I love to find details in the Gospel not often noticed, and ponder whether they are in fact deeply significant. I share my thoughts with you, dear readers, to encourage you to read the Gospels habitually, to encounter the Lord there.
“Ask the Lord for the strength to turn off the television and open the Bible, to turn off our cellphone and open the Gospel,” Pope Francis recently taught.
A detail that leapt out to me last week was in the Gospel for the memorial of St. Monica (August 27), when Jesus raises from the dead the only son of the widow from Naim. (Luke 7) The detail is this: after raising the young man, as a distinct act, Jesus gives him to his mother. Here is the passage in the Douay-Rheims translation:
And when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold a dead man was carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow: and a great multitude of the city was with her. Whom when the Lord had seen, being moved with mercy towards her, he said to her: Weep not. And he came near and touched the bier. And they that carried it, stood still. And he said: Young man, I say to thee, arise. And he that was dead, sat up, and begun to speak. And he gave him to his mother (dedit illum matri suae).
On the feast of St. Monica, we are to understand that this saint wept for her son as this widow did, and, through her prayers, the Lord restored St. Augustine to her, by bringing him to life in the Catholic faith.
The Church proposes this interpretation to us on the authority of St. Augustine. In book VI of Confessions, he describes how his mother had traveled across land and sea to be with him in Milan. Augustine had by then rejected Manicheanism, but was not yet a Catholic. Thus, Monica was still sorrowful and yet confident: “She was weeping for me as dead, but going to be restored to life by you, and on the bier of her thought she was carrying me out, so that you might say to the son of the widow: ‘Young man, I say to you arise’ and he would revive and begin to speak, and you would hand him over (traderes) to his mother.”
St. Augustine evidently agrees that the miracle is not complete until the Lord somehow confers the son upon the mother. It’s not enough to raise him to life; he must additionally, now living, be given to his mother. This makes sense, if the mother’s sorrow was the occasion of the Lord’s mercy.
But here’s my question; Does the Lord simply give the young man to the mother, or does he give him back to his mother?
You ask, what’s the difference? It’s this. If the Lord gives him back to the mother, He simply restores him to the state he was in before he had died. The mother had continued to have some kind of claim on him. And the young man is raised so that the mother can get him back.
But if in contrast the Lord, simply, gives him to his mother, then the young man, after he is raised, belongs to the Lord. All bets are off, so to speak, about whether the mother gets him “back.” The Lord might just as well have asked the son to follow him, as a disciple. And the Lord’s giving him to the mother is so to speak an extra gift to the woman, added on to the gift of new life for the son.
Well, that’s the detail I noticed. The Greek says, as the Vulgate and Douay-Rheims faithfully convey, that the Lord simply gave the son to the mother, not that he “gave him back.” By the way, the New American Bible and RSVCE preserve this construction faithfully. But strangely Knox added “gave him back.”
One wonders whether others raised from the dead by the Lord, or even beneficiaries of miracles, e.g., those who regained their sight, believed that as a result they belonged to Him – that he had “first dibs” on their lives going forward. The demoniac had to be told, for instance, to stay with his people and not follow the Lord. (Mark 5:19)
My question seems like a small point at first, but it’s not, because it bears upon how we understand our own lives as Christians, and the relationship between family claims and the Christian vocation.
After all, baptism is a death and resurrection. “This sacrament is called Baptism, after the central rite by which it is carried out: to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to ‘plunge’ or ‘immerse’; the ‘plunge’ into the water symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him, as ‘a new creature.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1214) After baptism, our lives and our bodies are not our own, but are the Lord’s.
No doubt it can be presumed that an infant, after baptism, is given to his parents by the Lord. And yet isn’t this gift only temporary, and in the manner of a fiduciary? The parents don’t really “get him back” – not in the way in which he was theirs by nature, although they receive him more fully in Christ.
And then I think of how John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio explained the vocation to marriage as a specification of baptism. It is fundamentally the Lord, it would seem, who gives husband to wife and wife to husband: “Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers.” (¶13)
In marriage and in our very lives, like the widow of Naim, we are dealing with direct and personal gifts from the Lord.
*Image: Resurrection of the Widow’s Son from Naim by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1569 [Stadtkirche, Wittenberg, Germany]