The context for our first reading from the prophet Ezekiel is
important and knowing its setting will help us hear and apply his
message to our current situation. Just prior to today’s passage
Ezekiel has the vision of the valley of dry bones. He is speaking to
the Jews in Babylonian exile. Their plight is miserable; in their
captivity they are like a valley of dry bones, their flesh picked
clean by vultures and birds of prey. They don’t even have a
respectable grave, just scattered bones left to be bleached by the
sun. Their condition is summed up in the verse that precedes today’s
selection, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost and we are
cut off" (37:11).
Ezekiel isn’t just addressing the misery of individuals; he
speaking about the nation’s desolation in exile. Not only are they
enslaved, but they interpret their condition as a punishment from
God for their past infidelities. They can make no argument for their
defense; no excuse to God to warrant God’s coming to their rescue.
But God will save them, not because of their merit or
eloquently-voiced defense, but because God is merciful. The bones
will once again have flesh on them and the people will again be
animated by God’s breath. Ezekiel describes it in terms of a new
creation. God will first give them physical life and then, "I will
put my spirit in you that you may live."
The imagery then shifts to Exodus language. It’s reminiscent of
God’s leading the people out of Egyptian slavery, across the desert
and planting them in the promised land. "I will settle you upon your
land; thus you shall know that I am the Lord. I have promised, and I
will do it, says the Lord." It is clear that God is intent on saving
the people; not just pulling them out of their physical confinement,
but restoring the divine life in them, "I will put my spirit in you
that you may live."
While today’s Ezekiel passage and then the gospel reading of the
raising of Lazarus, with their promise of forgiveness and new life,
bring comfort to us in the midst of Lent, we shouldn’t jump too
quickly to personalizing their message. We need to remember that
Ezekiel addressed the broken-down and enslaved community, not just
specific individuals. Perhaps, with that in mind, we might also see
the Lazarus story as more than the raising of one dead man from the
grave and a promise of our future resurrection. Both these readings
speak to a battered community.
In a recent preaching a priest applied a weekday Mass scripture
reading to the sexual scandals in the church. He used the scandal as
the prime example for his preaching. Afterward people came to him
and said, "No one ever speaks publicly about the scandal to our
parish community. It’s the elephant in the room that we pretend
Ezekiel is looking over a valley of dead bones and God asks him,
"Can these bones live?" (Verse 3) Our church has been shattered by
the scandals. About ten years ago Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley went as
a Vatican visitator to the Irish church, following a series of
highly critical judicial reports that revealed abuse by priests and
a widespread cover-up by church leaders. He promised the Association
of Catholic Priests and lay people there that he would, "deliver a
frank assessment to the Pope in a confidential report to be
submitted later this year." The Cardinal’s assessment to Pope
Benedict was, "that the Catholic Church in Ireland is on the edge of
collapse due to the fallout from clerical scandals." (Michael Kelly,
in "The Tablet," the Brooklyn diocesan newspaper.) Knowing the long
and great tradition of the Irish Catholic church, did you ever think
you would hear such an evaluation of it! For an update on the Irish
Catholic Church, cf. "America" magazine, March 5, 2018.
There are a lot of lifeless, dry bones strewn in the valley of
our Church these days. At this Eucharist we implore our Creator God
to restore our dead and wounded parts to new life; to breathe the
Spirit into us, as God promises to do today through the prophet
Ezekiel, "O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may
live…." We ask God to raise us from our graves of discouragement and
hopelessness with a breath of new life.
Ezekiel sets a tone for us as we turn to the Lazarus story.
Lazarus may be one individual, but he is a symbol of our Christian
community. Those who hear the Word of God are called from their
graves to new life. Lazarus is also a symbol of the Church’s current
crisis, with dead bones scattered around us, almost everywhere we
look. We hope what Jesus tells his disciples about Lazarus will also
be true for us in the Church, "This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified
through it." Or, that God will do what God promised to Ezekiel, "O
my people I will open your graves and have you rise from them…."
That’s what the Church desperately needs and waits for this Easter:
that through Christ and the power of his resurrection, we will rise
from the grave of scandal to a new life of service and the
proclamation of the gospel.
Throughout his gospel John has been pointing to the "signs" Jesus
performed – "signs" that will reveal who he is to us. The Lazarus
story is another Johannine "sign." Perhaps we envision a new and
resurrected life as something that will only happen after we die.
But when we read John we realize whatever the promise Jesus holds
for us is available now. Let’s take the dialogue with Martha
as an example of the "present tense" possibilities of Jesus for us.
At first Martha criticizes Jesus for delaying his coming to the
distressed family. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not
have died." Who hasn’t, at one time or another, implored the Lord’s
help in a desperate situation and gotten no quick response? At those
times it feels like we were put on hold! As happens in other
Johannine narratives, Jesus engages Martha in conversation. As we
have seen in previous dialogues in John this Lent, once an earnest
conversation with Jesus begins it leads to deeper faith. (E.g. the
dialogue with the Samaritan woman, the man born blind and now with
Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. She thinks
he means the resurrection "on the last day." But the message
throughout John is that Jesus is offering us life now, not just at
the end time. Jesus refers to himself today with another "I am"
statement ("I am the resurrection and the life.") Jesus, in John’s
gospel, is very present tense. He isn’t, "I was," – or just, "I will
be." He is "I am!"
It seems that Lazarus’ rising is secondary today. What the
discussion with Martha and then Lazarus’ rising from the dead
underlines and substantiates, is Jesus’ description of himself, "I
am the resurrection and the life." In our church and in our personal
lives we need what Jesus is promising now. We need him to be
our resurrection–that he speak his word and call us out of our
current graves and dead spots.
for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
These are powerful words. We, as a society, still seem to view
crying as not manly and, I often think it must be hard on our
American men to not be able to express this very human emotion more
openly. Yet, in these three words, we see today the compassion of
God. Created in the image of God, we are to be compassion too. With
today’s emphasis on action, achievement, and "doing," it is easy to
forget the importance of being and feeling with the afflicted.
Compassion is two-pronged. Not only does compassion recognize and
suffer with the sufferer, but it also works to free the one who is
suffering from whatever causes the sorrow. Pope Paul VI in his
statement On the Development of Peoples (Populorum Progressio) in
1967 referenced the scripture that asks "If anyone has material
possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how
can the love of God be in him?" (1 John 3:17). As people of
compassion, we cannot look the other way while our brothers and
sisters live in misery. Sometimes, though, it is just overwhelming
as to what to do.
Along with many Civil Society organizations, the US Council of
Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Catholic Relief Services launched a
campaign in 2005.