November is the month when we think about death. Not so much because it’s the month when World War One ended, although that has certainly helped focus people’s minds, but much more because we begin November by praying for all the Dead on All Souls Day; and so the custom has grown up of continuing to remember the dead right through this month. I remember as a boy (I wasn’t brought up as a Catholic) how I was taught that thinking about death like this was not healthy, and so I actually failed myself and my family when my mother died, by arranging not to have a big funeral and instead to send her body off for cremation with the tiniest of private ceremonies.
Since then I have seen, and indeed conducted, very many funerals and have discovered how wrong I was, and how important it is to have proper prayers and ceremonies when our loved one’s die. Death is often sad, but trying to hide the sadness, is actually no help at all to those who are grieving. And why? Because death is the one thing we humans cannot defeat. Modern medicine may delay it (indeed most Doctors sadly see death as a defeat) but in the end it comes to all of us, and then the only power to whom we can turn is Almighty God. I remember being shocked when I joined with a Black Pentecostal Pastor to conduct a funeral many years ago, and when the body had been lowered into the grave, he called out “Who will be next? Who will be next?” I was shocked, but then I realised he was right. Each of us needs to be prepared for death, for we never know when it will come, and then we will really understand our need for God.
Now what has all this got to do with the two stories of widows, that we heard today in our 1st Reading (1 Kings 17:10-16) and in our Gospel? (Mark 12:38-44) The answer is that in each case they are preparing for death and in doing so teach us a lesson about life. The first widow actually says that she is preparing to cook a last meal for herself and her son ,“And then we shall die.” The second has nothing left apart from the few coins that she gives to God. She is not a sweet and very generous old lady, she is a beggar woman who will soon die of starvation just like the first; and it is interesting in her case that Jesus does not help her. Why? Because he too is about to die on the cross.
For Christians the message is clear to see. We know that Jesus faced death, and that he alone defeated death; and so we know that the way to face death in every moment of our life, is to live our life in and with Jesus. For with Jesus, death is not the end, but becomes the way to eternal life, and that is why as Christians we’re called to live every day like that widow gathering sticks, for face to face with death, she does not turn in on herself. as she might have done, but shares her last meal with the Prophet Elijah.
I’m reminded of St Maximilian Kolbe, that Polish priest who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and there offered to take the place of a man who was about to be killed. It was in one sense a futile gesture, just like the widow offering a share in her last meal, and yet such actions in the face of death are what makes us fully human. To die that someone else might live is the most powerful act of love there is, and that’s why we do not just celebrate as Christians, the Resurrection of Jesus, but also celebrate his death, because in this sacrificial love God is most fully present, and where God is most fully present, we are most fully human.
Elijah the Prophet also says a word to the woman that Jesus will go on to use a lot, for he says “Do not be afraid.” This is such an important word for all of us, isn’t it. “Do not be afraid.” Of course we often will be afraid, certainly of dying if not of death, but I don’t think Jesus is telling us that it is wrong to be afraid, rather we are being told that when we are afraid, we must hear his voice and know he is with us.
The second widow, the one in the Gospel, has conquered her fear, presumably because of her trust in God. That is why she can give all her money to God, and then be content to die. Note how Jesus links this to the problem of having possessions, for the more we have the more afraid we seem to be of losing them. You remember the story Jesus tells of the rich man gathering more and more into his barns,(Luke 12:16-20 and God says to him “You Fool!” because, just when he is saying “I can eat, drink and be merry”, he dies; and all his attempts to be happy are destroyed. Our trust must be in Jesus, never in anything or anyone else, for with Jesus death is defeated, and need not be feared.