For whatever reason, the priest at the Mass I attended today left the feast out of the Liturgy of the Word. He did the prayers for Our Lady of Sorrows, but for the Gospel, instead of either option listed in my Missal (either John 19, at the foot of the Cross, or Luke 2, the prophecy of Simeon), he just did the Gospel for Tuesday of this week, Luke 7:11-16. He didn’t preach on it, but for me, it was a very happy coincidence.
The reading was the widow of Nain. “When he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, there was carried out one that was dead, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and many people of the city were with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, ‘Weep not.’ . . . And he said, ‘Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.’”
It is a splendid Gospel for Our Lady of Sorrows.
Jesus has compassion on the heart of the mother. The Greek word here for compassion is one of my favorites. It’s the word for how Jesus felt when he saw they were like sheep without a shepherd, and when he wanted to feed the hungry thousands. It’s the word for the lord in the parable who forgave his servant’s debt. And it’s the word for what motivates both the good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son. Nice.
Even better, it’s the verb form of the word in the Canticle of Zechariah when he says, “through the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”
But to really understand this word, we need one ugly use of it. When Peter is talking about replacing Judas at the beginning of Acts, he says, “Now this man obtained a field with the reward of his iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”
The word is splagchna, a delightfully splattery word for “guts.” The pleasant way to translate it might be “viscera,” which we use in English mostly as “visceral.” Something is “visceral” when you have an emotional reaction in your splagchna, your guts. It’s deeper down than your heart – more visceral. The liturgy is a bit too tender when it says “tender compassion.” The words are “the guts of his mercy,” the visceral gut-wrenching of his compassion.
Christ’s reaction to the widow of Nain – as his reaction to us, his wandering sheep – is gut-wrenching. He has a compassion that makes him sick. “I am sick with love,” says the Bride in the Song of Songs. It’s “langueo” in Latin: I languish, I’m dying.
The remarkable thing in the story of the widow of Nain is that she too is languishing with love. Christ has compassion on the gut-wrenching pain of the mother for her son. His heart is poured out for hers – just as his heart is poured out for Mary at the death of her son. Heart speaks to heart.
Now, as I hope becomes clear as we focus on the compassion of Christ, the mystery here is really more about love than sorrow. In our Italian parish, there seems to be a desire to portray Our Lady of Sorrows – she seems to be a favorite Italian image (I don’t know, I’m sure not Italian) – as overwhelmed with tears. As I’ve said before, I prefer the tradition that insists that Mary stands at the Cross: she is strong in her sorrow.
And she is strong for the same reason she is sorrowful: because of love. So too, the love of Jesus makes his guts churn, yes – but in a way that leads him to action: like the Good Samaritan (Jesus is the Good Samaritan) or the father who runs out to meet his son.
The point isn’t that they collapse in tears. The point is that they are overwhelmed with love.
The heart – understood in this visceral way – is the heart of our religion. Catholicism is profoundly personal. (We have ritual, in fact, to create the space for truly personal encounter with Christ.) The hearts of Jesus and Mary are essential to understanding who they are, and who we are meant to be.
Christ became flesh so that he could pour his heart out for us. We who are flesh receive the love of God in our hearts to make them fleshy hearts, so that we will pour out our hearts for him. Heart speaks to heart, splagchna to splagchna.
The first reading for today, it just so happened, was from Paul’s instruction on bishops, deacons, and their wives. The place of the women here is a little awkward: their behavior matters (especially at a time when many bishops and deacons, the text makes obviously, were married). But they are not in charge.
Ah, but there’s the point. Our religion has nothing to do with being in charge. Jesus is moved with compassion for the widow of Nain not because she is in charge, but because she loves, and he loves. That love is everything.
That is the true lesson of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross.
Where do you experience the viscera of Jesus and Mary? What moves your splagchna to mercy?