• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

A Meditation on Compassion

“When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her.”

What is this compassion that God has for us? Our scriptures and hymns often talk about the virtues the God, His goodness, mercy, justice, and so much more. But among them all, do we ever stop to marvel over God’s compassion; to simply meditate a little on what the nature of this compassion is and its presence in our life?

Our Gospel today brings us to a city called Nain, where we’re given a glimpse into this compassion of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ and His disciples have been traveling for some days now, and are just outside the gates of the city, when they across a funeral procession. The crowd of men and women, all grieving together, is gathered around the bier of a dead boy, making their way to a graveyard.

In those times, funeral processions were a common part of life and were shared by everyone in town. I remember once, when I was passing through a village in Greece, when I turned around on the street see a crowd walking towards me. Sure enough, someone’s brother, or father, or uncle had passed away, and the entire community had joined in the procession, escorting their departed to the grave. The priest and altar boys lead in the front, behind them was the casket, and then the cantors and all the people. As they passed each shop the cashiers closed their stores, ran outdoors and took off their hats. Even they, in their own way, joined the procession and paid homage to the dead. These villagers knew, as the Jews did in the time of Christ, that death is a part of life and is shared by us all.

When our Lord met the procession outside of Nain, He would have seen a sight not too different from this, except for one difference. For the Greek Christians, the procession had a sweetness in it mixed with their sorrow. Their loved one had gone to sleep, but with the promise and hope of the Resurrection. But for the Jews, death lacked this joy and hope. Though many Jews believed in a kind of Resurrection, for them it was more vague and distant than it is for us. Before Christ had completed His work on earth, death had a tighter grip on mankind. The Old Testament talks about a place called Sheol, which swallowed up the dead into a kind of shadowy and mournful existence. Job 7:9 states, “When a cloud vanishes, it is gone, So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.” And the Prophet Isaiah mourns, “Sheol cannot thank you [God], Death cannot praise you; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.” And so, with this bleak picture of death in the Jewish world, the crowd hung their heads and walked to the grave with a cloud following them.

But to add to this weight, was the fact that the person who had died was a young man, and the sole support of a widow. In those times, a widow’s only chance of comfort in life was that her sons would take care of her. But this widow, whose only son lay on the bier, saw herself as truly cursed.

What they didn’t know, as they walked down that road, through the city’s gates, was that they would encounter Jesus Christ.

All of us have wondered, at times of grief, where God comes in it all.

When our Lord looked at the mourning widow, He didn’t see just one individual who stood among the rest for having lost something dear to her. He saw all of us. Like the widow, each and every one has experienced death of a kind. When we’re suffering, we often feel alone, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. We all know death, in fact, and taste it daily, whether in a relationship, in our own health, in the loss of a job or family member, or perhaps the loss of hope and purpose. Death is as much a part of life as breathing. This does not trivialize it in any way. It only goes to show how real it is, and that none of us are alone.

But where does God come in it all?

We’ve dwelled on this subject before, and seen how God loves us even in the midst of our pain and sadness. But in every scripture something stands out from the others, and sheds a new layer of light on the mysteries of God. Here, at this scene of mourning, St. Luke turns to Jesus and tells us what he sees.

“When the Lord saw her,” he writes, “He had compassion on her.”

But the word for compassion that’s used here has a very specific meaning in Greek: ἐσπλαγχνίσθη. It stems from the word σπλαγχα which quite literally means the body’s entrails and organs, including the heart, lungs, kidney and the sum of a person’s physical body. Another translation of σπλαγχα might suggest, ‘the bowels.’ We’ve all gone through an event that moved us in this gut way, whether a young love gave us butterflies in our stomach, or a deep loss caused our gut to clench up, so that we couldn’t eat until the emotion had passed. This is the depth of compassion that’s implied in the word ἐσπλαγχνίσθη.

When our God met the widow, He wasn’t moved in a merely spiritual way. He didn’t look at her as a philosopher might, speculating about the consequences of sin or the universal theme of suffering. Neither did He look at her as some distant God would, considering her pain to be trivial in light of the rest of humanity. For besides, what is one small woman to all the cosmic problems in the world? But, this isn’t our God. Here, on the road to the graveyard, when Christ met a person in grief, her suffering moved Him on a gut level. His entire soul and body, entrails and all, shared her grief. This is the truest kind of empathy.

This is compassion.

In times of need, when we’re on our knees before an icon of Christ, we should remember the way He looked at this widow – not with indifference, not in some lofty, spiritual fashion, but with the love and compassion that a mother knows for her baby, and the sensitivity that a lover has for his beloved.

This is the kind of God that we’re spending time with, and this is the level of relationship that He’s willing to share with us, if we are willing to accept Him.

Moreover, this story of Christ and the widow reminds us how we too ought to live.

In St. Peter’s first epistle, chapter 3, verse 8, he beseeches us: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded and sympathetic, love as brothers, be tender-hearted and humble.” Here, the word ‘tender-hearted’ is the same Greek word that we saw in Jesus’ compassion: εὔσπλαγχνοι – gut-level sympathy; to be moved in one’s bowels.

It’s here that the world’s ethics falls so far from God’s ethics. It isn’t enough to just be kind to your neighbor. In fact, Christianity has very little to do with kindness. Neither is it enough to tolerate one another, or to get along in a friendly fashion. The scriptures don’t even suggest that we ought to like one another. Rather, they call us to love one another with this same kind of gut-feeling that Jesus Christ has.

But, realistically, what is St. Peter expecting from us? We can’t force ourselves to love others in this way. But we can invite God into our hearts, day after day, and allow His gut-compassion to start sinking into us. As John points out in his first epistle, "We love because he loved us first." When we’re struggling to love someone, the only thing we can do is to run to the Grace of God, for His love is contagious, and slowly warms the heart. We learn to love by accepting His love to us. This is the school of compassion.

To take one final glance, at this scene on the road where Christ meets the widow, we’re given a vision of how to look at another human being. Before feeling compassion for her, the scripture says, “He saw her.” He didn’t just notice her, as one more passerby or just another widow. Sometimes we can spend an entire day with people, but never really see anyone. But Christ saw her truly, as a person to a person, and this is the way we must learn to look at one another – to stop, and see the world with Christian optics, to see one another in Christ.

“When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her.”

May God inspire us to see one another, person to person, and nurture in our hearts his heavenly compassion.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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Wichita Falls, TX, 76309