Fifth Sunday of Lent: 4-2-17
Peace be with You,
We began our journey through the Season of Lent five and a half weekends ago on Ash Wednesday by being reminded of the radically contingent quality of the lives we live. For by being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we are made to realize that “our days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15). This is a reality from which we all shirk; for in considering death we experience an internal revulsion that desires a remedy for what nature has deemed unavoidable; by our very nature we desire life, and perhaps never more so than in the face of death. This season of Lent has attempted to instruct us that this desire we hold so deeply within our hearts mirrors the desire of the God who made us, only the desire of the human heart could never match the intensity of the Love which our God has for Life generally and for human life particularly. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote that “the love of man is a proper mark of the divine nature,” (Catechetical Oration, 15), and today we see this philanthropic quality of the divine life on full display in the life of the Incarnate Son.
Home; a word that has a power to illicit emotion in the heart of the human person unlike most; for immediately upon hearing its utterance images are called to mind of the pleasant smells of a homemade meal, the pleasant sounds of familiar voices, the sight of familiar faces and items arrayed each in its proper place, all coming together to create a scene which brings a sense of joy and peace to our hearts. For many of us some of the most difficult moments of life are those which tear us away from home, whether by choice or by compulsion, and while away these very same scenes which in moments of peace can bring joy to the heart have the very same power to inflict sadness upon them. They say that there are two sorts of people who think about home more often than any other: soldiers and prisoners; reflecting an anthropological truth that those who find themselves far from home out of compulsion recall and yearn for the pleasant confines of home more often than those who have left by choice. It is in this type of position which the people of Israel find themselves in our first reading for today.
Our first reading comes from the book of Ezekiel, a prophet who lived just before and during the time of the Babylonian Exile, ultimately becoming a victim of exile himself. For many of us, the experiences described above are the closest that we will ever come to that of exile, however, in reality, they do not come close to the existential experience of literal exile. In contemporary terms, the experience of the refugee is more akin to that of exile and yet, psychologically and spiritually, to be a modern refugee does not reach to the depths of the experience of exile and ancient times. I say this not to discount the horror of the modern refugee crisis, but rather to highlight an important aspect of what it meant for an ancient people to be exiled. And that is that for ancient peoples, being exiled not only meant that you were far away from the comforts of home, but that you had been estranged from the God of your homeland, for gods were thought to inhabit the territory in which their people lived. It is this aspect of exile which made the experience not only heartrending but terrifying; for now one had become separated from their supernatural source of protection with no means of re-establishing the relationship. In short, to be exiled was to experience a sort of death while living; one was estranged from home, from one’s way of life and from one’s God.
This is precisely the type of situation being addressed by God through the prophet Ezekiel in our first reading today. Therein, the prophet tells us that “the spirit of the Lord…set [him] down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones” (Ez. 37:1). The bones surrounding the prophet meant to signify the exiled people, whose very way of life had been taken from them, and who say to themselves “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ez. 37:11). Then God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ez. 37:3). Already the answer is implied in the question; an answer given in Genesis when God breathes his spirit into the dust of the earth thereby animating the first human (Gen. 2:7). And just as Adam had been made subject to death on account of his voluntary separation from God, so too the People of Israel had subjected themselves to this temporal death known as exile by turning away from the life God had called them to live (cf. Ez. ch. 7). However, just as God had once breathed life into Adam where there was none, so now He would breathe life into the people setting them free from the captivity of exile (Ez. 37:12-14); symbolized by the bones coming to life as the prophet relays the message of the Lord to them (Ez. 37:5-7).
A little attention on the words God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones is worth noting here. He says to the bones “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” (Ez. 37:6). Notice please how God says ‘I will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin.’ Now recall how after the fall, immediately after telling our first parents that they would return to the dust from which they had been fashioned (Gen. 3:19), “God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). Then, having clothed them with flesh God says “’see, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden…and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:23 & 24). Take note that God expels Adam and Eve from the garden in order that they might not live forever in the state which their sin caused; i.e. separated from God. The flesh God clothes them with then becomes the means for their return to him by means of their corruptibility. See the mercy of God; for God so loves the human family, upon whom he bestowed the reflection of his beauty by creating them in his image that he refuses to let this separation endure and thus transforms the punishment for sin into its remedy; death shall now become the gateway to life, “and the penalty became a sign of love for humanity. That, I believe, is the way God punishes!” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38, 12).
Yet how was God to affect such a remedy? The human person on their own has not the power to overcome the chains of sin and death with which they bound themselves at the behest of the Enemy. No, a stronger medicine was needed; a death was needed which could not die (cf. St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 20). Thus, in the fullness of time Life Itself became flesh, uniting Himself with the corruptible in order that it might be freed from the chains of mortality. And so deep was his desire to stoke into full flame the fledgling image within humanity that he deigned to experience its travails, the impassible making himself subject to the emotional passibility of the human soul in order to demonstrate that God too possesses the heart of a lover; the heart of a Lover par excellence who considers the captivity of his beloved an affront to his very Love for Life.
Today’s gospel lays bare the heart of this Lover for the world to see today. For when confronted by the pain and anguish of death the Giver of Life is himself moved to tears. Jesus wept (John 11:35), as surely as he weeps for Lazarus he weeps for you and me! For “God did not make death and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist” (Wisdom 1:13-14), and to see his benevolent act of creation so thwarted by dark evil of nonexistence inspires within him a righteous anger to destroy all that holds back life. Thus he removes all that casts the shadow of evil upon life with a solemn command; “Take away the stone” (John 11:39). Yet this was not enough, for the glory of God is a human person fully alive (cf. St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Bk. 4.20.7) and thus when he calls us out of the darkness of death and into the Light of Life he commands death to let loose his beloved saying ‘Unbind them, and let them go!’ (cf. John 11:44).
My friends, see how God desires your freedom! He so desires you to experience the very fullness of life that the ravages of sin that is the very death of the soul and body move him to tears. We see this now and we will see it again a couple of weeks from now in the Garden of Gethsemane; so ardently does the Son of God love life that even the thought of death will thrust his mortal body to the ground in anguish, asking the Father to allow the cup of mortality to pass from him if possible (cf. Matt. 26:38-39). Yet despite his anguish he will commend himself to Him who is the source of Life saying “not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). Today, the face of Love smiles upon us through the pain that plagues his most sacred heart, causing tears to flow from his most precious eyes and down upon you to nourish the image of Love which he has planted there in order that it might take root, break through the darkness of sin and bask in the brilliant Light of his beautiful heart. Look upon this face, ‘see how he loves you’ (John 11:36) and allow yourself to feel the warm tears of the weeping Savior penetrate the innermost depths of your soul calling you home to new life!
Your servant in Christ,