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On your own soil | Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Matthew Neugebauer

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Ezekiel's vision of dry bones. Wikimedia Commons.
Ezekiel 37:12-14
The short passage from Ezekiel for this Sunday is the conclusion of the "Valley of Dry Bones" prophecy. The scene is a richly evocative vision of an army risen from the dead: the People of God are restored to new life, with God's Spirit "put within" them. Christians have made a natural connection between Ezekiel's vision and the celebrations of the Easter season: Christ, the Faithful Israel, is risen from the dead, His grave is open. He breathes on the Apostles, and fifty days later gives His Holy Spirit to the whole Church. You might glimpse a small example of this connection between Ezekiel 37 and the mysteries of Easter at the very end of the season: the whole vision, v. 1-14, is an option for the First Reading at the Pentecost Vigil.
Why are we hearing about Christ’s resurrection now, though, in the depths of Lent, and on the cusp of Holy Week? I find the answer in  parallel statements tucked into this week’s passage:
"I will bring you back to the land of Israel..." (v. 12)
"I will place you on your own soil..." (v. 14)
A good tip for interpreting Scripture, especially prophecies about the future, is to start by asking, "what circumstances might this future hope emerge from?" From there, we can ask, "what sort of change is God promising and the prophet desiring?"
For Ezekiel, the answer to these questions is relatively straightforward: his future hope emerged from the circumstance of exile in Babylon, of a People displaced from their homes and seeking to worship God in a foreign land. The timeframe jumps around a bit, but a key indicator of Ezekiel’s context comes at the very beginning of the book: “On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi in the land of the Chaldeans,” that is, in Babylon. (1:2-3)
Exile. Displacement. Disorientation. Sounds quite Lenten to me. This is a time for acts of penance and self-denial, an increased focus on giving to others, a renewed commitment to encountering those who are different from us, and increased prayer and Mass attendance. Some people find those Lenten practices comforting. For many, however, the disciplines of the season entail an intentional embrace of discomfort and unfamiliarity. Lent involves a concerted focus on the unsettled parts of our lives, on the distance between our present experiences and our destined perfection among the Communion of Saints for all time. The saints, beholding the Vision of God “face to face,” find it easy to be generous, to embrace those different from themselves, and to intercede for us all. They find it easy to remember these works of charity, faith, and hope, which “abide” for eternity, even when all else “will come to an end.” We see God, the world, and ourselves “in a mirror, dimly,” and so we struggle and forget. (1 Corinthians 13:10, 12-13)
The promised, desired change follows from Ezekiel’s circumstance, and is spelled-out: "I will bring you back to the land...I will place you on your own soil..." In the discomfort and displacement of exile, the People hear God’s promise to renew them and return them to their home. It seems to me to be the perfect time for them to hear this word of promise, which encourages them to not waver or despair, and reminds them that their true home is the land that God had given them.
In the heart of Lent, right in the midst of our "annual exile," is the perfect time to hear this word of promise to us. Just as the exiles in Babylon heard God's promise to return them to their home, we too are reminded to look ahead to God's promise to restore us and bring us safely to our eternal home.
The news gets even better, because God's promise isn't just something that will happen in the future: God has already accomplished the perfect restoration of all things in Christ, who descended to the depths of death, abandonment, and loss, and was sealed lifeless in a grave. He rose again on the third day, sent His Spirit within us, and “if the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11, from the Second Reading for this week.) We are reminded to look to the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore us, and His promise that we can already find our eternal home in Him.
Easter is only two weeks away: soon, we can relax from our penances and practices, and turn our minds and hearts to the new life we find in the Risen Christ. Even now, though, the Church's lectionary invites us to look to the Empty Tomb and the Upper Room. Even now, we are invited to see the new life God offers us through the Spirit of the Risen Son. The scourged and crucified Christ has come to us in our desolation, our disorientation, and our discomfort. He accompanies us in our exile, and transforms our lives into a "journey toward the Kingdom of [our] Father” through His resurrection. (Gaudium et Spes #1)
He gives us consolation, direction, purpose, and meaning to our lives, even when those seem obscured. He promises to direct and guide us even now, in the heart of Lent, when we've spent five weeks focusing on our inability to make sense of our lives on our own. Here and now, in this Valley full of lifeless bones, He reminds us that He has already returned us to our own soil, our own land, our true home that we find in Him. He tells us that, as His children,  we already possess the safety and dignity that enable us to risk and to explore. He speaks His Word, and new life, new possibilities, new bursts of creative freedom begin to emerge.We find a renewed conviction for honesty, integrity, and charity, and a restored sense that He alone is our true home. Water springs from a rock. A humble shepherd becomes king. Sinews and flesh grow on decayed bones and empty lungs are filled with new breath.
Tomorrow is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Today, Saturday, March 25, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation. The day we celebrate that the Angel Gabriel brought the Good News, uttered the Word of the Lord, to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to Our Lady, who overshadowed her, and caused her to become the Mother of God. We celebrate the moment that the very life, the very body that died and rose again, was first conceived in Mary's womb. We rejoice in God's first great act of the New Creation, the beginning of the Incarnation.
God offers us this new life today. He offers His consolation, His loving presence, His own life as our home soil, and the hope that all will be made whole at the End of Time. Let us open our hearts and wills to this new life. Let us open our eyes to God's comforting presence among us. Let us say, with the Prophet Ezekiel and the Great Army of the Valley, and with the Mother of God herself:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, the Gospel for today.)

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