Pentecost is the inauguration of the Church; though not in a sense that that’s when formal worship began, but rather that the Spirit came to the disciples to unite them into “the body of Christ”. So today, all our readings focus on the Spirit - that most elusive of three Persons of the Trinity, often conceptualized as feminine, shimmering, dynamic, flowy, fiery, fleeting, sparkly, life-giving, thirst-quenching, one whose “sighs are too deep for words,” as in today’s Romans. She revealed herself in the NT as a dove, tongues of flame, and rushing wind; yet, she also hovered over the face of the earth at Creation, and was made references to in the Psalms and OT imagery (e.g., the burning bush). There are also OT passages that are antithetical to Pentecost: those which refer to the arid, fruitless, chaotic ways of living without God. For example, in my last year’s sermon, I presented Pentecost as the reversal of Babel - the movement from confusion to mutual understanding. It is by the gift of the Spirit that we, the church of such diverse people, are able to function like one body; with limitations, of course, as we don’t always agree with each other on the level of individual community or across denominations. Yet, this shared body is alive, just as each individual is, thanks to the breath of God. And so our today’s OT story, Ezekiel’s vision of the revival of dry bones, gives us an image of a restored, unified community, and prefigures the coming of the Spirit to the disciples.
The acting figure in this story is the prophet Ezikiel, though from quite early on, the Church Fathers associated him with Christ himself. God addresses him here by Christ’s title, “the Son of man” (though in some translations, he is simply “a mortal”), and he happens to turn 30 years-old, as when Christ began his ministry. Historical Ezekiel was an Israelite who lived at the turn of the 6th century BC. He was training to be a priest, and finally became old enough to begin his work at the Temple; but then, all that for which he was preparing and longing, his entire identity and vocation, was taken away from him and other young men, who were captured and carried away to Babylon. The ruination of the Temple symbolized the loss of all hope and vision for the future, since the exile meant not only a military loss, but the crisis of faith and identity. In the Bible, the image of “bones” does, at times, refer idiomatically to one’s deepest essence (e.g., in the psalms of lament, or when Adam calls Eve is “the bone of his bone”), and death does refer both to physical and spiritual realities. But to Ezekiel, this image of a valley covered with bones was by no means an abstract or symbolic concept. In his days, one could find literal valleys filled with bones - the places where the slain enemy had been overwhelmed, and there was no one to bury them. Over the subsequent centuries, hardly any nation on earth has been spared the tragedy of war, and too many other fields, in Europe and elsewhere, have become burial grounds for millions of innocents driven by the power of evil to destroy each other. Yes, in this world, physical death reigns, and all of us have been acquainted with grief.
When we imagine the whole valley full of bones today, we might think, first, about the dear ones we hope to meet again, and second, about our own mortality. It has been on the forefront of our existence over the past year and a bit, when we all suddenly realized how fragile life is, and how easily it can yield to something so small, unseen, and spread when we do what’s most essential to our existence - that is, simply gather with others. The gospels tell us that Jesus also had a real, in person awareness of physical and spiritual death that reigned around him, grief, and own mortality. Jesus met every central aspect of the human condition (all its “dry bones”): temptation, doubt, loneliness, blindness, bitterness; the knowledge that everything is perishable, that we only have so many days on earth to do what we get to do, and to become who we get to be. In addition, Judaism considers death an unclean state, perhaps, because death entailed the lack of life, and therefore, lack of God’s presence. But, Jesus never flinched from touching the “unclean”: those leading questionable lifestyles, ill, or dead. Ezekiel and other prophets who prefigured Jesus similarly experienced numerous unclean situations, from marrying a prostitute to baking bread over the burning cow dung. In our passage, Ezekiel wades through a sea of dead remains. These stories show that God enters fully into all aspects of human condition. Rather than having us clean ourselves to approach him, he raises up our condition to the heights of his glory.
By his presence, God overcomes all evil; but, this revival is gradual and orderly from inside out, just as the dead bodies in Ezekiel were revived. So, we “add to faith virtue; to virtue knowledge; to knowledge temperance; to temperance patience; to patience godliness; to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity" (2 Pet 1:5-7). But is it enough to put the new flesh over the dry bones by clothing our faith in virtue? Until we move with God’s life-giving Spirit, which “renews the face of the earth” (Ps. 104), what is the difference between us Christians and wonderful social humanists?
Where does the Spirit come from? In the ancient Jewish synagogue fresco on the right, the bodies of the slain soldiers in Ezekiel are being reassembled by some disembodied hands. But, Jesus personifies the resurrecting power of God as the one who dwelt among us, was mortal, knew first-hand our “dry bones”, and loved us all the more. Ezekiel summons his power "from the four directions of this world" (not from heaven), and it comes internally in the form of breath (not externally as dove, wind, or flame). It enlivens us here on earth, individually and communally, albeit sometimes in ways that the 21st century has difficulty comprehending: in the stillness and silence of prayer, the tear shed on Good Friday; a set of prayer beads dull with use, an old prayer book, the glimmer of communion vessels polished with love, the mystery of the bread and wine taken together. Both our worship and charity flow out of the movement of the Spirit within us; and only taken together do they truly testify to the restorative power of God already at work in the world. Thanks be to God.