Can These Bones Live? A Reflection for Holy Saturday, 2022

At the risk of repeating myself (again), it’s been a long and hard few years. I’ve been pretty open about my own struggles and anxieties about it all here. I remain convinced that it’s important for all of us to take the time we need to lament all that has happened and is still happening in the world. And today, Holy Saturday, is the day to do just that. I think we’re all feeling exhausted and world-weary, and not just a little strung out from all of the many important problems our world is facing (or choosing not to face). We need to lament, we need to rest, but we also need a spark of new life.

Centuries ago, the prophet Ezekiel was in a similar state — though his own heart was reeling from a far greater reversal than what most of us have experienced. His people were living in Exile, captive to a hated foreign enemy. Jerusalem had been destroyed and its Temple razed, and the people were losing connection with the old ways from back home. Twelve years into this nightmare, God snatched Ezekiel away into a dramatic vision, where Ezekiel was both confronted with the reality of his feelings and offered a promise for the future. This vision has traditionally been read by Christians on Holy Saturday, as it perfectly straddles the feelings of sorrow and expectation this day embodies.

The the prophet says:

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” (37.1-3)

Can these bones live? It’s a question we’re asking on so many fronts these days — in our own lives, in our institutions, in our communities, in our churches, on our planet. Is new life still possible? Is there a future for us? These bones Ezekiel sees are long past being ‘dead’. These are not fresh corpses, or bodies in states of decay. These are jumbled bones, without marrow or joint left upon them, picked dry by birds, sun-bleached, broken, dry, and brittle. Can these bones live?

From a human perspective, the answer is clearly no. But the prophet leaves room for hope: “Oh Lord God, you know.” It’s a good answer. He’s too deep into his desolation be certain, and there’s certainly no earthly reason or rationalization for him to expect there to be new life. But he doesn’t close the door. And we would be wise to do the same. It’s a bit like what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about time — it’s the courage to find that middle ground between living as though no future is possible and a blind assumption that everything is as it should be when it clearly is not.

The prophet continues:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: 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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.” (vv 4-14)

At the start of Ezekiel — before the fall of Jerusalem — the people were bold and confident in their future, and couldn’t conceive of the coming disaster, despite all the prophetic warnings. Ezekiel 33.24 suggests that even after the sack of the city, a certain confidence remained that things would return to normal soon (”Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess”). They trusted their claim to the land and assumed it would all be over soon. Well now, twelve years later, things are quite different — “Our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

It is now, when all hope is lost, that God steps in and remakes the people once again. This is for my money one of the most stirring images in Scripture: The prophet speaks God’s words to the bones and piece by piece, step by step, they reassemble into skeletons, then bodies with sinew and muscle and flesh. Finally, he summons the wind and breath and spirit return to them. (This is one of those cases where it’s helpful to remember that in both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used for spirit, breath, and wind.) The valley of dry, bleached and brittle bones has become a ‘vast multitude’ of the living, the reconstituted people of God, reminiscent of Hosea’s prophecy: “In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God” (Hosea 1.10).

Piece by piece and step by step. We cannot expect or demand things to be ‘back to normal’ right away — if ‘back to normal’ is even a worthy goal. First things must come first. If new life returns — if we become re-energized as persons, if we find new ways of coming together as community (as I trust we will) — it will come slowly. And it will be through the life-giving, greening power of the Holy Spirit, which is ‘everywhere present and filling all things’.

What a wonderful message for us this year, when we are caught between our collective traumas of the past few years and our hope for the future. What a wonderful message for us on Holy Saturday, when we stand in grief at the foot of the cross, but wait with expectation for the joy of Easter.

Can these bones live?

With God, all things are possible.

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