1 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know."
4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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."
7 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. 8 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.
9 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." 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 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.' 12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.
Bones: the older I get the more I think about them, have to think about them… because they demand my attention, what with their continual aching and clanking. X-rays of some of them, my bones, the clankers, are posted on this website, thanks to the good offices of my orthopedist, an artful doctor who works miracles for the halt and lame like I was.
In this lead up to April 24th (otherwise known as Easter), on this penultimate Sunday minus one, the lections provide ample reason for meditation on resurrection, how “dem bones gonna rise again,” in the words of the spiritual derived from Ezekiel’s vision.
The valley of dry bones, of course, refers to the people of Israel languishing in captivity in Babylon, written over the gates of the city (in imagination if not in stone) that warning Dante frames over the gates of hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” And Israel has… abandoned any hope of returning to their promised land. There in Babylon the prophet Ezekiel arrives with the message of a new birth for a dead people, a return home, a resurrection, a metaphor Christians have embraced as a forecast of the resurrection at the end of time.
What engages me is the description of the process by which dry bones come to life. That it isn’t the connecting (sing it in your mind’s hymnal, “The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone…”). That it isn’t the fleshing and sinewing out of those bones that does the trick. It is only when the breath of God, summoned from the four winds, blows upon those bones that they live again.
That, the breath of God, is the essential ingredient that brings to life the dry bones. I may not be able to explain it, except to say whatever it is it is beyond the analysis of science, in the gestalt of the psyche, the whole that is more than the sum of its parts. The breath of God here in the valley of dry bones, and earlier, much earlier, in the green, green garden when a handful of dirt is transformed into a living being when, that’s right, the breath of God breathes upon it. Like the Supreme Court justice said about another topic, best left unstated here, a statement I borrow for the murmurs of transcendence that breathes life into bones and sinews: said he, the justice, I may not be able to define it, but I sure know it when I see it.
What do I see in these bones and sinews of ours that hints at our origin in the four winds of the spirit?
Hope. Of course! As it is with the recipients of the original message about dry bones rising again: the Jews, now in the valley of the shadow of death, will be led to new life and a better place.
A couple of messages ago, I celebrated this indomitable spirit by way of my Mom and the other millions of immigrants who sailed to these shores in the hope of a larger life. My British Mom was sustained in her school-less servanthood in her aunt’s rooming house by her hope of a better day, that is of me, a child, with a first class education she was denied, the next generation for whom the future would open like the daffodils this week to the long awaited and long denied New England sun.
Yet her ordeal and triumph by hope pales by comparison with those who for centuries were literally enslaved. No lady in the lake welcoming their tired and poor when they arrived, herded like cattle in ship-holds. Yet it is the African-American experience that has taught us to sing about how “dem bones gonna rise again.” Watching Ken Burns “Civil War” this past week, reporting that black Union soldiers upon capture by the Rebs were summarily shot to death, while their white comrades were imprisoned, I thought again of the villainy, the treachery our tribe has perpetrated against people of color. How could they ever have hoped for a fair shake in this land? Yet they did hope, hope against hope, and have begun to see a promise of freedom and dignity being fulfilled.
Hope, the breath of God, holds bone and sinew together.
It, the breath of God, has its lighter applications. Think of our irrepressible curiosity.
I do, every time I see a photo of Stephen Hawking. Talk about skin and bones. What in heaven’s name holds this astrophysicist together well into the second decade of his physical degeneration by that inescapable (or so we thought) scourge, ALS, Lou Gehrig disease? Yet he goes on and on thinking, writing, and even speaking, with the aid of an electronic amplifier applied to his throat. The breath of God does not manifest itself in Dr. Hawking as prayer but as a curiosity that for its eloquent evocations belongs in a book of devotion.
Once, when in the thick of things pastoral, I rued teenage Karl’s insistent curiosity about things which were no business of his. Now that I am far removed from the consequences of his prying, I am willing to celebrate him and claim everyone should go and do likewise. Karl never met a paper bag he wasn’t in a fever to look inside of. No shut door did he come upon, but it demanded he open it. Every sign reading “Wet Paint: Don’t Touch,” he would read, “Put Your Finger Here.” Karl and the rest of us on whom God has breathed the invigorating spirit, own, even if we never employ it, a curiosity, to walk beyond the boundaries, to the other side of the street, the other side of the planet, and to, as Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear would have it, “infinity and beyond.”
One more attribution to the breath of God for which, I admit, I strain a smidgeon to include: the much-already-mentioned connectivity, bones to bones, each of us with each other. Resurrection is not a solo enterprise. We’re in it together for better or worse. Which is an apt phrase, considering its most frequent application. Take it, please, from a husband who knows he wouldn’t have gotten this far, so many miles down the road, without more than a little help from his friends, especially the friend he sups, sleeps, and argues with. When God breathed on Bob Howard’s bones, Bob distinctly heard the wind murmur “Barbara.” Were I at last to achieve the promised land (as in the benediction Barbara’s father read over us on our wedding day: “that you may so live together in this life that in the world to come you may have life everlasting”), it would be in no small measure because I have learned to love through the good graces of another. Let any others of you who understand whereof I write, be it by way of a spouse or companion or partner or whomever, say “Amen.”
Dorothy’s favorite hymn, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God,” prays,
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
Which last petition I take as a summons to hope like Mom and wonder like Karl and love like Barbara. And stand at the foot of the cross of Jesus where hope, wonder, and eternal connections abound.