Hope without palliatives

Ezekiel never was your favorite prophet, was he? We much prefer Isaiah, whose words we can copy straight to our Christmas cards. Or Amos and Micah who call us to repentence, declaring God’s judgment against our injustice and lovelessness. Ezekiel doesn’t write copy for greeting cards. He also doesn’t show up much in our Sunday school curricula or lectionaries. He has made friends mostly among mystics and among those in every generation obsessed with the timetables of the endtime. Ezekiel is strange; some would say, weird. His visions are beyond imaginative, often incomprehensible and offensive, with violent and pornographic tendencies.

I was 14 years old, in confirmation class with my friend Chris, when we stumbled upon Ezekiel by accident. Our pastor had asked us to read a passage from Jeremiah 23, and flipping through the pages we didn’t realize we were in Ezekiel 23 when our eyes got bigger and bigger as we read about two sisters whose names no one had ever mentioned to us before. We read with a mix of fascination and terror, and we didn’t know what to make of the strange world we had accidentally entered, and so we giggled. “Thomas, verses 5 and 6; why don’t you read them out loud for us,” our pastor said, and I’m glad my friend Chris noticed that we had flipped a few pages too far in our quest for Jeremiah 23. He tapped the top of the page with his finger until I noticed it too—“Ezekiel” it said, and I quickly turned back the pages before I started reading.

Ezekiel, son of Buzi, was a priest from Judah, or perhaps a recent graduate preparing for the priesthood. He was part of a first wave of exiles from Jerusalem whom King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon deported in an attempt to subdue the troublesome leadership of Judah. We don’t know much about Ezekiel’s personal life, but I can imagine that he felt utterly out of place in that foreign land. You see, you can be a teacher, an accountant or a carpenter just about anywhere in the world. But Ezekiel was a priest of the Lord whose temple was in Jerusalem, and outside of that sacred place he simply was out of place. He had lost not only his home, but the defining center of his life. His entire community had been uprooted, and they struggled to make sense of their devastating losses.

It was in exile that Ezekiel became a prophet of the Lord. He had visions, he heard voices, in the grip of God’s spirit he traveled far, and he declared it all to his compatriots in exile. Ezekiel insisted that their losses did not reflect the defeat of the Lord by the gods of Babylonia, as some surmised; no, their exile was the judgment brought down on them by their God, and deservedly so. In Ezekiel’s mind, there was no room for historical coincidence, no room for geopolitical analysis that might explain their exile as collateral damage in the conflict between the global powers of the day, Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. In his mind, this was God’s doing, all of it.

Some thought Ezekiel was out of his mind, but they weren’t so sure when more news arrived from Jerusalem. Ezekiel had declared that the Babylonians would breach the city walls, burn the buildings to the ground, slaughter a great number of inhabitants, and deport the rest. And it turned out he was right. “In the twelfth year of our exile,” he wrote as though in a ship’s log, “in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has fallen’ ” (33:21). Everything that once made them who they were as a people, had been taken away or destroyed: the land, the temple, the city and throne of David, their proud theology. They were broken. They were helpless, overwhelmed by hopelessness. Exhausted by grief, they sat in silence.

In that silence Ezekiel heard a new word, a word that spoke of new hearts and of homecoming – but who could really hear it? Not even Ezekiel himself; he wrote it all down, dutifully, but he couldn’t say it. The words of judgment had come to him much more easily. The losses they had experienced were much more tangible than these first whispers of hope waiting to be given voice.

That was the moment when the hand of the Lord once again came upon Ezekiel, and the Lord brought him out by the spirit of the Lord and set him down in the middle of a valley. It was a journey into the heart of the people in exile, a journey to the end of the road. Ezekiel didn’t just see a valley full of bones, he walked around in it. The Lord led him around as if to make sure he saw the full extent of their hopelessness.

Elie Wiesel noted that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, unlike his other visions, does not bear a date. Why not? Wiesel suggests, because every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live. We meet Ezekiel amid the ash heaps of Auschwitz, he stands amid the killing fields of Cambodia, the orchards of Bosnia, the roads and churches of Rwanda, the villages of South Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen – will the list ever end? Ezekiel stands amid the “vast acreage of death, once fields of birth,” as Daniel Berrigan called the landscape of our sin. In Berrigan’s meditation on Ezekiel’s vision, God cries out,

Have I populated the earth with monsters?

Of the symphonic

sweep and scope

of my creation

… they make this –

a petrified forest of death.

Bones, bones. Dry bones.

But not forever, I swear it!

… Ezekiel, stand in the killing fields.

Shall these bones live?[1]

Ezekiel said, “O Lord God, you know,” and we don’t know if he spoke with firm conviction or with some hesitation; we wonder if he meant to say more, you know, but the words just wouldn’t come; or was he perhaps waiting for God to speak the word? The Lord told Ezekiel to speak—to the bones.

“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.”

Can you see that scene? Ezekiel standing in the killing fields,  about as far away from the garden of creation as human imagination can travel, and there, in the dust where life once was, in the desert of hopelessness, bones as far as the eye can see, Ezekiel speaking the word of the Lord? Can you see it? Ezekiel’s breath interrupting the deathly silence, giving voice to the breath of God? Daniel Berrigan described the scene he saw:

And a rustling sound

as of leaves in autumn wind

started amid the dry bones.

A whisper, then a drumbeat!

They stood erect, those bones,

and knitted firm!

… and the spirit entered the bones.

First a whisper,

then a drumbeat,

then reverberant –

a heartbeat!

They took breath once more! and

walked about! and

conversed one with another!

joyful, harmonious,

an immense throng, the newborn, the living!

Speak to them.

Say:

Death no dominion!

from graves, mausoleums, hecatombs—

Lazarine multitudes, come forth!

Rejoice!

far from servitude!

enter the gates

of new Jerusalem![2]

The prophet spoke, and hope began to sing: Death no dominion! Corruption, injustice, oppression, and proud theology? Not the last word. Devastating judgment, exile, and weeping by the rivers of Babylon? Not the last word. The terrors of war and the hardness of human hearts? Not the last word.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!”

The last word is so much like the first in the garden, when the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the earthling became a living being. Beyond the reality of death, there is the promise of new life.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!”

Ezekiel traveled to the dead end of the road, and he came back telling us of the faithfulness of God. When we get to the point where we say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost,” when we get to the point where cynicism and despair look like the most reasonable response to the course of the world, when we get to that point, we need a friend like Ezekiel: a friend to remind us that God is not done.

Thomas Merton wrote in a letter to Czeslaw Milosz from September 12, 1959:

We should all feel near despair in some sense, because this semi-despair is the normal form taken by hope in a time like ours. Hope without any sensible or tangible evidence on which to rest. Hope in spite of the sickness that fills us. Hope married to a firm refusal to accept any palliatives or anything that cheats hope by pretending to relieve apparent despair. … We cannot enjoy the luxury of a hope based on our own integrity, our own honesty, our own purity of heart. … In the end, it comes to the old story that we are sinners, but that this is our hope because sinners are the ones who attract to themselves the infinite compassion of God.[3]

We need a friend like Ezekiel in a time like ours, and because we belong to God’s Easter people, because God’s spirit of hope is at work within and among us, we take our stand beside Ezekiel and join him in bearing witness to God’s faithfulness, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!” You who see what a mess we have made of the world and how we seem to always manage to maneuver ourselves into dead ends, listen up! You who have settled for the status quo and the whispers of idols that tell you that exile is as close to home as it gets, listen up! The breath of God is blowing in the valley—let it breathe on you, let it breathe in you; allow it to give breath to your voice and inspire your actions. For thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live!

 

[1] Daniel Berrigan, Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), p. 112, 114

[2] Berrigan, p. 114-115

[3] Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth: Letters to writers, ed. by Christine M. Bochen (Louisville, KY: The Merton Legacy Trust, 1993), 62.

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