Mortals, Can these bones live? A Homily for the Great Vigil of Easter, 2014

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

It’s a wonderful passage of scripture, powerfully evocative of resurrection and new life, full of earthy and eerie images. The reading from Ezekiel 37 practically shouts itself out and as a lector, it’s hard not to succumb to the temptation to add one’s own dramatic effects. We imagine ourselves Lawrence Olivier, or Maggie Smith, or Morgan Freeman declaiming it from the stage.

In fact, there’s more than enough drama and power in the words themselves.

But as powerful as the words are, they are kind of creepy, too. If you’re like me, you probably begin to picture the scene for yourself—a valley full of bones, and they were very dry. And as the prophet begins to speak, he hears a noise a rattling, the clackety-clack as the bones come together, bone and bone, and suddenly, sinew and muscle appear, and then flesh. Now the bones are human bodies, lying still. And the prophet summons the wind—a great rushing wind comes from all four directions and enters the bodies and they come to life. I want to see the Hollywood blockbuster version of that!

As we continue to read, however, we realize that the image painted by Ezekiel is just that, it’s an image. It’s meant to depict the people of Israel coming back to life after Exile, being filled with new life and new hope from the inbreathing of God’s spirit.

Is that what resurrection is like? A clickety-clack, a rattling as bones come back together, and muscles and sinews connect, and flesh appears? Is that what resurrection is like?

Fortunately, none of the gospels even attempt to describe the events of the resurrection of Jesus. We’re spared the uncomfortable details. It’s rather surprising to say that, and you might even think I’ve got it wrong, but none of the gospels have anything to say about the details of Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew is quite clear. Even the earthquake that comes as the women approach the tomb is not connected with Jesus’ resurrection. The earthquake and the angel provide an explanation for why the stone is rolled away from the tomb. And the stone is rolled away so the women will know the tomb is empty.

The empty tomb is a puzzle, a problem. Matthew is quite clear about that, too. Only he tells the story of the concern expressed by the high priests that the disciples would steal the body. In response, two guards are posted overnight at the tomb. But the earthquake and the angel frighten them and they lose consciousness. Later, Matthew will tell another story, that the high priests and Jewish leadership spread the rumor that the disciples had stolen the body. All of this is to remind us of something quite important. The empty tomb is not proof of resurrection; it’s proof of a missing body.

Matthew’s puzzle goes even deeper. For unlike the other gospels who tell us that the women came to anoint Jesus’ body with spices for burial, Matthew gives no reason for their coming to the tomb. And indeed, they could not have hoped to get near Jesus’ body because of the presence of the guards. So we’re left to wonder why they come. Did Matthew tell the story this way only because he was following Mark, who wrote the first gospel? Or did he mean to suggest something else? He did tell us earlier that they had been sitting opposite the tomb, watching while Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus and rolled the stone in front of the tomb’s opening. Did they return because they wanted to continue to keep vigil? Their hopes that Jesus was the Messiah may have been dashed; but perhaps they wanted to mourn his death, and mourn the death of their hope.

Whatever the case, when they arrived at the tomb, as the earthquake was taking place, and saw the angel rolling away the stone; they were struck with fear. But the angel comforted them with the good news, “Don’t be afraid, he is not here, he is risen.” And he commands them to go quickly and tell the others that Jesus has risen from the dead and that he will meet them all back in Galilee.

What might they have been thinking? Matthew tells the story rather matter-of-factly but imagine what is going through their minds in these moments. They have watched as Jesus was arrested; watched the events surrounding his trial; watched from afar as we was crucified. While the other disciples, the men, all abandoned Jesus, the most important one of all, Peter denying him three times, these women stayed behind in Jerusalem, walked with Jesus through his last hours, perhaps accompanied him to the cross. And they stood and watched as he died. They kept watching as Joseph of Aramathea buried him. And now, after the Sabbath, they come back to the tomb to keep vigil.

They are shocked by the earthquake, but unlike the guards, they don’t faint. The angel reassures them and tells them to hurry and tell the others. And they seem to obey unthinkingly, without question. Wouldn’t you want to know what was going on? Wouldn’t you want to ask the angel for more details, to explain the events? But no, they go as they’re told.

As they go, they encounter their risen Lord. Seeing him, they stop. Only now, after all of these strange and wonderful events, do they pause, and as they pause, they kneel at his feet and worship him. From being passive, obedient watchers, finally we see the women seem to act on their own. Now, seeing their Lord, they kneel and worship him. Jesus barely acknowledges them, repeating the angel’s message, “Don’t be afraid, go and tell the others that I will meet them in Galilee.”

We may not know why the women came to the tomb; we may not know what they were thinking or feeling. We probably can’t know how they might have responded to the events that occurred that morning, to the earthquake, the angel, even the encounter with Jesus. What we do know and can be certain of is that they were not expecting resurrection. Oh, like Ezekiel, they may have had some notion of it; we know that it was a fairly widespread, though not universal belief among Jews in Jesus’ day, but for them, resurrection meant only resurrection at the last day, at the coming of the new age. They weren’t expecting, no one was, that Jesus Christ would be raised from the dead after three days in the tomb. They weren’t expecting it, even though Jesus himself had told them three times (and the chief priests heard and remembered it, and warned about it).

No, Jesus’ followers were not expecting resurrection. And in that respect, I doubt they are very different from us. Do we expect resurrection? How do we respond to the question, “Mortal, can these bones live?” We may half-remember a powerful encounter with the Risen Christ, a spiritual experience that marked a turning point in our lives. But too often, such experiences leave few traces, either in our memories, or in our faith. What gave us certainty once no longer seems adequate to the task. Easter is often more about the joy of spring, a champagne reception, a new outfit, or a spectacular Sunday brunch than it is about our faith in the risen Christ, our own renewed and joyful faith. If we heard the women’s good news, and the instruction to go to Galilee, would we bother? Would we think it worth the effort?

“Mortal, can our bones live?”

We are gathered to celebrate and remember the resurrection of our Lord. We have come together to acclaim Christ’s victory over death; God’s vindication of Jesus’ life, ministry, and love after his brutal torture and death. It is a miracle so wonderful that in spite of the stories, in spite of our faith, we find it hard to believe. We find hard to acknowledge and experience that miracle in our own lives. Yet there it is. Like those bones seen by Ezekiel, our lives and faith have new life breathed in them by the Holy Spirit and by the reality of Jesus Christ’s resurrection!

Mortals, these bones do live!

Alleluia! Christ is Risen

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