Sunday, May 29, 2016

Concerning Widows

Both the reading from Hebrew scripture and the gospel reading for Proper 5C/Ordinary 10C center on women who are widows. The widows live in Zarephath (I Kings 17:8-24) and Nain (Luke 7:11-17) when they cross paths with someone sent by God. These two widows are both in need of the power of God. And both receive what they need.

The position of being in need is expressed in the words - Hebrew and Greek - that are used to describe these two women. The Hebrew word אַלְמָנָה (almanah) does not simply mean a woman whose husband has died. Rather it means a woman who was once married but who has no means of financial support. There is no use of the word in Ruth, for example, presuming that Naomi has some kind of financial support. Conversely the word is used in Lamentations 1;1 to describe the city of Jerusalem: How like a widow (almanah) she has become, she that was great among the nations! She lacks financial resources. Similarly, the Greek word χήρα (chera) is presumed to be a derivative from the same root as chasma, referring to deficiency - the widow lacks a husband. Both words indicate that those who are described by the word are in need. The good news is that God is going to supply their need.

Both women will get their sons back through the power of God. The story of widow of Zarephath, as depicted in the frescos of Dura Europos, is told episodically. At the left is the woman who holds out, presumably to Elijah, her limp, dead son. In the center panel, the prophet reclines on a couch and holds the child. At the right, mother and son are reunited, and their hand gestures echo one another. Note that the mother's dress has changed from the first episode to the last. Her dark clothing has been exchanged for light-colored clothing. The Dura Europos painting focuses on the people in the story rather than the setting. The hand of God reaches down between the prophet and the now-living child and the mother with her revived son on the right, reminding viewers that this miracle occurs because of God's doing.

By contrast, Lucas Cranach (the Younger) created a painting as much as the portrait of a town as the telling of the story from scripture. At the bottom of the painting are the mother and son and Jesus. A procession of women in black have followed the grieving mother and will bear witness to what Jesus does. Cranach has depicted the women with their mouths covered. They are similar to the figure of Katharina von Bora Luther (Martin Luther's widow). In the colored woodcut she wears a black cloak and carries a prayerbook. Across her mouth is a binding strip that is connected to her head covering. The (presumably linen) strip, which is similar to the ones worn by the widows in Cranach's painting, has been hypothesized to refer to the silence expected of widows (remember the parable of the importunate widow!) or the grief and lament of widows (the German term witwe - widow - having its origin in the word for lament or moan) or to symbolize the difficulty of widows in living lives of chastity, obedience and silence (because they had no husband to provide moral direction).

The Bible has much to say about widows. Neither of these two stories, however, spends time moralizing or criticizing. In both cases, God restores what is lacking, giving the two widows much surer footing as each went forward in life.

Top: Elijah Resuscitates the Son of the Widow of Zarephath. Fresco. 3rd century CE. Dura Europos, Syria. For additional information, see:  Middle: Lucas Cranach the Younger. Resurrectio of the Widow's Son from Nain. c, 1569. Altar panel, Stadtkirche, Wittenberg. For Stadtkirche Wittenberg, see: Bottom: Katharina von Bora in Widow's Weeds (Katharina von Bora in Witwentracht). 1546. Colored woodcut. 

See this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for a take on Mary, widowhood and the crucifixion. Click on the link below.

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