Of Flesh and Bones

For 19 August 2022, Friday of week 20 in Ordinary Time, based on Ezekiel 37:1-14, Matthew 22:34-40

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: 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. 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.’

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. 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. 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.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

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.” 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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.’

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

It’s been a scorching summer here in Cambridge, England. This is the time of year when our city attracts lots of visiting groups of young people from across the world to take part in various summer schools or English-language learning experiences. I was walking in our outdoor city market last week when three young Spanish girls approached me and asked me to list some English idioms as part of a task they had been given by their teacher. An idiom that came to mind – which is perhaps not surprising considering the relentless hot dry sun that has hit us this summer – was ‘dry as a bone’.
This phrase is also fitting considering our first reading today from the prophet Ezekiel. When we declare something to be as dry as a bone, we are basically saying that it is lifeless, since water and blood are the sources of life. In today’s reading, Ezekiel receives a vision from God in which he sees the valley of dry bones and this represents the inner spiritual reality of the people of Israel. They have become dry and lifeless because they are cut off from their life-source – God – through sin and captivity. They are a desolate wasteland, long dead, and seemingly without hope.
This state of spiritual dryness is perhaps one we ourselves have experienced. We can become dry because we have become tepid or sinful, and this causes the vitality of God’s grace to become cut off or blocked out from our lives, leaving us dehydrated. We can also experience dryness because God is removing our spiritual crutches – all our good spiritual feelings, intentions, aspirations, all the visible signs and supports, can turn to dust as we confront the wilderness of naked faith.
These are two very different experiences of dryness, but whatever the reason, if we find ourselves in a dry season, the same words God put to Ezekiel can echo in our own hearts: can these bones come to life? Sometimes we can feel so far from the fruitful Vine that is Jesus and the life-giving waters of the Spirit, that it can seem hopeless, we feel long-dead.
But Ezekiel’s vision in our first reading today is a passage of hope. It is the promise of God’s resurrection of Israel, their return from captivity and restoration as a nation. God prophecies to His people that “I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the Lord”.
How is it that God resurrects Israel? We hear that he does it by instilling them with His life-giving breath. And why is it that God does this? Simply because He loves His people. This is how God will fulfil His promise that the dry bones in our own life will be brought to life: through His Spirit and His love.
Today these gifts of God’s Spirit and love are highlighted since we also commemorate the feast of St John Eudes, a French priest and author of the liturgical devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. St John lived at the time of the Jansenists, who brought a kind of theological drought over the Church. The main teachings of Jansenist theology were that human nature was entirely corrupted by Original Sin and that the salvation offered by Christ after the Fall was not intended as a gift for everyone but only for those predestined to spend eternity with Him. Salvation was not a matter of free response to the gift of grace, but rather the passive volition to act for good or ill depending on whether one was predestined for union or separation from God from the beginning of time. The Jansenists had a rigorous moral ethic and saw the Sacraments as a reward for the righteous and the chosen rather than medicine and strength for a His pilgrim people.
The Church condemned Jansenism as heresy and set out the orthodox Catholic teaching of grace and freewill. But we are not just intellectual creatures, we yearn to see, feel, experience, and as the words in Ezekiel say, the Lord’s promise of resurrection was to put sinews and flesh upon His people. Perhaps this is why a private revelation was given to a Visitation nun, St Margaret Mary Alacoque, which began devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The devotion to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts brings home to us the truth that Christ’s love and salvation is for every single person – it is universal and unconditional. And if Christ is about the revelation of love above all, we know from our own human experience that true love must but be freely willed and freely given, which counteracts the mistake of Jansenism of reducing human beings to passive receptacles, not vital, active agents of salvation.
The fact that the substance of Margaret Mary’s revelation was developed by St John Eudes in the form of a liturgical devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary is also significant. Devotion to the two Hearts puts flesh to our faith, it is a remedy for the false understanding of Christianity as dry legalism or mere intellectual assent. St John’s institution of a liturgical celebration could be understood as a bridge between doctrine and piety, since the praise of God in the liturgy is both a public, doctrinal act and a personal offering of faith. Liturgy therefore engages the whole human person – mind, heart and soul.
The engagement of our whole being is precisely what is called for in today’s Gospel. Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment is to “’love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. To do this we need to undergo a heart transplant, we need to let God take out our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh instead. What is dry within us will become moist with the blood and water of Christ. Then we will see His promise of resurrection fulfilled and our hope restored

Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.