4th Sunday in Lent (B)
Between the Living and the Dead
Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23; Psalm 136:1-6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with the 1999 film entitled The Sixth Sense? It stars Haley Joel Osment as Cole, a boy who is troubled by a secret ability. He sees dead people. Not dead bodies in hospitals, or mortuaries, or coffins. But dead people, who continue to walk around as though they were still alive. Dead people, who don’t know that they are dead. Dead people, like the teenage girl who keeps showing up and vomiting, because she was poisoned by her mother. Or the boy who walks around with a bloody hole in the back of his head, where his father shot him, before committing suicide. Dead people, who terrify and torment poor Cole, because they insist on talking to him, and telling him their stories.
Only later does Cole gradually come to realise that these dead people actually need his help. All of them are trapped by something in their past. Some unfinished business that prevents them from moving on. And it’s only when Cole summons up the courage to listen to their stories, that he is somehow able to help them to find release. To find freedom.
Dead people, walking around like regular people. Dead people who don’t know that they’re already dead. I know. Sounds pretty far-fetched doesn’t it? Sounds like what you’d find only in a horror movie, but not in real life. And yet, isn’t there something similar in our scripture readings today?
In our first reading, for example, don’t we find a description of a nation that only appears to be alive, but is, in fact, already dead? For the people of Israel, their worship in the Jerusalem Temple and their occupation of the land in Palestine were central to their identity as a people. But the Babylonians had destroyed the Temple, demolished the walls of Jerusalem, and deported Israel to Babylon. So that although the people continued to live on as individuals in exile, they were dead as a nation. They were dead people, who continued to walk around in a foreign land as though they were still alive.
But that’s not all. Even before this political dying had overtaken them, the people had already been suffering from another, even more serious, form of death. Again, the reading describes this quite vividly. Even before the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, the people themselves had desecrated it with various idolatrous practices that they had copied from those living around them. Not only had they defiled God’s house by worshipping other gods within its precincts, they also refused to listen to the prophets that God had sent to persuade them to change their ways. So that, before dying politically, at the hands of the Babylonians, the people of Israel had already inflicted upon themselves a spiritual death. Even while they were still living in their own land in Palestine, they were already in spiritual exile. Trapped in the darkness of their idolatry. They were dead people, who continued to walk around like the living. Dead people, who just didn’t know that they were already dead.
And, like the dead people in the movie, Israel could do nothing to help herself. She needed a saviour. Someone who was willing and able to release her, to help her to find freedom. In the first reading, God raises up the Persian king, Cyrus, to fulfil this role. Upon coming to power, Cyrus releases the exiles and encourages them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. Through Cyrus, the trapped find release. The dead begin to come to life.
We find a similar pattern in the other two readings as well. As it turns out, it is not just the ancient people of Israel who were dead. It is the whole human race. It is all of us. You and I. As the second reading tells us, we were dead through our sins. We may have continued to walk around as though we were alive. But we were, in fact, already dead. We were trapped in our selfishness. Our lives revolving only around our own narrow concerns and interests. Unable to find release. Like the exiled Israelites of the first reading, we needed a saviour. Cyrus was raised up for them. Jesus was sent for us. He was lifted up on the wood of the Cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Which is why we observe this great season of Lent. To prepare ourselves to renew our baptismal promises. The promises by which we die to our sins, and are raised to life in Christ. To prepare ourselves to be sprinkled once again with the healing waters flowing from the pierced side of the Crucified Christ. We spend this precious time recalling what it’s like to be dead people. To be walking around as though we were alive when, in fact, we are already dead. We spend this time reminding ourselves of how easy it is to be dead and not even know it. So easy to act as though our lives were filled to overflowing with so many different things. So many items of business. Even apparently pious business. And yet still feel so strangely empty and restless. So busy. And yet so lifeless.
Sadly, isn’t this what we see around us all too often? People who may appear, externally, to be in the pink of health and wealth. Beautiful, well-dressed, well-to-do people. But, whose actions often make it clear that they are really already dead. That, for various reasons and in different ways, they have been conditioned to care for nothing and no one other than what’s in it for me, myself, and mine. Isn’t it also true that even marriages and families, careers and even religious vocations like mine can become this way as well? Only going through the motions of life. But actually already quite dead. Dead people, who just don’t know yet that they are already dead. Dead people who can’t help themselves. Dead people in dire need of someone to help them.
All of which should give greater impetus to our Lenten discipline. For we Christians undergo the rigours of Lent not just for ourselves. We prepare to renew our baptismal promises not just so that we can enjoy eternal life ourselves. We do so, also because we know that the light of Christ is given not just to us, but also through us to others. Like the boy Cole in The Sixth Sense, we too are somehow gifted with the ability to see dead people, but only so that we can help them to find release. To help them to encounter the Crucified and Risen Christ, the God-given saviour, in whom is to be found the fullness of life.
Sisters and brothers, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, do you see any dead people around you, people who need your help today?