Opened Graves and the Breath of God
“I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” These words were spoken to the Hebrew people through the prophet Ezekiel during the time when the Babylonian Empire controlled the land of Judah, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and many of the people had been taken into exile in Babylon. The Lord continued, “Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them.” (Ez 37:12-14)
Once the dead have been raised from their graves, the Lord promises to bring them to life by putting his spirit in them. The Hebrew word for spirit is important here. It is the same word that is used for breath and wind. The spirit of God in this passage is God’s breath. In the Garden of Eden, God breathed life into Adam. In the desert, when the dry bones came back together into people in the vision granted to Ezekiel, the Lord breathed life and regeneration into the bones, which became covered once again with muscles, skin, and all that is needed for human life.
When the people see this return from death (and exile), according to the prophecy, they will recognize that the one who has done this is the Lord, the One who keeps his promises.
Jesus confronted the death of his friend Lazarus. St. John tells us the story of how it happened. (Jn 11:1-45) This is the seventh miracle or sign of the divinity of Christ that John describes. Jesus and his friends had left Judea before they received word that Lazarus was very ill. They didn’t go to him right away, but a couple of days later, Jesus told his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” This seemed crazy to the disciples, because the authorities there had just tried to kill him. But Jesus had decided to go, so the disciples went along with him.
Lazarus had already died and been buried for four days when they arrived. Decomposition of the body would have already begun by that point. The sister of Lazarus met Jesus on the road and they talked. Jesus promised her that her brother would rise. She professed faith in the resurrection of the dead.
Now resurrection was a theory being debated by different schools of thought in the Jewish community at the time. Jesus assured her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus was claiming that belief in him would assure life that would never end, even if a person died. What a wild concept! His use of the two simple words, I am, was significant. “I am” is the name of the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel. People did not say this or use these words to describe themselves. Martha expressed her faith that he was the Christ, the Son of God.
Martha’s sister Mary also came and spoke with Jesus, expressing her belief that her brother would not have died if Jesus had only come earlier.
Jesus approached the tomb and ordered that it be opened. With great reluctance, the order was obeyed. Then Jesus prayed before calling, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus, bound in the burial cloths, emerged from the tomb – alive again. Jesus ordered, “Untie him and let him go.”
The breath of God had once again entered into his body. Life had returned, at the word of Jesus. Just as in the time of Ezekiel, the grave had been opened and the dead raised. And once again, the people who witnessed it, believed. They had seen the Lord at work.
St. John is the only one of the evangelists to tell of this incident. His words were composed a long time after the events described, colored by years of reflection and the faith of the community for whom they were written. They are intended to share with us what they as a community had come to understand. In this interaction and gift of new life to Lazarus, God was revealing himself in Jesus.
Years after the raising of Lazarus, St. Paul wrote about the Spirit to the community in Rome. (Rm 8:8-11) He spoke of flesh and spirit. Flesh is the word he used to describe worldly concerns and actions, not all of which were life-giving or good. Spirit is the word used to identify the good actions and loving style of living of followers of Jesus. Flesh is characterized by the concept of sin. Spirit is about life.
Paul says, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” Once again, the breath of God gives life – a life that is stronger than death and continues after the body dies.
So, does this breath of God bring life only when up against physical death? I don’t think so. The holy breath of God is much more than a life preserver ring that is thrown to a drowning person. Besides, there are many situations in which we face danger or metaphorical death. Do I tell that secret that will discredit my former friend? Do I try to get more than my share of the common resources of my community? How can I look like a great person without taking any risks or actually helping anyone? So many ways to put ourselves at the center…
Each of these kinds of situations are dangerous to our fundamental well-being, the spiritual level of our lives. The decisions we make in our interpersonal relations, in our families and professional lives, all of these are areas that can lead us into tombs, tombs into which the Spirit of God is ready to blow life. The Spirit waits to blow renewed life into our interactions and our interior being. As we open to receive God’s breath in our daily interactions, we become more able to pass that life on to those with whom we live and work.
The Spirit blows through all of creation, through each of us and out into our circles. As we receive this breath of love, let us rejoice in the One who loves us and pass it on.
Lent is nearing an end this year. Let us open our hearts to receive the healing breath of God, to emerge with Lazarus from our tombs, as we prepare to celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent – Cycle A