Seeing Dead People

6thsense

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Scrutiny 3)

“I see dead people.” I love that line in the movie “The Sixth Sense.” It’s not considered a horror film, even though dead people show up from time to time. It’s more a suspense film, making you wonder constantly what’s really going on, even occasionally startling you. But the best part of the film I think, aside from watching your friends jump, cower, and scream, is the surprise ending. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you go see it. I don’t think I’ve given anything away. But you shouldn’t watch it alone, not because you won’t be able to turn the lights off when you go to bed. Rather, the movie will give you a lot to think about long after it’s over. You might even want to watch it again just so you can figure it all out. But I’m sure you will want to talk to someone about it at some point. I would prefer you don’t call me. I was done talking about it 15 years ago. And there are online movie chat rooms for just that purpose.

But like in the movie, I am convinced I, too, can see dead people—no, not people who have passed into the great beyond and are physically no longer alive, but rather, people who are in fact breathing and talking and walking around. The difference is that they just seem to be missing out on a life of meaning and purpose. You’ve seen them around. You’ve met them. They do way too much. They’re always running everywhere. They’re always tired. They never get enough sleep. They very seldom get time to just sit and be quiet. And they often can’t remember the last time they were happy. In which case, you probably can see dead people yourselves. Or even worse, I just described you. So it’s really no gift to be able to see dead people. The real gift is to not be yourself one of them dead people. And if you realize you are in fact one of the dead, the gift would be the ability to return to life.

So arriving at this physical existence we call life is not truly a choice for any of us. We come into being pretty much without our consent. Physical life is pure gift. Yet at some point in early childhood, we arrive at a conscious awareness of who we are. We identify with a name, and we begin to refer to ourselves in the first person. We come to acknowledge our own physical reality, our attributes, our preferences. We can point to ourselves in a mirror, and recognize ourselves in photographs. We come to know our own abilities, our limitations, our inclinations, our potential. We are able to tell when we are unhappy, when we are content, when we are in pain, and when we are delirious with joy. But conscious awareness is just the first step toward living a life of meaning and purpose. The next step is being able to participate in it freely and willingly.

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“I see dead people.” What for you would be the most striking difference between those who are physically alive and those who are dead? The living are able to move, breathe, talk, eat, and interact with others. They can express emotions—happiness, sadness, fear, determination, frustration. In contrast, the dead just lie there. They don’t do anything. They express no opinions or preferences. They are neither happy nor sad. They have no power to improve their situation. They can no longer participate in life. They can’t tell you what they want. Not anymore.

The dead we encounter in scripture today are dead in a different sense. The prophet Ezekiel announced that God desires to raise the people of Israel from their graves, give them a share of his spirit, and settle them upon the land. Clearly, Ezekiel is referring to something other than physical death. If God is the source of all life, it seems Israel has been cut off from God and God’s life, and God would open their graves. This separation from God can come about through a number of ways, from the worship of false gods to a host of crimes and objectionable behaviors identified in the Law of the Lord as offensive to God—injustice, oppression, the taking of life, dishonesty, untruth, dishonoring one’s parents, adultery, bearing false witness, stealing, coveting what belongs to your neighbor—to name a few. So if these things can bring about death in some form, particularly in Israel’s relationship with God, the prophet suggests there is a way back from the dead, back to life, back to God.

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In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul refers to the kind of death that comes about when we hand ourselves over willingly and voluntarily to sin and the desires of the flesh. When we belong to Christ, we have left sin and the desires of the flesh behind. Those who belong to Christ possess his Spirit, and are no longer subject to sin. And if the Spirit of Christ dwells within us, we have access to the life of God. Ideally, that would be our reality because we have been baptized into Christ Jesus, and we have been given the Spirit of God to dwell in us. Yet while we live this present existence, we are in the flesh, and we will struggle. But to live God’s life means we choose to willing participate in it. It is a distinct quality of the living to not just lie there. For as long as we struggle, we can’t truly be dead.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly showed his power over sin and the kingdom of Satan, when he healed the sick, when he restored the broken to wholeness, and when he drove out demons. On only two other occasions in the gospels did Jesus restore to life people who were dead—the temple official Jairus’ daughter, and the son of the widow of Nain. What was different about the raising of Lazarus from the dead was Jesus’ deliberate delay in traveling to Bethany to be with Martha and her sister Mary. In strict Jewish observance, burial must take place within 24 hours of death. And Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Martha warned Jesus there would be a stench. Clearly, Lazarus was dead. So when Jesus raised him to life, his enemies saw this as a direct claim to equality with God, for only God can give life.

Jesus truly desires to give us life, not just life in our physical bodies, but more importantly, life in the spirit, the very life of God. Unlike with our physical lives which we can only consent to after the fact, we cannot receive the life of God unless we first choose it freely. That is because choosing God’s life means we must also reject sin and all that is opposed to God’s life. We might continue to struggle for as long as we live a physical existence. But God’s Spirit dwells in us, giving us power to reject sin.

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“I see dead people.” It’s a clever premise for the film. And like I said, you will want to talk about it with someone. But the twist in the end will make you wonder how the dead and the living should know whether they’re dead or living. But you’ll never know until you know. And I can’t tell you.

Rolo B Castillo © 2015