Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading – Conversion in Our Hearts and Our World

Resurrection, Benjamin West, c. 1808

Resurrection, Benjamin West, c. 1808

Ezekiel 36:16–17a, 18–28
April 12, 2020

For most of the year, the first readings for the Mass are from the Old Testament. They are sufficiently diverse that over the three-year cycle we receive a very clear if not systematic understanding of its major themes. The exception to this rule is Easter time. For the weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, our first reading will always be from the “Acts of the Apostles” and this year our second reading will be taken from the 1st letter of Peter. Our commentaries for this season will rotate between the two. However, the Easter Vigil Mass has seven selections from the Old Testament. Although some are quite unfamiliar to us, I have decided to look at a reading from the prophet Ezekiel who is by now familiar.

A more extensive biography of Ezekiel may be found in the commentary for the first reading for March 29, but the high points of his life are illuminating enough. He was a priest at the temple in Jerusalem who was exiled to Babylon in 597 BC. This was the first exile and meant as a warning, but by 587 BC the Babylonians had become so exasperated with the leadership of the Jews they finally decided to level the temple and destroy them as a nation. Indeed, Ezekiel had a vision of the glory of God leaving the temple (Ez. 10:18). Temple worship gave them their meaning and purpose, and this should have been the end of the Jewish people.

Yet as we have seen this was not the end. In Ezekiel’s famous vision of the dry bones:

Prophesy over these bones, and say to them:
Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
I prophesied as I had been told,
and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise;
it was a rattling as the bones came
together, bone joining bone.
I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them,
and the skin cover them,
but there was no spirit in them.
I prophesied as he told me,
and the spirit came into them;
they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
Then he said to me:
Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
(Ezekiel 37:4–11)

Ezekiel made this prophecy before there was any hint that the Assyrians would overthrow the Babylonians and allow willing Jews to return to Jerusalem. I do not know if this was from a vision or if Ezekiel understood God so well that he knew that the LORD would never abandon them. We see today a reason why God freed them from exile and what was needed for him to accomplish this task.

We say “a” reason because God is so much bigger than we are that our terms even when most enlightening cannot explain him or his purposes He will often speak of his people with great tenderness:

Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you
(Is. 49:15)

Or in the words of the prophet Joel:

Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
(Joel 2:12a, 13)

But he is also the all-powerful God who formed a covenant with Abraham and his descendents. The consistent teaching of the entire Old Testament is that the Lord had fulfilled his part of the arrangement but that the people did not.

They had defiled the land with their sin so:

I scattered them among the nations,
dispersing them over foreign lands;
according to their conduct and deeds I judged them.
(Ez. 36:19)

Yet he will not abandon them, indeed he will restore them but because of his great name and his holiness.

Therefore say to the house of Israel:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
Not for your sakes do I act,
house of Israel,
but for the sake of my holy name,
which you profaned among the nations to which you came
(Ez. 36:20–22)

For Him to do this the people must be cleansed:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you
to cleanse you from all your impurities,
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
(Ez. 36:25)

This is done by God himself but requires something deeper:

I will give you a new heart and
place a new spirit within you,
taking from your bodies your stony hearts
and giving you natural hearts.
(Ez. 36:26)

We should not over-romanticize the idea of heart. At this time, it would have meant the center of a person or its essence. Ezekiel is saying that the very essence of the people, their reason for existing was dead and for them to be freed they would have to be reborn with a heart of flesh.

Jeremiah a contemporary has the same insight:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
that I made with their ancestors when I took them
by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt
a covenant that they broke,
though I was their husband, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days,
says the LORD: I will put my law within them,
and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God
(Je. 31:31–33)

They have wandered so far that the covenant that the people will need to be recreated. This will require the LORD himself to act:

I will put my spirit within you
and make you live by my statutes,
careful to observe my decrees
(Ez. 36:27)

It will not be our own actions, but that of the LORD which matters.

Ezekiel today is providing an outline of what will be necessary for the Jews to do to fulfill the covenant: recognition of the overwhelming power of God, acceptance of the need to be cleansed and conversion: a change of their very being by the spirit of God.

The prophet Isaiah, in the name of God, admonished the Jews who returned to Jerusalem: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it.” (Is. 43:19). In a sense they did not. They sought to rebuild both physically and socially what was there beforehand, and they failed. The world has simply changed too much.

God, as always, fulfilled his part of the covenant. He did free them and allow them to return to Jerusalem and they did indeed restore worship. Yet most of the people did not change. The great leaders and prophets that emerged after the exile realized that more would be needed. They developed an idea of the afterlife in which the full justice of God would be revealed and, most critically, the Messiah “the anointed one” would lead them to God.

We should in no way disparage the pioneers who returned to Jerusalem. They were called to convert their hearts not renovate their buildings and that is very difficult for everyone at every time. The parallels to today are painful and we need to see if we will do better.

We have been in religious exile from our community and the practices most particular to Catholicism, especially the Eucharist. We know however that the pandemic will end and that we can return to our lives and indeed to St. Charles. In Pope Francis, we have our Ezekiel who is telling us that God is doing something new. This is not a time to recreate what was there but to convert and become someone new.

Has the virus washed us clean of preconception? Do we have a new heart and new center? Only time will tell, and it will not be coy or silent.

Unlike the Jews, we have Jesus with an anointing beyond anything they could imagine. He has initiated his kingdom, which although completed only in heaven, begins here and now. He has revealed that the spirit which revives and renews us is His. We are not expected to create a utopia—heaven may begin on earth, but it will never be completed until the Lord returns. We are expected to do our best to make the world and the church more Christ-like.

What has this pandemic revealed?

People with poor health care when they were young are dying in greater numbers than those who had good health care throughout their lives. This accounts for the alarming numbers of deaths in Hispanic and African American communities. (In one recent day, four former parishioners of mine died in one parish.) It is clear and unambiguous church teaching that health care is a human right not a civil option. Can we as citizens continue to allow so many people to be uncovered. Does this show a heart of flesh?

In the church, we have been able to stay together because of the activities of our lay people working with the clergy. We have seen as clearly as possible what collaborative ministry is. Can we forget this experience and merely restore the old way of doing things? Is this perceiving how the Lord is doing something new among us?

True conversion begins in our hearts but must be felt in our world.