Standing out from the crowd

Frances writes on the readings for next Sunday :- These readings are all about how the Good News of our salvation went out to the Gentiles, those non Jews who were pagans and became Christians. In our case it is the story of two feisty women; one clearly a pagan and most likely originally a worshipper of the Sidonian gods of Canaanite belief and the other a Galilean; in the view of Jews, impossibly contaminated by pagan ideas since they were not exiled in the 6th century BC along with the Southern ‘pure’ Jews, and of course we have the renegade Jew St Paul with his mission to the Galatians. In our reading of the Letter to the Galatians, (1:11-19) the product of the late 40’s AD, he recalls his own unpromising life story and the way in which God called him to faith in Jesus Christ. He does this because these Christians had, not unlike himself he felt, been led astray by Jewish insistence on full adoption of Judaism as a prelude to acceptance of the Christian faith. Paul had, of course, converted these pagan people during his early wanderings after his own conversion in what is loosely termed ‘Arabia’: territory stretching from the Persian Gulf up into Turkey. For him a Torah-free acceptance of the faith in Jesus was absolutely fundamental.

 

We have to remember that ancient paganism was all about ritual practices and carried with it no-personal-faith in the deity as we would know it. Worship was much more about social cohesion and the placating of touchy deities frequently associated with storms and the fertility of the soil and all life. Imagine therefore the dread and horror of the woman of Sidon in our reading from 1 Kings. (17:17-24) Here we find a widow who had given hospitality to a foreigner, one who did not follow her ancestral gods, and now it appears they have punished her by removing all hope for the future by depriving her of her son: her hope of future support in her dotage and grandchildren to carry on the family lineage and work their lands. Elijah himself could clearly see the difficulty he was in, indeed, it might have put his own life at risk again, as he had previously fled trouble after having caused a famine in Israel, and fled the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel his pagan queen. In our story, Elijah appears to perform some kind of process of resuscitation upon the young boy, bringing breath back into his lungs, so that it is this critical physical action which confirms the widow in her belief in the God of the Hebrews, given through Elijah who trusted in God to intervene, and saved more than one life that day.

 

In our Gospel (Luke 7:11-17) we meet a remarkably similar story, yet what is significant are the recorded details. Jesus is in southern Galilee, in a town called Nain, and encounters a funeral procession. This would have been a frequent even daily event in any town in the ancient world, ignorant as they were of microbiology, sources of infection, and deprived of proper medical care. What is intriguing here is the different responses of Elijah, apparently moved by fear for his own future, and that of Jesus, moved by compassion, or as the Greek has it, gut-wrenched at the sight of the corpse and the grieving mother. In this possible precursor of the Passion, he lives through, vicariously, what his own mother will endure. Here we see no body to body contact as with the prophet, for Jesus, Son of God and Lord of creation, simply calls a halt to the bier and touches it and commands the young man to get up. (St John, of course, has a similar motif for Lazarus). The dead are raised in both cases. The reaction of the onlookers is however very telling, for in 1 Kings the widow affirms her belief in the God of Elijah, whilst the reaction of the mourners of Nain is, not ‘awe’ as in the Jerusalem Bible, but rather ‘fear’. This man is  one to change history, and his action shakes the nation to its foundations. How acutely did old Simeon in the temple predict that this child would bring about the falling and rising of many in Israel, and be a sword for his own mother’s soul?

 

It appears then, that the call to the Judeo-Christian faith for the Gentiles is one which requires a certain feistiness, an odd-ball nature, a capacity to stand out from the crowd, from those who generally just go along with the way things are. This is quite difficult for us to grasp today, when so many are de facto Christians, simply through an act of history (rather like the pagans of former times). Yet my experience in preparing people for reception into the Catholic Church has led me to think that the converts I have had the privilege of preparing are still to be counted amongst the odd-ball and the feisty. For today, becoming a Christian in the UK is quite an act of defiance, quite a statement that one wants to be something other than the general, one wants to belong to an organization which stands for something, something which Popes like Pope Francis have made profoundly attractive. It is this ancient link with those extraordinary few right back in the origins of Christianity who stand as a witness and a welcome. We should pray for all new converts, attracted to the Church by the strange history of which they are becoming a part.

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