Widows are the link between the Old Testament reading and the gospel today; the widow of Zarephath has her young son returned to her by the great prophet Elijah after he conducts a decidedly unusual healing ritual, and the widow of Nain gives thanks to God after Jesus restores her only son to her from the grasp of death. In both cases we see marvelous miracles of healing and resurrection which cause the witnesses to be struck with awe. In both cases we also see an only son being restored to life and given back to a grieving mother—could we find here a “type” or prophetic anticipation of what would transpire in Jesus’ own life in the near future?
In any case we certainly can find a deeper and perhaps subtler level of meaning in both of these stories which can give us serious food for reflection in our own lives, whether we are near a confrontation with death or are in the vigor of life. Both sons, that of the widow of Zarephath and that of the widow of Nain, were the only source of sustenance for their mothers. Without their husbands or their sons these two women were completely helpless; this is noted clearly in the gospel (Luke 7:12) and can be assumed from the language of the story of Elijah (see 1 Kings 17:9-17).
Thus Elijah, filled with the power of the Lord, not only restored to the widow of Zarephath her son but restored her to standing in the community, since without a man—even her son who was still a boy—she was bereft of such recognition and rights. Going further, Jesus does not simply assure the woman that her place in the community of Nain would remain the same as it was now that her son was alive again, he recognizes her own innate dignity, “he was moved with pity for her” and acts upon it, setting an example for all to follow.
The gospel of Luke is filled with such examples of Jesus extending empathy and help toward women in vulnerable positions, not only rescuing them from their predicaments but teaching us by his actions that they never should have been relegated to such positions in the first place. The widow of Nain is joined in this regard by the women mentioned in Luke 8:1-3, 21, 40-56; 11:27-28; 13:11-17; 24:10; and of course by Mary the mother of Jesus. We might ask ourselves if an encounter with Christ has ever had an effect on us far deeper and more subtle than what we may have perceived in the first place, revealing to us a vulnerability within ourselves that we try to hide or ignore, yet which comes under the healing and life-giving gaze of Jesus as much for us as for these two biblical widows.
As we reflect on the raising of the sons of the widows of Zarephath and Nain we thank God for his gift of healing in body, and for his healing our minds and spirits so that we can see and treasure all our sisters and brothers in the Lord as having equal dignity in the eyes of our heavenly Father. We further ask the grace to be able to bring our own deepest need for healing and our vulnerability into the renewing presence of Jesus, so that together with the crowds that thronged the streets of Nain we might rejoice and cry out: “God has visited his people”!
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.