Breathing Life on Dry Bones
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Cycle A 2020 for Holy Family Livestream Mass
Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson, Bishop of Yakima
Peace be with you! Rather than starting with the COVID-19 crisis, I would like to divert your thoughts to an entirely different topic: “pretzels.” Many of you Holy Family parishioners already recall my grandfather’s custom of giving up beer for Lent, but then bringing home Lenten beer. For the monks who first brewed this “double beer” centuries ago, the bitter aftertaste was a reminder of the vinegar and gall given to Jesus on the cross.
The Lenten food that went with Lenten beer was “pretzels.” Hence the humorous Lenten toast in German: Pretzeln und Bier, Jesus ist hier!” “Pretzels and beer, Jesus is here!”
Yes, today we think of “pretzels” as a snack food. But an earlier era knew pretzels to be a special Lenten food. In fact, for some Christians, the Lenten fast was a far stricter affair. Believers not only abstained from meat during Lent, but ate no cheese, eggs or even milk. They ate fish, an ancient symbol of Christ, and they baked a special kind of bread shaped into crossed arms, a symbol of rest and meditation. They called this special bread bracellae, the Latin language word for “little arms.” This Christian custom spread to central and northern Europe. But the Germanic peoples of the North said betzel instead of bracellae and in time the word betzel became our word pretzel.
Why talk about pretzels this fifth Sunday of Lent? Because in the medieval church, the fifth Sunday of Lent was the very last Sunday pretzels would be served. For this Sunday, this fifth Sunday of Lent conveys the promise that new life is just around the corner, that Easter is coming and that God is about to blow new life upon all that is pretzel-like in our life – all that is dry and hard and dead!
In our first reading from the prophet Ezekiel, God promises to blow new life on the lifeless. “Thus says the Lord,” Ezekiel begins, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them… I will put my spirit in you that you may live … I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.”
Likewise in the Gospel, Lazarus rises from the dead. Jesus in the Gospel of John goes to the grave of his dear friend and weeps. But he tells his followers, “This illness is not to end in death, but it is for the glory of God.”
But the interpretive key for Martha’s confession that her brother will not simply be resuscitated in this life, but rise in the next life, comes from our second reading from St. Paul to the Romans. He writes, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” But, St. Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “you are not in the flesh; on the contrary you are in the spirit … The Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies too…”
It is here that we touch on the central mystery of our faith: the resurrection. We often forget the amazing break-though Jesus provided his ancient followers. Even today, tourists along Italy’s Appian Way can see old Roman tombstones with inscriptions like: “O Horatio, we miss you so. Please come back!” Or “O, Cecilia, we loved you. Where are you now?” We forget what an amazing breakthrough it is for humans to know what lies on the other side of death.
Indeed, the Old Testament contains few references to after-life, with scarcely any reference to the kind of resurrection Jesus preached to his followers. In fact, this is the essential drama and tension present in today’s Gospel from St. John. The words and concepts of ancient Israel for “resurrection” could be better rendered “re-embodiment.”
This is what Lazarus’s friends wanted. They wanted Jesus to bring their friend and brother Lazarus back into this life. Such an understanding aligned with our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel 37 where the dry bones are brought back to life so that the people who died in exile can return to their homeland in Jerusalem.
But this is not what Jesus meant when he preached about the resurrection in this Gospel. Nor did Jesus mean – and I know what I am about to say is a bit edgy – what we often hear at funeral liturgies today: that the dead person’s soul floats away while the body decays in the earth and that the resurrection is a kind of dis-embodied person’s self floating into space.
The actual doctrinal meaning of what Jesus preached in today’s Gospel can be found in our Church’s funeral liturgy. The preface we often use at funeral liturgies contains this phrase: “…when Christ will take our mortal bodies and make them like his own in glory.” (ccc 999)
This means that at the end of time we will be raised up with our bodies more real and more solid than the manner in which we dwell currently. We become more embodied – not less.
Our “Catechism of the Catholic Church” describes this unique two-fold event. “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in His almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection.” (ccc 997)
“This ‘how’ exceeds our imagination and understanding;” the Catechism concludes, “it is accessible only to faith. Yet our participation in the Eucharist already gives us a foretaste of Christ’s transfiguration of our bodies.” (ccc 1000)
Thus, the Church’s teaching on the resurrection leads directly to the Eucharist. At Eucharist, we allow the Spirit to – in the words of Ezekiel 37 “…open our graves…” so that we might rise with Christ. We do so by making Martha’s words our own: “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God; the one who is coming into the world!” Peace be with you!
Artwork: The Last Supper, from a Gospel Lectionary made in the Abbey of St. Peter in Salzburg, ca. 1150. Morgan Library, New York: MS G.44, fol. 80.