(St. Luke vii.11-17.)
THAT early spring-tide in Galilee was surely the truest realisation of the picture in the Song of Solomon, when earth clad herself in garments of beauty, and the air was melodious with songs of new life. It seemed as if each day marked a widening circle of deepest sympathy and largest power on the part of Jesus; as if each day also brought fresh surprise, new gladness; opened hitherto unthought-of possibilities, and pointed Israel far beyond the horizon of their narrow expectancy. Yesterday it was the sorrow of the heathen Centurion which woke an echo in the heart of the Supreme Commander of life and death; faith called out, owned, and placed on the high platform of Israel's worthies. To-day it is the same sorrow of a Jewish mother, which touches the heart of the Son of Mary, and appeals to where denial is unthinkable. In that Presence grief and death cannot continue. As the defilement of a heathen house could not attach to Him, Whose contact changed the Gentile stranger into a true Israelite, so could the touch of death not render unclean Him, Whose Presence vanquished and changed it into life. Jesus could not enter Nain, and its people pass Him to carry one dead to the burying.
For our present purpose it matters little, whether it was the very day after' the healing of the Centurion's servant, or shortly afterwards,' that Jesus left Capernaum for Nain. Probably it was the morrow of that miracle, and the fact that much people,' or rather a great multitude,' followed Him, seems confirmatory of it. The way was long - as we reckon, more than twenty-five miles; but, even if it was all taken on foot, there could be no difficulty in reaching Nain ere the evening, when so often funerals took place. Various roads lead to, and from Nain; that which stretches to the Lake of Galilee and up to Capernaum is quite distinctly marked. It is difficult to understand, how most of those who have visited the spot could imagine the place, where Christ met the funeral procession, to have been the rock-hewn tombs to the west of Nain and towards Nazareth. For, from Capernaum the Lord would not have come that way, but approach it from the north-east by Endor. Hence there can be little doubt, that Canon Tristram correctly identifies the now unfenced burying-ground, about ten minutes' walk to the east of Nain, as that whither, on that spring afternoon, they were carrying the widow's son. On the path leading to it the Lord of Life for the first time burst open the gates of death.
It is all desolate now. A few houses of mud and stone with low doorways, scattered among heaps of stones and traces of walls, is all that remains of what even these ruins show to have been once a city, with walls and gates. The rich gardens are no more, the fruit trees cut down, and there is a painful sense of desolation' about the place, as if the breath of judgment had swept over it. And yet even so we can understand its ancient name of Nain, the pleasant,' which the Rabbis regarded as fulfilling that part of the promise to Issachar: he saw the land that it was pleasant.' From the elevation on which the city stood we look northwards, across the wide plain, to wooded Tabor, and in the far distance to snow-capped Hermon. On the left (in the west) rise the hills beyond which Nazareth lies embosomed; to the right is Endor; southwards Shunem, and beyond it the Plain of Jezreel. By this path, from Endor, comes Jesus with His disciples and the great following multitude. Here, near by the city gate, on the road that leads eastwards to the old burying-ground, has this procession of the great multitude,' which accompanied the Prince of Life, met that other great multitude' that followed the dead to his burying. Which of the two shall give way to the other? We know what ancient Jewish usage would have demanded. For, of all the duties enjoined, none more strictly enforced by every consideration of humanity and piety, even by the example of God Himself, than that of comforting the mourners and showing respect to the dead by accompanying him to the burying. The popular idea, that the spirit of the dead hovered about the unburied remains, must have given intensity to such feelings.
Putting aside later superstitions, so little has changed in the Jewish rites and observances about the dead, that from Talmudic and even earlier sources, we can form a vivid conception of what had taken place in Nain. The watchful anxiety; the vain use of such means as were known, or within reach of the widow; the deepening care, the passionate longing of the mother to retain her one treasure, her sole earthly hope and stay; then the gradual fading out of the light, the farewell, the terrible burst of sorrow: all these would be common features in any such picture. But here we have, besides, the Jewish thoughts of death and after death; knowledge just sufficient to make afraid, but not to give firm consolation, which would make even the most pious Rabbi uncertain of his future; and then the desolate thoughts connected in the Jewish mind with childlessness. We can realise it all: how Jewish ingenuity and wisdom would resort to remedies real or magical; how the neighbours would come in with reverent step, feeling as if the very Shekhinah were unseen at the head of the pallet in that humble home; how they would whisper sayings about submission, which, when realisation of God's love is wanting, seem only to stir the heart to rebellion against absolute power; and how they would resort to the prayers of those who were deemed pious in Nain.
But all was in vain. And now the well-known blast of the horn has carried tidings, that once more the Angel of Death has done his dire behest. In passionate grief the mother has rent her upper garment. The last sad offices have been rendered to the dead. The body has been laid on the ground; hair and nails have been cut, and the body washed, anointed, and wrapped in the best the widow could procure; for, the ordinance which directed that the dead should be buried in wrappings' (Takhrikhin), or as they significantly called it, the provision for the journey' (Zevadatha), of the most inexpensive, linen, is of later date than our period. It is impossible to say, whether the later practice already prevailed, of covering the body with metal, glass, or salt, and laying it either upon earth or salt.
And now the mother was left Oneneth (moaning, lamenting) - a term which distinguished the mourning before from that after burial. She would sit on the floor, neither eat meat, nor drink wine. What scanty meal she would take, must be without prayer, in the house of a neighbour, or in another room, or at least with her back to the dead. Pious friends would render neighbourly offices, or busy themselves about the near funeral. If it was deemed duty for the poorest Jew, on the death of his wife, to provide at least two flutes and one mourning woman, we may feel sure that the widowed mother had not neglected what, however incongruous or difficult to procure, might be regarded as the last tokens of affection. In all likelihood the custom obtained even then, though in modified form, to have funeral orations at the grave. For, even if charity provided for an unknown wayfarer the simplest funeral, mourning-women would be hired to chaunt in weird strains the lament: Alas, the lion! alas. the hero!' or similar words, while great Rabbis were wont to bespeak for themselves a warm funeral oration' (Hesped, or Hespeda). For, from the funeral oration a man's fate in the other world might be inferred; and, indeed, the honour of a sage was in his funeral oration.' and in this sense the Talmud answers the question, whether a funeral oration is intended to honour the survivors or the dead.
But in all this painful pageantry there was nothing for the heart of the widow, bereft of her only child. We can follow in spirit the mournful procession, as it started from the desolate home. As it issued, chairs and couches were reversed, and laid low. Outside, the funeral orator, if such was employed, preceded the bier, proclaiming the good deeds of the dead. Immediately before the dead came the women, this being peculiar to Galilee, the Midrash giving this reason of it, that woman had introduced death into the world. The body was not, as afterwards in preference, carried in an ordinary coffin of wood (Aron), if possible, cedarwood - on one occassion, at least, made with holes beneath; but laid on a bier, or in an open coffin (Mittah). In former times a distinction had been made in these biers between rich and poor. The former were carried on the so-called Dargash - as it were, in state - while the poor were conveyed in a receptacle made of wickerwork (Kelibha or Kelikhah), having sometimes at the foot what was termed a horn,' to which the body was made fast. But this distinction between rich and poor was abolished by Rabbinic ordinance, and both alike, if carried on a bier, were laid in that made of wickerwork. Commonly, though not in later practice, the face of the dead body was uncovered. The body lay with its face turned up, and his hands folded on the breast. We may add, that when a person had died unmarried or childless, it was customary to put into the coffin something distinctive of them, such as pen and ink, or a key. Over the coffins of bride or bridegroom a baldachino was carried. Sometimes the coffin was garlanded with myrtle. In exceptional cases we read of the use of incense, and even of a kind of libation.
We cannot, then, be mistaken in supposing that the body of the widow's son was laid on the bed' (Mittah), or in the willow basket,' already described (Kelibha, from Kelubh). Nor can we doubt that the ends of handles were borne by friends and neighbours, different parties of bearers, all of them unshod, at frequent intervals relieving each other, so that as many as possible might share in the good work. During these pauses there was loud lamentation; but this custom was not observed in the burial of women. Behind the bier walked the relatives, friends, and then the sympathising multitude.' For it was deemed like mocking one's Creator not to follow the dead to his last resting-place, and to all such want of reverence Prov. xvii.5 was applied. If one were absolutely prevented from joining the procession, although for its sake all work, even study, should be interrupted, reverence should at least be shown by rising up before the dead. And so they would go on to what the Hebrews beautifully designated as the house of assembly' or meeting,' the hostelry,' the place of rest,' or of freedom,' the field of weepers,' the house of eternity,' or of life.'
We can now transport ourselves into that scene. Up from the city close by came this great multitude' that followed the dead, with lamentations, wild chaunts of mourning women, accompanied by flutes and the melancholy tinkle of cymbals, perhaps by trumpets, amidst expressions of general sympathy. Along the road from Endor streamed the great multitude which followed the Prince of Life.' Here they met: Life and Death. The connecting link between them was the deep sorrow of the widowed mother. He recognised her as she went before the bier, leading him to the grave whom she had brought into life. He recognised her, but she recognised Him not, had not even seen Him. She was still weeping; even after He had hastened a step or two in advance of His followers, quite close to her, she did not heed Him, and was still weeping. But, beholding her,' the Lord had compassion on her.' Those bitter, silent tears which blinded her eyes were strongest language of despair and utmost need, which never in vain appeals to His heart, Who has borne our sorrows. We remember, by way of contrast, the common formula used at funerals in Palestine, Weep with them, all ye who are bitter of heart!' It was not so that Jesus spoke to those around, nor to her, but characteristically: Be not weeping.' And what He said, that He wrought. He touched the bier - perhaps the very wicker basket in which the dead youth lay. He dreaded not the greatest of all defilements - that of contact with the dead, which Rabbinism, in its elaboration of the letter of the Law, had surrounded with endless terrors. His was other separation than of the Pharisees: not that of submission to ordinances, but of conquest of what made them necessary.
And as He touched the bier, they who bore it stood still. They could not have anticipated what would follow. But the awe of the coming wonder - as it were, the shadow of the opening gates of life, had fallen on them. One word of sovereign command, and he that was dead sat up, and began to speak.' Not of that world of which he had had brief glimpse. For, as one who suddenly passes from dream-vision to waking, in the abruptness of the transition, loses what he had seen, so he, who from that dazzling brightness was hurried back to the dim light to which his vision had been accustomed. It must have seemed to him, as if he woke from long sleep. Where was he now? who those around him? what this strange assemblage? and Who He, Whose Light and Life seemed to fall upon him?
And still was Jesus the link between the mother and the son, who had again found each other. And so, in the truest sense, He gave him to his mother.' Can any one doubt that mother and son henceforth owned, loved, and trusted Him as the true Messiah? If there was no moral motive for this miracle, outside Christ's sympathy with intense suffering and the bereavement of death, was there no moral result as the outcome of it? If mother and son had not called upon Him before the miracle, would they not henceforth and for ever call upon Him? And if there was, so to speak, inward necessity, that Life Incarnate should conquer death - symbolic and typic necessity of it also - was not everything here congruous to the central fact in this history? The simplicity and absence of all extravagant details; the Divine calmness and majesty on the part of the Christ, so different from the manner in which legend would have coloured the scene, even from the intense agitation which characterised the conduct of an Elijah, an Elisha, or a Peter, in somewhat similar circumstances; and, lastly, the beauteous harmony where all is in accord, from the first touch of compassion till when, forgetful of the bystanders, heedless of effect,' He gives the son back to his mother - are not all these worthy of the event, and evidential of the truth of the narrative?
But, after all, may we regard this history as real - and, if so, what are its lessons? On one point, at least, all serious critics are now agreed. It is impossible to ascribe it to exaggeration, or to explain it on natural grounds. The only alternative is to regard it either as true, or as designedly false. Be it, moreover, remembered, that not only one Gospel, but all, relate some story of raising the dead - whether that of this youth, of Jairus' daughter, or of Lazarus. They also all relate the Resurrection of the Christ, which really underlies those other miracles. But if this history of the raising of the young man is false, what motive can be suggested for its invention, for motive there must have been for it? Assuredly, it was no part of Jewish expectancy concerning the Messiah, that He would perform such a miracle. And negative criticism has admitted, that the differences between this history and the raising of the dead by Elijajh or Elisha are so numerous and great, that these narratives cannot be regarded as suggesting that of the raising of the young man of Nain. We ask again: Whence, then, this history, if it was not true? It is an ingenious historical suggestion - rather an admission by negative criticism - that so insignificant, and otherwise unknown, a place as Nain would not have been fixed upon as the site of this miracle, if some great event had not occurred there which made lasting impression on the mind of the Church. What was that event, and does not the reading of this record carry conviction of its truth? Legends have not been so written. Once more, the miracle is described as having taken place, not in the seclusion of a chamber, nor before a few interested witnesses, but in sight of the great multitude which had followed Jesus, and of that other great multitude which came from Cana. In this twofold great multitude was there none, from whom the enemies of Christianity could have wrung contradiction, if the narrative was false? Still further, the history is told with such circumstantiality of details, as to be inconsistent with the theory of a later invention. Lastly, no one will question, that belief in the reality of such raising from the dead' was a primal article in the faith of the primitive Church, for which - as a fact, not a possibility - all were ready to offer up their lives. Nor should we forget that, in one of the earliest apologies addressed to the Roman Emperor, Quadratus appealed to the fact, that, of those who had been healed or raised from the dead by Christ, some were still alive, and all were well known. On the other hand, the only real ground for rejecting this narrative is disbelief in the Miraculous, including, of course, rejection of the Christ as the Miracle of Miracles. But is it not vicious reasoning in a circle, as well as begging the question, to reject the Miraculous because we discredit the Miraculous? and does not such rejection involve much more of the incredible than faith itself?
And so, with all Christendom, we gladly take it, in simplicity of faith, as a true record by true men - all the more, that they who told it knew it to be so incredible, as not only to provoke scorn, but to expose them to the charge of cunningly devising fables. But they who believe, see in this history, how the Divine Conqueror, in His accidental meeting with Death, with mighty arm rolled back the tide, and how through the portals of heaven which He opened stole in upon our world the first beam of the new day. Yet another - in some sense lower, in another, practically higher - lesson do we learn. For, this meeting of the two processions outside the gate of Nain was accidental, yet not in the conventional sense. Neither the arrival of Jesus at that place and time, nor that of the funeral procession from Nain, nor their meeting, was either designed or else miraculous. Both happened in the natural course of natural events, but their concurrence (sunkura) was designed, and directly God-caused. In this God-caused, designed concurrence of events, in themselves ordinary and natural, lies the mystery of special Providences, which, to whomsoever they happen, he may and should regard them as miracles and answer to prayer. And this principle extends much farther: to the prayer for, and provision of, daily bread, nay, to mostly all things, so that, to those who have ears to hear, all things around speak in parables of the kingdom of Heaven.
But on those who saw this miracle at Nain fell the fear of the felt Divine Presence, and over their souls swept the hymn of Divine praise: fear, because God had visited His people. And further and wider spread the wave - over Judæa, and beyond it, until it washed, and broke in faint murmur against the prison-walls, within which the Baptist awaited his martyrdom. Was He then the Coming One?' and, if so, why did, or how could, those walls keep His messenger within grasp of the tyrant?