Can These Bones Live?
“Can these bones live?”
The Lord poses this question to the prophet Ezekiel in a valley of very dry bones.
It’s a question that could be posed to us mortals at many different places.
At a battlefield, perhaps like Ezekiel’s valley, on a piece of land lost or won, maybe many times over, at a steep cost of human lives. Or, the question could be posed by God at one of the world’s many mass graves, known or unknown, filled with victims of genocide. Can these bones live?
Or, at our county morgue, filled with the cremated remains of people who have no one on this earth to accept their ashes. They wait, alone and unclaimed, with nowhere to rest. Can these bones live?
Or, at an ordinary graveside or columbarium, beside someone known, and loved, and remembered—at least by one of us. Can these bones live?
Or, in our own bodies, aging with the slow creep of our mortality . . . or in the ruthless grip of an accelerating disease. Or held by depression in a valley so deep that the love of others, or a sense of our worthiness, hardly ever gets through. Can these bones live?
It’s a question that not even a prophet can answer with confidence. Deep in a valley surrounded by very dry bones, Ezekiel can only answer, “O Lord God, you know.” And the Lord answers the prophet not by telling him the answer, but by showing him.
In a two-part process that goes all the way back to creation, the Lord first forms flesh and bones from the dust of the earth, and then the Lord fills them with breath. We hear rattling as skeletons reassemble; we see sinews bind each joint, and then each being is fleshed out and covered in skin. And then, from the four winds—from every corner of this earth—a breath of fresh air comes to fill the bones with life.
This ancient Scripture presents with an image of salvation that isn’t about escape for our souls, but transformation for every part of our being. And at this very moment, in our time, the bodies and souls of the dead and the living are also waiting to live with wholeness, in alignment with God’s deepest desires for all creation.
I’ve been inspired this season to try to feel this desire more intensely—not the desire of souls to escape this world, but the desire for body and soul to re-inhabit each other, this world, and the embrace of God.
It turns out that some medieval mystics loved to dwell on this theme of how the souls of the dead long for their reunion with their glorified and transformed bodies. The twelfth-century Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux speculates that after death, when souls are basking in the light of eternity, they still have a slight longing to receive their bodies back. They can’t fully “pass into God” until “heavenly glory shines in their bodies.” Just as the body helps us in our present life, so, according to Bernard, will our bodies always help us. Without this integral part of us, our loving union with God can never be complete. (On Loving God, Cistercian Publications Inc., pp. 31-33).
The fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Catherine of Siena feels much the same way. She imagines how much happiness souls will bring to their bodies when they’re reunited at the general resurrection. She writes that in this reunion of body and soul, the glorified body will not be a burden; it won’t be limited by barriers or hurt by anything at all. (The Dialogue, Paulist Press, p. 84)
The resurrection of the body remains a mystery of faith, but the prophet Ezekiel, the monk Bernard, and the mystic Catherine give us deep insight into the longing of souls for bodies, the joy of their reunion, and their need for one another to complete their passing into the love of God.
The question for Christians is never simply “Can our souls escape?” but “Can these bones live?” Not, “Can these souls get to heaven?”, but “Can these bodies and souls, transformed by the Spirit, renew the face of the earth?” At the core of a resurrection faith is this mysterious reunion, re-creation, reintegration of flesh and spirit.
It’s a glorious process, and an organic one. And it starts now. With the renewal of baptismal vows, with the watching for our Lord’s Passover from death to life, with the Eucharistic feast of Christ’s transformed presence, and with our celebration together, we begin, as Paul puts it, to “walk in newness of life.”
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God declares his desire to open graves and to set en-spirited people on the soil where they belong. A salvation rooted in a resurrection faith isn’t about how we can get out of here, but about how we can be here in a deep, grounded way.
We may still wonder, can these bones live? But God knows the answer. And God is about to show us how.