadful diseases… including his own mother-inlaw!

Yet never in all his wild imaginings could Peter have been prepared for what happened next.

Peter recognized the road they were on. However, his earlier good humour was threatened by a piercing noise, akin to the sound of jackals. But Peter knew it wasn’t jackals… it was a funeral… and the procession was coming through the same city gate they were approaching. Realising that it was probably heading for the cemetery they had just passed on the road to Endor, he sighed. This would hold them up. Tradition demanded that all who met a funeral must accompany it to the burial place.

In a matter of seconds the two large crowds met… one, a crowd of joy… the other of sadness. Leading the procession, wrapped in the black of previous sorrow, walked a lone woman. Two flutes played, while what seemed like a whole city wailed for the widow’s great loss of her only son.

Hopelessness dropped its shroud over both crowds.

It’s too late for miracles, Peter thought. Death was master here.

“Don’t weep!” Jesus suddenly said to the grieving mother, his eyes portraying a depth of compassion missing from those who accompanied her.

And those few words stopped the funeral!

Peter couldn’t speak! Neither could the rest of the startled crowd.

The coffin-bearers were transfixed as Jesus, the Rabbi, reached forward to touch the open coffin. Unconcerned with its defilement, His interest lay only in the sorrow it held.

“Young man, I say to you, arise,” He continued with authority.

The crowd held their collective breath while death was put in its place… for Jesus was the true master here!

Then, he who was dead sat up and began to speak!

And as Jesus gave her back her son alive and well, the widow would never again wonder if there was life after death, because she had met the One who had power over both!

Catherine Campbell