The Gathering of Israel
The first reading of the Mass for Saturday of the fifth week of Lent, the day before Holy Week begins, is from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 37, verses 21-28. It begins:
Thus says the Lord God: I will take the children of Israel from among the nations to which they have come, and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land.
In this prophecy, Ezekiel goes on to proclaim that the kingdoms of Israel will be reunited, the people will return to true worship of their God, David will be prince over them, and the Lord will again place His dwelling among them. By this all nations will know that it is the Lord who makes Israel holy.
Who was Ezekiel?
Ezekiel was born in Israel, but was taken to Babylon at age 25 after the conquest of Jerusalem, one of 3,000 exiled members of the upper class. He received his call to prophecy in Babylon when he was around 30 years old and in his prophecies predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. Once the city and temple had been destroyed, crushing the hopes of the exiles, Ezekiel’s prophecies turned from reproach for failure to obey the Lord to promises of the Lord’s renewal of Jerusalem and the return of the people to their homeland.
The conquest of Babylon by Persia resulted in the return of the exiles to their land, the reconstruction of the temple, and the renewal of temple-based worship. The Lord’s promise made through Ezekiel was carried out, though Ezekiel himself never returned to his homeland.
A promise kept — End of story?
The Lord’s promise to gather the children of Israel from among the nations and bring them back to their land, where they would be one nation with David as their prince and the Lord’s sanctuary among them includes a double layer of promise. The first and most obvious layer was fulfilled with the return of the exiles and their descendents to Jerusalem. Jerusalem and the temple stood as the center of Jewish life until the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD.
With the destruction of Jerusalem and the forced relocation of the people from their homeland out into other nations, it seems that the promise was not to be permanent. God and his sanctuary no longer lived among the people on their own land. This has led some to argue that the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of their ancestors is a requirement for the ultimate fulfillment of salvation history, something that must happen before Jesus can come in his final glory and the physical world can end with the advent of the Heavenly Kingdom.
Another approach would be to consider another, deeper layer in the prophecy, one not even suspected by Ezekiel. The second layer of prophecy points us to the mission of Jesus. Jesus saw his mission as the gathering of Israel for the beginning of God’s final kingdom. He started from the bottom up, working with ordinary people in Galilee, teaching the good news of his Father’s great love and mercy. He knew, however, that eventually he would need to bring that same message to the religious and political leaders of his time. That led him to Jerusalem and the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
Why would this reading be placed just before Holy Week?
This reading, coming just before the narration of the events of Jesus’ last week of life, reminds us that he came to gather all of us as well, children of Israel through adoption by God, and bring us back to God’s land, united into one people, with himself as our King, and with God’s dwelling-place deep within our hearts.
As we enter into Holy Week, let us rejoice that God is with us, still leading his children from exile and separation into one kingdom, with the Son of David as our saviour. May our hearts always be open to welcome his presence within.