Signs of Spiritual Death
How can we tell if someone is dead? How do we know if they have died? We can tell if a person is still living in two ways. Number one is breathing, if the lungs are taking in and expelling air. And number two is the heart, if it is still beating, contracting and expanding the its chambers, pumping blood to the rest of the body. If one or both of these are absent the person is dead or will die soon. Surely, the widow of Nain in today?s Gospel (Third Sunday of Luke 7:11-16) and those with her, knew her son was dead. As Jesus entered their town (v.11), the son was being carried out to be buried (v.12). Jesus saw the widow and had compassion upon her, telling her not to weep (v.13). Jesus then touches the coffin and tells the young man to arise (v.14). The dead son then sits up and begins to speak and Jesus returns him to his mother (v.15).
This is a beautiful and powerful account of Jesus ministering to those who suffer. However, at the same time it can be confusing and discouraging because none of us have had Jesus raise one of our loved ones from the dead. Can?t Jesus be compassionate to me? Can?t He return my son or my daughter, or my mother or father to me after they died? It can become easy to doubt God?s power over death, to doubt that He cares about me, and to doubt His very existence. To avoid this dangerous trap we must look at today?s story, we must look at death from a different angle.
When we talk about death, we immediately think of physical death and we forget about the reality of spiritual death. As we said a minute ago, physical death is the cessation of heart and lung function. Spiritual death, on the other hand, is the cessation of communion with God. We know that in the Original Sin, Adam and Eve separated themselves from God. That spiritual death is what brought physical death into the creation. We also know that Jesus Christ?s death and resurrection destroyed the power of sin and death. What we tend to forget is that Christ did not eliminate the reality of physical death. Everyone since Christ has experienced a physical death. It?s an inescapable fact.
What we must keep in the forefront of our mind is that the Resurrection Christ has rescued us from the grip of sin, which is spiritual death, and the fear of physical death. Lev Gilet, in his book ?The Year of the Grace of the Lord? comments on today?s passage noting that it is one of three accounts where Christ raises someone from the dead. The other two being Jairus? daughter and Lazaros (John 11). Gilet states that these resurrections, no doubt, show that Jesus has power over life and death. He also notes that all three were raised from different stages of death (Jairus? daughter was still in bed; the son of the widow of Nain was on a funeral bier; and Lazaros was in a tomb). Gilet says that this certainly applies to Jesus restoring sinners from the different stages of spiritual death.
It?s easy to tell if a person is physically dead. Yet, could we tell if someone was spiritually dead? More importantly, can any one of us see the signs within ourselves? Drawing from the signs of physical death, let me identify some ways we can determine if we are spiritually dead or dying. We spoke of the cessation of breathing as a sign of physical death. It also can be for spiritual death in the sense that the Holy Spirit is the breath of God. The Greek word for ?spirit? is ?pneuma?, which literally means breath. Just like we need to breathe oxygen through our lungs, we need to breathe in the Spirit of God through prayer. The saints and monastics knew this and that?s why they taught certain breathing techniques to use during the recitation of the Jesus Prayer. Inhale when you say, ?Lord Jesus Christ Son of God? and exhale when you say, ?have mercy on me a sinner.? Actually, the other way around is better, meaning whenever you breathe, pray. We breathe constantly so we should pray constantly. As St. Paul says, ?without ceasing.? So, one of the signs of spiritual death is infrequency or lack of prayer.
We also said earlier that the heart must be beating in order to live. Without the heart working, the oxygenated blood, rich in nutrients, cannot reach our vital organs and muscles. And without that blood, those tissues cannot live. In our Orthodox Christian tradition, we speak about the blood of Christ washing away our sins. We receive the body and blood Christ in the Eucharist. This Holy Communion is often referred to as our spiritual food or sustenance. If we really believe that Eucharist is truly Christ?s Body and Blood, and if we really believe that Christ is our Lord and Savior, and if He said, ?Take, eat, this is My Body?and?Drink of this all of you, this is My Blood,? then why would we not partake of this lifeblood as frequently as possible? Thus, another sign of spiritual death and dying is infrequent or lack of reception of the Eucharist.
If we have trouble breathing or if our heart doesn?t feel right, do we sit around the house waiting for it to get better on its own? Typically not, we usually and quite quickly get ourselves to the doctor or even the emergency room. Our Orthodox tradition gives us a spiritual hospital with an emergency room and a doctor in each and every local church. When we?re having trouble praying, when we do not feel worthy to receive the Eucharist, when we?re having a problem at home or at work, when we have a bad habit we cannot seem to control, do we think that it will eventually get better on its own? Or do we take action to seek out a diagnosis, a remedy, a cure for whatever is ailing us? Yes, the Church has provided us with spiritual fathers and confessors in the bishops, priests, monks and nuns to help us diagnose spiritual illnesses, to prescribe certain ascetical practices for healing and especially to pronounce God?s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession. Therefore, infrequent or lack of a relationship of spiritual guidance and participation in the Mystery of Confession are another sign of spiritual death and dying.
In conclusion, we could say a whole lot more about signs and symptoms of spiritual death and dying. However, time does not allow. What we must remember is St. Paul?s words in today?s Epistle reading (17th Sunday; 2Corinthians 6:16 ? 7:1). He says, ?we are the temple of the living God? and he quotes Leviticus 26:12 where God Himself says, ?I will live in them.? God wants to live in each one of us, making our heart His temple. Just like He saw the widow of Nain, Jesus sees us weeping when we?re spiritually dead or dying and He is compassionate. He cares. And Jesus has the power to resuscitate us, to get us breathing in prayer, to get us back to church, to open our heart to the persons who can help us. He wants us, Jesus commands us to receive His precious Body and Blood, which Fr. Stanley Harakas calls, ?The Medicine of Immortality.? Yes, Jesus can raise us from the dead! Amen!