A week or so ago I heard the news that a number of skeletons dug up in London – by crews excavating for a rail extension – were confirmed to be the remains of plague victims. This of course isn’t an unheard of occurrence anywhere in Europe – in 1348 when the bubonic plague virus swept into Europe from its ancient foothold in central Asia the Black Death killed one third of the population of Europe – 60% of the population of London died within 12 months and victims were hastily buried in large communal pits. It was widely assumed that this in fact was the end of all things, the Biblical apocalypse.
Europe survived, of course, though the flower of its medieval culture and intellectual accomplishment was snuffed out – in England vast tracts of agricultural land returned to the forest and whole villages were abandoned. The population took centuries to recover – it is impossible for us to imagine the fog of despair and hopelessness that would have clung to the landscape.
Can these bones live? Ezekiel asks rhetorically. Well in the case of the plague skeletons the almost eight century old bones are painting a picture of ancient life as they reveal the epidemiology of the plague and the stresses and privations of life for the working classes in the fourteenth century. They are also revealing valuable information about the still surviving and still dangerous y. pestis infection. In a sense these bones have been given new life..
Two Sundays before Easter and the readings from the Bible speak to us of resurrection – not Jesus’ resurrection, but ours. Here in Ezekiel with the mysterious vision of dry bones, and in John’s Gospel with the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, as has often been remarked, never speaks – neither before his death nor after his raising. His experienced is never described, but it is an experience we can’t help but wonder at, as we face the certainty of our own mortality. It isn’t a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead because Lazarus, once raised, is still subject to the mortal conundrum that his life eventually will be hidden again in the darkness of death. But Jesus tells us clearly that death does not get the last word, in God’s scheme of things, and says to us: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Our assurance that our lives are meant not for oblivion but for resurrection is not a dogma, but a person. Lazarus, I have always thought, is so obscure and undeveloped as a character because, essentially, Lazarus is every one of us. Not dying into oblivion but loved and welcomed home by God.
But where the Lazarus story essentially works at the individual level, the mystery of resurrection in the prophet Ezekiel centres on a whole community that has given way to despair. This is not a case of existential reassurance for human creatures who face the final circumstances of our lives alone, but good news for a nation that has faced the agony of military defeat and exile, the destruction of its temple and religious observances and the humiliation of its ruling classes. After years of siege during which the people of Jerusalem were reduced to near starvation and cannibalism, the fabric of Judean society disintegrated, the remains of the educated and governing class were dragged off in chains to Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel among them, and the only people who remained were the landless peasants. Effectively, Judah was no more.
The exiles were out of place, disconnected with everything that had made their lives meaningful, uncertain even how to worship God in a strange land. From this place of dislocation and despair, the prophet Ezekiel is visited by the spirit of God and is taken to this valley of dry bones.
Possibly the prophet is seeing a real burial place, the communal grave of the victims of starvation and disease during the years of siege. It is an appalling sight, and also for Ezekiel as a priest, also a place of ritual contamination and impurity. And this burial pit has become a symbol for the people who are now apart from God and who have no life or hope remaining in them. The tension between life and death, ritual cleanliness and impurity points to the underlying problem for the people in exile: where is God? With the Temple in ruins and surrounded by a strange landscape and foreign customs, where is their centre and their hope?
The power of this image is the fact that the experience is recognisable to any community that has lost its purpose and its hope. In times of war and social dislocation this is the reality, for example, for refugee communities. Where is God on Manus Island? For the residents of a temporary camp in the unfamiliar setting of a rain-soaked tropical island, subject to harsh conditions and incomprehensible administration, the temptation is to despair. How can human beings continue to believe in God in such a situation? Is the living death of a people torn from all that is familiar, separated from loved ones and cast adrift from the anchors of culture and language, beyond the possibility of hope and new life? So it must seem to those living this nightmare. But for us as Australians maybe Manus Island has become the dry bones of our self-belief as the land of the fair go.
Others have seen in this image the frustration and despair of faith communities clinging to what sometimes seems like the anachronism of religious rituals in a sea of secularism. Marooned by the passing of what used to be known as Christendom – the age of Christianity in which faith and society were synonymous – the Church now finds it speaks a language nobody else seems able to hear or understand. Exiled – so to speak – in a foreign land that worships the strange gods of consumerism and nationalism, Christian communities can lose their faith, find themselves going through the motions out of habit, no longer sustained by creed or sacrament. We see this not only in dwindling attendance at church services, but in congregations that disconnect from the basics of living together as a community of faith: no longer studying and praying together or working together for the good of others. We ourselves can become the dry bones of the faith we proclaim.
Psychologist Joanna Macey comments on the connection between overwhelming bad news and depression, noting that despair and grief so often produces self-sabotaging inaction and denial of the problem. The context of her comments is in relation to climate change, as increasingly dire warnings from the world’s best climate scientists fall on apparently deaf ears. Last week’s IPCC report pointed out that climate change is no longer just a prediction but a current fact, and that it is primarily the poorest countries that are bearing its brunt in rising sea levels impacting low-lying communities in Bangladesh and many of the Pacific island nations. Just last night we saw images on our television screens of devastating flooding in the Solomon Islands. It is beyond question that extreme weather events are increasing in severity and claiming a toll on human communities. The IPCC warns in blunt terms of the shortening window of opportunity that remains for effective international action to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions and that failure to act – this decade – will lock in an average 4-6 degree global temperature rise that will massively impact both human and non-human life on our planet by the end of this century. It is almost as though the news is too much and the stakes too high to be comprehended. I don’t know about you, but I worry about what sort of world my baby grand-daughter will live in. Yet governments dither and argue – last week our own Prime Minister shrugged off the latest IPCC report by quoting a 19th century poem – Australia, he said, has always been a land of drought and flooding rain, always will. It’s the 21st century equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. We disconnect from what science is telling us – even as, I suspect, most of us secretly expect science to get us out of the pickle. Macey warns of the danger of despair and inaction that leads to a community in depression and denial – the dry bones of disconnecting from the future of the only planet we have and the future of our own children and children’s children. The alternative to despair, she says, is to get involved. To address the situation immediately around you – to plant a garden, take steps to reduce your household’s carbon footprint, drive less, walk more – affirm the goodness of local community and the power of doing things together.
The parable of Ezekiel tells us that the future belongs to God, and that God is the one who is capable of bringing new life out of the human situations that reek of despair and death. God doesn’t ask Ezekiel for help in reassembling the bones – resurrection is God’s initiative and God’s project. But that doesn’t mean to say we have nothing to do! We participate in resurrection to the extent that we take it seriously and act towards it. Ezekiel didn’t just see the vision in the valley of dry bones; he also saw the reality of a community in exile who believed the good news that they had not been abandoned by God, and who were prepared to become the good news that they had received. Ezekiel and others such as the prophet Jeremiah encourage the people to put their faith in God’s promises into action – to build homes in Babylon, to married and raise children and work for the good of the community in which they found themselves. Turns out the years of exile were a time of unprecedented creativity and growth in cultural and religious identity. When the exiles – now calling themselves Jews - eventually returned to the land they knew God not just as the dangerous presence confined to the Temple in Jerusalem but as the one who could be trusted to accompany them through thick and thin.
Crisis is nothing new – even an existential crisis like climate change finds its echoes in the experiences of ancient populations, like the despair that gripped the population of Europe in the fourteenth century. As a community of faith we have one essential difference – as Archbishop Rowan Williams put it – as Christians we are necessarily prisoners of hope. We believe in God’s faithfulness and God’s ability to bring new life from death-dealing situations. But that good news comes with a warning – which is that to be a community of faith we must also be a community who dares to put God’s promises into action, a community of hope that puts flesh and blood on the promises of God. Like God’s people in exile we must dare to live God’s promises of new life – the God who promises liberation for captives and justice for the oppressed, the God who promises to be with us always, the God who pledges an everlasting covenant with all that lives, that never again will the Earth be submerged beneath the deep waters of death.
If we believe God’s promises and if we live toward them with passion and conviction – then these bones will live.