Did you know that some people miss Heaven by 18 inches?
That distance, 18 inches, is the average distance between the human head and the human heart. When we don't allow our faith to make that final journey of a foot and a half, to spill over from our minds into our hearts, we miss the Kingdom of Heaven—we miss the reality that “God has visited his people” and that He continues to visit his people in the real, concrete acts of love that we do for to one another.
In our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus opening his heart to the widow of Nain. Like most of the Lord’s miracles, it is not motivated by any need to demonstrate His power. It was not intended to illustrate any doctrine. On the contrary, it was completely gratuitous—flowing solely from the compassion of His Sacred Heart.
Jesus knew all too well the depths of this woman’s sorrow: in her society, the death of her only son meant that this widow was now cut off from her means of support. After giving her life for her family, she was now destitute. Her tears were not only tears of grief for her son, but also an outpouring of sorrow and fear: what would become of her?
In our translation, it says that upon seeing her that the Lord “moved with pity for her.” Other translations render this as “has compassion for her.” But the original Greek word, esplagknisthe, has a greater depth than this: the feeling is not in His head, but in his splagknon, His gut. Seeing her weep is literally gut-wrenching for Him! This call and response, this outpouring of deep passion and compassion becomes the fertile ground for the miracle to take place. The widow touches the heart of Christ and it is from His heart that the power of Heaven flows out to raise up her son.
This beautiful Gospel passage illustrates clearly the great love and mercy of our God, a God who sees into our hearts and responds to our needs. Yet it also poses a question to all of us as His disciples:
Does the same kind of compassion we see in Christ flow from our hearts as well? Do we allow the suffering of those around us to penetrate to the core of who we are?
When we look at the suffering in the world, it is so easy and so tempting to allow it to remain in our heads—to see things in terms of categories and not people. How much easier it is to talk about welfare and entitlements than to look into the eyes of children who don't have enough to eat! How much easier to talk about crime rates than to sit with a prisoner! How much simpler and less painful it is to talk about abortion laws than to reach out to a young, unwed mother in her doubt and confusion!
Things are clear and easy when we keep our distance from reality and retreat into a world of ideas and ideologies. We are bombarded by the ‘wisdom’ of this world, flowing in a never-ending stream from our favorite news programs, political pundits and talk-radio hosts. We participate in a kind of institutionalized gossip about the world’s problems and we find there only frustration and even despair. We wring our hands and shake our heads muttering: “What is the world coming to?” We build up our pessimism and our cynicism. We miss the Kingdom of Heaven. We miss our true calling.
Like St. Paul in our second reading, we are not called to proclaim human wisdom, but to proclaim the Gospel revealed in Jesus Christ—a Gospel that is revealed not so much in words as in actions. Like Paul, we may have spent our lives forming our ideas about the world according to the prevailing ideologies of our time and culture. Yet a profound encounter with Jesus allowed him to abandon all of it as so much trash. We, too, can find a profound encounter with Jesus by stepping into the midst of the world’s problems in a concrete way and becoming instruments of love for those who suffer.
The wisdom of this world will never bring us the peace, the salvation for which we long. Only the love of God can do that! Thanks be to God that His love for us did not remain merely an idea, but took on flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin and submitted to the Cross in the ultimate act of selfless offering! We who have been baptized into that sacrifice are called to do likewise: to allow God’s mercy to take on flesh in our actions and, in so doing, to encounter Christ Himself.
If we each do this...if we each commit ourselves to becoming the source of Christ's love for our neighbors, especially for those most marginalized, we will find that real solutions to the problems of poverty, crime, abortion and a host of other evils become more and more clear. If the more than 77 million other Catholic Christians in the United States made the same commitment, then our country and out world would be transformed.
This is the essence of the New Evangelization to which the Church has called all of us: to allow Christ to transform others and to transform the world through our service to the Gospel—to really put the Gospel into action in our lives. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has demonstrated so clearly over the past few months the power of action in proclaiming Jesus to the world. But we will only be able to follow him in this great mission if we first allow ourselves to care and care deeply, as Jesus does.
We must ask the Lord to empty us of the cynicism that stands in the way of opening our hearts fully! When we do this, we will discover the Lord working through us—bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to birth through us. We will discover that even amid the brokenness of this world, that Heaven itself is present...here and now. We will discover that Heaven was only 18 inches away all along. May God grant us the grace not to miss it. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.