Ezekiel found himself in a valley filled with death, without knowing exactly how he came to be there, or, in fact, exactly where he was. The floor of the valley as far as he could see was littered with dry bones. A tragedy, to be sure. A battle? A massacre? A natural disaster? Some terrible plague that wiped out an entire nation? It almost didn’t matter. So many bones. So much death.
God doesn’t tell him the symbolism of this vision until the end, but the valley full of bones may have struck a chord with Ezekiel anyway. Most of the time we don’t read the rest of the book of Ezekiel, and we come into the prophet’s story through catchy songs like “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” or “Dem bones, dem bones…” So we forget that Ezekiel was in exile in Babylon when this vision occurred. We forget that his status as a prominent future priest in Jerusalem had been reduced to a priest wandering without a temple, and that from afar he heard reports that his religious institution was being corrupted. His wife had died, and he bore God’s command not to mourn her as an example for the community in exile not to grieve the loss of the temple.
When we jump into this vision directly without the historical context, we lose the fact that the Babylonians had been torturing and besieging the residents of Jerusalem for two years. They destroyed the temple and the city, killed most of the inhabitants, and forced the rest to relocate to Babylon. Ezekiel is a man in trauma, speaking to a community in trauma. I wonder how many times Ezekiel asked himself or asked God, can I live through this? Can my community live through this?
And then he finds himself in a valley full of bones, a valley full of death. Suddenly God is asking him a question. “Can these bones live?” The answer seems obvious. Dry bones are the very definition of dead, gone, not coming back. And yet, the spoken words put flesh on these dry bones. The breath of God animates them. The dry bones are not merely dry bones anymore; they stand and live. In the midst of a terrible tragedy, in the midst of this landscape of death, hope for life still remains. And this is the promise that God makes for Ezekiel and his community as well: that even after such devastating loss, hope for life still remains.
Some 600 years later, the disciples huddled in a room together. Their circumstances were not so broadly tragic, but they were in crisis nonetheless. Their leader was gone. One of their central members has betrayed them all and then ended his own life. After three years of listening to Jesus teach and watching him heal and learning how to be more like him, this wasn’t how it was supposed to end up, with Jesus gone and all of them just hiding out, waiting to see if they would be next to the cross or just dwindle off and be forgotten. They were, as a community, the mere bones of what they had been with Jesus.
Can these bones live?
That is the question they faced as a community. Can we come back from this? Can we live through this? Is there any hope for us? And how does God answer? With a wind, and fire. With words spoken and heard across languages – words that put flesh on the bones of the early church. With the breath of God’s life animating the community that thought it might be dead, inspiring Peter to rise and speak life to strangers who each in their own way were wondering, can these bones live?
This is the perpetual question that we all face at some point, as individuals and as communities. We find ourselves in deep valleys that seem full of nothing but death, dry bones for miles with no chance of revival. Life’s path leads us in directions we don’t expect and don’t particularly want, leaving us uncertain of whether we can go on, and suddenly we’re huddling in whatever safe rooms we can find. When we look around and see nothing but dry bones, when we feel like we are the dry bones left over from something that used to be but no longer is, we find ourselves asking that old question: Can these bones live?
And part of us kind of expects the answer to echo back to us across the barren valley floor, “No, no, no…”
But in the midst of devastating loss, in exile, in grief you think will break you, in paralyzing uncertainty, there is another voice, often so quiet, perhaps just a mere breath…
And in that breath is life.
Not, perhaps, life as we knew it before. Not life unchanged. Not life as we expected. But life nonetheless.
This is, I think, one of the primary gifts and callings of the Church. We don’t pretend the dry bones don’t exist, or try to leap out of the valley and back into life as we knew it on our own. We bear witness to all that is true about the world, including its death and despair. But we don’t stay there. We breathe in the life of the Spirit, even when it feels like our last gasp. We breathe in deep of the breath of God. And then we get to work, bringing life to all who cannot see beyond the valley of dry bones, all who feel like they are merely bones left behind from what used to be, all who long to know, “Can these bones live?”