2023 has been a year in which I have encountered, more closely than ever in my life, death. In January, my grandfather died, and this very week, my grandmother died. Death is a thing strange to humans. And despite the fact that everyone on Earth is doomed to die, it is still something which does not fully compute in our minds, hearts, and even less so our souls. In seeing the bodies of dead loved ones, there seems to be a contradiction of terms. With my mind expecting movement, experiences stillness; my eyes expecting to see breathing, realizes there is no breath. It is as if death is only defined because of lack of existence and life.
In a similar sense, sin seems to exist in the lives of human beings. It is a contradiction of terms, an action with no purpose or conclusion, and an absence of structure. When one decides to turn away from God, the one who out of nothing and in love created and sustains all created things, what results is non-existence. One’s sinful action regards created reality, and willfully rejects it, hijacking the gifts of freedom and free will and substituting arbitrarily one’s own lacking designs. Sin is not even so original; it cannot exist on its own. Sin parasitically draws off of good created reality to power its existence, leaving a twisted path of destruction in its wake.
In today’s gospel readings from John, Jesus tells the honest Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus, rightly so, considering his formation and what he understood about reality, asks a question which I believe most of us would ask in various differing forms: “How can a man once grown old be born again? Surely, he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” This sincere question, although slightly ill-formed, is the question which is relevant to every person who has ever existed, and will exist, as we are all fated to physically die.
As beings sentenced justly to physical death, it is natural for us to compare this “birth from above” which Jesus speaks about to the birth that we all experience some time after our conception. Nicodemus, thinking in these natural and physical terms, asks how it can be that we are born “again.” How alike to our mind’s workings this prime example is. Being afflicted by sin, which is fundamentally bad, we think of combatting sin upon the plane that it exists. In our considerations on how we can be delivered from sin, we wrongly believe that it can be destroyed in the same way that it was created: by our will alone. But this is wrong and is a continuation of our prideful tendencies which got us into the mess of sin and death in the first place.
Water and Spirit
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ sincere but short-sighted question which an immediate restatement of the truth: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’”
Jesus in a sense, by his repetition and reclarification, gently rebukes Nicodemus’ understanding and replaces it once more with a clear truth: the spiritual world also exists, and one can be born into it in a way as real as in the physical. So, do not limit your sight to the immediate senses. This answer from Jesus is the reason for our hope. As sinful beings, haunted by the desire for perfect union with God and others, there is no way by our own merits that we can ever arrive home at this end. However, by his life and death, Jesus gives us a way to be born in His spirit. This birth into the spirit is not an optional perk or suggested way of life for some levels of happiness, but rather it is necessary to see what we were made to see: eternal life and the final satisfaction which in our great hunger we all know exists.
Birth into the Spirit
Do not be deceived, this birth into the spirit is not for the faint-hearted or the prudish. It is for the hungry and the needy. Birth into His spirit opens one’s eyes to a great new reality of eternal unification with our source. It casts everything into a light of purpose, pain, longing, and love. Every opportunity in life, especially prayer, becomes a way to be brought by His spirit to new and different beautiful places in life.
As Jesus says to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Through our Baptism and Confirmation, we are born of water and the Spirit. This is something that we ought to be very grateful for. But we must continue to pray for greater identification with this role we have been born into. And, ask God for greater surety of place as son or daughter of Him.
In our consideration of physical death, let us be reminded that it only indicates a small piece of the reality of our nature, and hints at the higher reality. We are designed for eternity and let us praise God for this amazing gift! In some ways, death is a blessing. It is a stark reminder that we must learn, and allow ourselves to transcend the merely physical. And become in tune with His Spirit, which is what will lead to our true satisfaction.