Being on the threshold of Holy Week when Christian faith communities celebrate more intently the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, I find the appointed Lectionary Readings for this Fifth Sunday in Lent to be a nice kind of a lead-in especially as they speak of the theme of death and life. Departing from the usual source for my text for reflections (Gospel Reading), I invite you to focus on the Old Testament Reading taken from Ezekiel 37:1-14.
In there, we read of Ezekiel’s encounter with death as alluded to by his vision of a valley full of dry bones. By their being dry, there’s plenty to suggest that death, in this case, must have taken place way too long in the past. Also, the very image of dry bones could only mean that there was no ambiguity about death as the absence of life. For Ezekiel, the sight in front of him established the seriousness of this reality: they were dead; long dead, if you may.
It’s not surprising then that when asked by God “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel replied "O Lord GOD, you know." perhaps, even throwing his hands up in the air. It could have sounded as a response colored by desperation. Perhaps it was Ezekiel’s polite way of saying “No way, Yahweh” but then, it could also mean “Yes, Lord God, they can still live! But you know when and how!”
We are then told that Ezekiel was ordered to prophesy to those dry bones that the Lord God will cause breath to enter them, and that they shall live. God wanted Ezekiel to know that those dry bones can live as He will lay sinews on them and will cause flesh to come upon them, and cover them with skin, and put breath in them, and they shall know that Yahweh is the Lord."
And it came to pass. Suddenly there was a rattling noise, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. Ezekiel looked, and, indeed, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no life. Then the Lord God told Ezekiel to prophesy once more and bid ‘Breath’ to come from the four winds, and breathe upon those slain, that they may live. When Ezekiel did as God has commanded, breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Very much alive!
What an incredible story; enough to inspire someone to write the famous Dem Bones song. Remember that song “Dem Bones”? “The toe bone connected to the foot bone, and the foot bone connected to the ankle bone and the ankle bone connected to the leg bone…”
More seriously though, Ezekiel’s vision was not just limited to a showdown of God having figured out what bone gets connected to what bone, rather, it was a stark visual expression of death, not only as the absence of life but also being the absence of hope. “Dem dry bones” were demonstrative of a people’s desperation and hopelessness; of a people’s sense of their abject abandonment by no less than their God. To have a sense of their sense of hopelessness, we need to remember the historical timeline of these people. In 597 BCE, the Jews of old were exiled, including Ezekiel, during the famous Babylonian Captivity. As a people, they were on their lowest ebb; having been uprooted from their homeland and were in exile in a foreign land. Their sense of hopelessness is echoed in the words: “By the waters of
Babylon, there we sat down and cried; remembering ”. Psalm137. 1 Zion
During their time in exile, their connection to their cherished past was severed, thereby losing any sense of purpose. It brought about a bleak picture of any possible future. As a people, they were uprooted from everything they had: their land; their community; their culture; their
Temple at , their way of life, all those were all gone. They were as dead as “dem dry bones.” Jerusalem
Death is an image they could relate themselves to. They were merely dry, lifeless bones parched by their sins of pride and infidelity. Despite the seriousness of their having been cut off from their relationship from God, they were not well disposed to accept any sense of personal responsibility for their plight. Their blame-game was not only against God but also against the ones known as prophets who mediated God’s will and purpose in their midst. Ezekiel, however, repeatedly reminded them of their responsibility for their sufferings due to their sinful ways. And rather than leave his people without hope, Ezekiel directed them to look to God as the “Source of their Well-being” and from whom new life and new possibilities could come forth.
This is where we find Ezekiel 37:12 so significant as when Ezekiel was told by God to tell Israel God’s words: “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”
This is the promise that God assured His people: they will rise from the dead; they will not remain in exile, they need not remain amidst “death”. “Dem dry bones” had “flesh” once more and by God’s Holy Breath, by the Spirit of God, life came upon them once more. They passed from darkness to light; they moved from “death to life” and restored back to their rightful place in God’s plan of salvation. Death, therefore, is not the end of everything and while it may seem so unnatural, death, as represented by those dry bones, is vanquished by the breath of God and life begins anew. There is indeed more to death than its being just the end of life as we know it to be.
As we continue our Lenten journey, perhaps, we can relate to this vision of Ezekiel. While we are very much alive with our bodily functions continuing to function as normal as they could be, we could also be likened as “dem dry bones”. Some of us may be living a life of hopelessness – with no one to trust. Others may be in a relationship that could be likened to spending a life in “death row” just waiting for the day to come! Life could be one as though you have been entombed in a life of misgivings and distrust. Your daily living may appear to be one like that of an orphaned child; no one to look after you. Indeed, we’ve all been through some pretty dispiriting times - the smell of death hung pretty strongly for others. But we never stayed as such, did we? By the grace of God, we pulled through. We didn't know how but we had a sense of the Spirit returning; of flesh beginning to re-grow on the bones and we were filled with vitality and excitement. Our relationship with our inner circle, our community and with God was restored once more.
Just as Ezekiel was called upon by God to prophesy and be a participant in God’s restoration to life of a dead people, so are we being called upon by our baptismal covenant, to “prophesy” and be engaged in calling the Spirit of Reconciliation to dwell among those who may be still entombed in their graves of hopelessness. Remember that nothing is so dead that it is beyond the life-giving reach of the Spirit of God. Wherever the Spirit breathes, there is life. No relationship is too scarred or no community is too broken that the Spirit can not breathe and new life blossom.
We are a people of hope. “Dem bones” could, indeed, still live and maybe, even dance!