Our first reading is one of the most famous visions in the OT, and it begins with a valley of bones, a striking lifeless image. We might imagine it like an Edward Hopper painting in which what speaks is the silence around the people, the absence of what should be there: communion, life.
It is unfortunately all too easy to apply such an image to our times. Our normal routines have been thrown up in the air, and for many life seems at a standstill, notwithstanding the anxiety to find a solution to the myriad challenges this throws in our direction. It is so difficult to move forward, so difficult to live in the present when the future is hard to imagine. But this biblical story has more to say to us than the image of dry bones.
One way to think about this image is to realise Israel’s vocation. The early church writers saw Israel as being called by God to fulfil what originally was the vocation of all of humanity. God had created humanity to be the priests of creation, the privileged creature who was called to realise and participate in the love of God. God had created all things out of love, and it was humanity’s task to receive this gift of love and participate in this life by offering everything back to God. Humanity was to bless creation in this way.
However, humanity failed in this task: this is the story of original sin. God, though, refusing to give up on creation, reached into humanity and created Israel, creation’s last hope. But Israel suffered the same temptations as humanity’s parents, falling away from God and putting the whole of creation once more in danger.
When it came to the time of the prophets, it looked like the whole of Israel had strayed from the path. Israel looked dead. Maybe this is the vision of the bones. Israel has died, and with it so too the hopes of all creation. However, the vision tells us something else, something that we can often miss when we spot a problem.
Insights, like questions, always point beyond themselves. Questions point to answers and insights point to new perspectives. Questions somehow presuppose some knowledge of the answer. That is: somehow the question knows what it is looking for. The question is a keyhole that already provides the shape of the key. Insights are the same. It is always worth reflecting the point of departure for a new insight. What must be the case for an insight to occur?
I wonder if something like that is going on with this vision. The prophet sees that Israel is dead, sees that Israel has failed its vocation to be the people of God. However, maybe the very fact of seeing this reality is the Word of God working in the heart of the prophet. Maybe the prophet can only see the absence of the Word of God out there, in the life of Israel, because the Word of God is present in here, in the heart of Ezekiel. Maybe the realisation of death, the confession of the truth, is the first step towards new life, is the beginning of the process of putting flesh on the bones and putting new life into their bodies. Just like diagnosis is the first step of medical treatment, maybe we can see this vision as God’s invitation to the prophet to lead Israel back.
If this is the case, then the life of the prophet becomes a call to Israel to come back to life, a call for Israel to realise its death and be brought back to life by the Word of God, which is present in the life of the prophet. Creation and redemption. With creation, God calls something out of nothing. With redemption, God points out that creation has chosen to become nothing and so calls on creation to repent, which is the first step to becoming something, again.
We know that when it comes to salvation history, the outline remains the same but the colours get deeper and the picture more defined. Indeed, strangely, as the world gets darker, the light in fact gets brighter. We can actually see this happening over the last few Sundays. In last week’s gospel, we had physical blindness, but that wasn’t what the gospel was about. This week, we have physical death, but again that is not what the gospel is about. They are all pointing to what is coming next. We know that this drama of redemption does not stop here. We know that there is still more to come. The night will still get darker; and we can sense the exasperation of Jesus that people still don’t get how dark it is, or how much light he brings.
Physical blindness and physical death are nothing compared with spiritual death, the death that Jesus will reveal on the cross. The death which lays bare the rejection of God by humanity. The cross which is the revelation of the true meaning of the valley of bones. That moment when seemingly all is lost. Humanity, creation, dead because it has killed the Word. Only to realise with the Resurrection that God’s ways are so much higher than our ways. That God has it in hand.
As with the prophet, so with us. The Word has been revealed to us. Will we accept it? Christ has shown us the darkness, has lived this death on our account. He now offers us his spirit as salvation. But this redemption only comes through the Cross, only comes through the acceptance of the reality of our darkness, through the acceptance of Christ’s message, a message which is also the beginning of life. So, when it comes to our darkness, that which we see in the world, what will we do? Do we trust God to redeem it?
Let us then turn to our Lady’s example, whose feast of the Annunciation we celebrated this week in our own way. She who declared that she is handmaid of the Lord. Let us ask her who had faith even at the foot of the Cross to intercede for us with her Son as she did at the wedding feast, trusting that God has all this in hand, even if all we see are bones.